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SMCM Library Ethnography Project

What is ethnography?

Ethnographic research is a mix of qualitative, social science research methods that allow the close study of the culture and social organization of a particular group or community. This provides a more nuanced and intimate understanding of different social groups and cultures than purely data driven quantitative research.

The flexible, in-depth, and open ended nature of qualitative methods allow the researcher to gather richly descriptive data that goes beyond the mechanics of how a process works and explores how participants interact with and feel about those process. 

Due to the nuanced nature of the data collected, triangulating multiple data collection methods is important to get a more complete picture of the social and cultural landscape under study.

A selected list of methods:

  • Written diaries
  • Photo diaries
  • Individual interviews
  • Focus groups
  • Structured observation
  • Instantaneous behavioral sampling
  • Cognitive mapping
  • Free listing

Combining ethnographic methods with other quantitative methods, like survey and usage data, can help provide additional insight and help direct areas of qualitative research.

What we want to know

Library Space Questions

We’d like to know more about how students are using the library’s physical space and whether there are needs that are not being addressed by the current space configuration.

We’d like to know whether the noise levels are an issue.  Do users want “quiet areas” and “social areas”?  Is it too loud at certain times of the day (e.g. at night?)  Are certain areas too noisy?

We’d like to know if the furniture is suitable or could be improved – do we need more individual study spaces (carrels), more large tables, etc?  Should the ones we do have be moved to different areas for any reason (noise, lighting, etc)?

Is there anything – furniture, materials, computers, etc – that users want in their “ideal library” which we don’t provide?  How can we sculpt the physical library to meet the needs of our students?

Signage: is it adequate/informative/aesthetic?

Use of Library Resources Questions

We’d like to know more about the material (and human!) resources St. Mary’s students use/consult when given research assignments or when embarking on original/guided research. These could include the library’s print and online information resources (books, journals, databases, etc.), information available on the open web, their professors, classmates, or other resources (of which we are unaware). There seems to be a decline in the number of library books being checked out and we’d like to know why. Perhaps there are other information sources they prefer to consult.

We’d like to know how aware students are of the resources and multimedia assistance available in the Media Center.


Interactions with Librarians Question

We’d like to learn more about students’ motivations for consulting (or not) librarians’ for research assistance.