Ethnography as Community Service

The city manager’s FY11 budget for Newport News has eliminated funding for our bookmobile. This was a great concern for all of us on the board of trustees for the city library system. We knew budget cuts were coming and worked hard to come up with a scheme that distributed cuts across departments so that we wouldn’t have to reduce hours or services. What a disappointment for us to see those cuts made and then the bookmobile taken out as a line item too. The board wrote a letter to the mayor and council. From there it was up to us to act as individual citizens and write, call, or show up at a city council meeting designated for budget concerns.

I was telling this story to a friend of mine from grad school who used to work in a youth treatment facility in Durham. He said he used to go to city council meetings all the time to persuade them to keep funding the rehab center. “You take some personal stories with quotes add statistics to back up your point and you’ve got a one-two punch.”

That’s when this light went on over my head. Duh! I’m an anthropologist. This is what I was trained to do!

I emailed the director of the city libraries and okayed the plan. Then one morning I followed the bookmobile to a couple of different stops, made some observations and talked to people. I spent one evening writing up a short presentation and spent another evening waiting for my turn to come up at the city council meeting. I gave my talk and it totally killed, there was about fifty people there and they gave me a round of applause. A community news website published my remarks.

All in all it amounted to about twelve hours of effort. I don’t know if this counts as applied anthropology, activist anthropology, or public anthropology. Maybe none of the above. But it really wasn’t that hard and it made me feel really good, folks at the council hearing seemed to really appreciate it too.

If anyone has the opportunity to do something like this you should. It’s not difficult to use anthropology to make a modest contribution where you live. Did it make a difference? I guess we’ll see in four weeks time when the council votes on the budget. Keep your fingers crossed!

Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR ‘hidden collections’ grant to describe the museum’s collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

7 thoughts on “Ethnography as Community Service

  1. I’m happy to report that the Bookmobile retained $100k of its $120k annual budget. This resulted in a restructuring of the the staff, formerly two full timers now reduced to one full time and one part timer. Saving the Bookmobile paid off in a big way when Hurricane Irene barged into town and the library was without power for five days. They just parked the Bookmobile in front and we were back in business!

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