Surrounded by print periodicals in The Ames Library, a student uses headphones and a laptop.

Anthropology and The Ames Library: A Study of How Students Study

May 19, 2009

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. – Upon hearing the phrase “anthropological study,” images of professors traveling to remote villages or isolated mountain regions might come to mind. Yet there is an anthropological study being conducted here at Illinois Wesleyan University – a study looking at the ways students study.

“We’re trying to get a very detailed and close-up understanding of how students approach information gathering with an eye toward how the library can better facilitate those processes,” said Andrew Asher, the resident anthropologist hired to conduct the ethnographic study for The Ames Library titled “Anthropologist in the Library: Helping Librarians Support Student Success.”

Asher, who comes to Illinois Wesleyan from the University of Illinois, was hired last October through a two-year grant, which comes from the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) under the Illinois Secretary of State’s Office. The grant is shared by five Illinois universities. This month, the library received word the state is continuing the second year of funding at $160,000 for the five institutions.

With his past in the border cities of Poland and Germany – studying how citizenship practices were affected by the expansion of the European Union – Asher is employing the similar techniques in gathering information on the Illinois Wesleyan campus.

Over the past few months, Asher has worked with librarians, faculty members and more than 140 Illinois Wesleyan students across all academic years and disciplines. The work began with extensive interviews asking how people approach research. “It’s a set of questions looking at research assignments, and completing a narrative of how students search for information,” said Asher. “It takes us through the entire process of working on a research paper. We also look at how faculty assign research, how they work with the library staff, and what faculty see in assignments coming  back to them from students.”

Interviews can only tell you so much, said Asher. So he has also utilized ethnographic research that goes beyond interviews with photo journals, ethnographic videos and mapping exercises. In the library mapping, students were asked to draw maps of the library from memory within six minutes. “We ask students to change pen color every two minutes,” said Asher, “so the map not only shows how students conceptualize the library, but what they think of first. It gives us an idea what they are using most often in the library.”

The photo journals and ethnographic videos add a layer of detail to the research, Asher noted. “It’s another way to find what the students are doing and contextualize our other interviews,” he said. Photo journals allows students to take pictures of everything from their communication devices and places they study, to snapshots of what they would want a first-year student to see about the library. “We put the photos up on a slideshow and talk about them with the students,” said Asher.

Ethnographic videos allow Asher even more access to information. He follows students with a video recorder and poses questions about research decisions students make as they search for information. “It’s really a good indicator for finding places where students are having trouble. We can see in very fine detail the actual databases they go to first, and how they find different pieces of information,” he said.

“We are very fortunate to have him here,” The Ames Library Academic Outreach Librarian Lynda Duke said of Asher. “Data is already coming in that is helpful to the library. “We’re already received information that will help us think about our services, Web pages and resources. And the bulk of the data analysis has yet to be done.” Students have been very generous with their time, added Duke. “Their response has been very strong, and we are appreciative of their efforts.”

Asher plans to finish the first round of studies this month, and begin a second round in the fall that will focus on first-year students.

The other institutions participating in the LSTA grant are Northeastern Illinois University, DePaul University, the University of Illinois Chicago and the University of Illinois Springfield.

For anyone interested in details or participating in the study, contact

Rachel Hatch, (309) 556-3960