Surrounded by print periodicals in The Ames Library, a student uses headphones and
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
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
For anyone interested in details or participating in the study, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rachel Hatch, (309) 556-3960