An anthropologist among the librarians

It’s been more than five weeks since I first settled in Librarilandia and the natives are starting to accept me as one of their own. Since navigating the perilous voyage to this out of the way place and enduring countless humiliations as I’ve embarrassed myself in a bumbling effort to learn their customs and expectations I have finally begun networking in earnest. The pace of the note taking has picked up too. Now, having studied at the feet of the Librarian elders, I can begin to offer these first insights, hunches, and observations.

In the mode of Ruth Benedict, here’s a list of “Anthropologists do this… but Librarians do that.”

  1. Information Science has an ambivalent relationship to science

What was once called “library science” is now increasingly known as “information science,” but what is so scientific about it? Much like in anthropology it is in part a rhetorical move, to position oneself in a way to claim the authority of science. Which is not to say that science is absent. Anthropology is inclusive too of ecology and evolution, Boas saw the application of cultural relativism in the scientific method as making a break with the amateur scholars of the Victorian Era, and even the Writing Culture crowd argues that radical reflexivity is actually in keeping with more empiricism, not less. Similarly for the information sciences. It has its toes dangling into the waters of mathematics, logic, and computer programing. It has a tradition of what I would call “scientistic” internal communications: they love charts and graphs and diagrams. But there just aren’t a whole lot of natural laws about information, so it is still very humanistic in its orientation.

  1. Regardless of the science issue, librarians are still positivists

Anthros of whatever stripe are reliably constructivist. We recognize the categories and concepts we deploy as our own creation, “governmentality” is not an actually existing thing in the world but it is handy way for talking about or modeling it. The information science crowd is staunchly positivist. When they talk about “community knowledge domains” that is a real thing to them which can be unproblematically discovered, measured, and addressed through policy. When they use qualitative research, which is all the time because information science is very interested in the user experience, it’s in this sort of Geertzian mode of interpretation as a method in natural science. Some in the information sciences bring the poststructuralists too. Foucault is popular, obviously, but also Bourdieu and Deleuze. But when the poststructuralists are deployed it is never as a critique of positivism, it’s just another voice in the fold, another tool in the toolbox coexisting with its peers.

  1. Jupiter rules Sagittarius

I do this exercise in my Intro class where I have the students write down examples of culture, then I go around the room and fill the white board with their examples. You can easily get 60-80 different ideas. Then I say, “Okay, what isn’t culture?” This stumps them. You can imagine doing the same thing with information instead of culture. Think of different examples of what counts as information, now think of what isn’t information. Tell me, what is the object of study for information science? Both anthropology and information science rest on expansive conceptual foundations that is inclusive of virtually the entire universe. Are culture/ information overdetermined? Nebulous? Vague? Slippery? Not real? The only thing that is real? Both disciplines have extensive ongoing debates along the lines of: “Who are we really?” and “What are we doing anyways?” as a result of their expansive premise/ subject.

  1. Theory anxiety

Contemporary theory in anthropology is more polyvocal now than ever and a lot of people don’t necessarily see that as a good thing either. By comparison twentieth century modernist anthropology featured clear and dominant theoretical paradigms, and that’s just not the case anymore. Not only is there more literature and more niches, there are more fads and turns. The result is theory anxiety, twentieth century theory takes on a patina of authenticity when poststructuralism obscures our impulse to be activist and humanitarian. The librarians have a similar sentiment, although for different reasons. They feel like they don’t have enough theory. There are calls for more “dead Germans” in the textbooks. The anxiety is for an original theory, one that originates from within the information sciences and is not merely borrowed from another discipline. Information science will be a full fledged and mature discipline, this line of thinking goes, once we have theory that we can call our own and is not pilfered from some other source.

  1. Professional practice > academics

I’ve got so much respect for applied anthropologists/ public anthropology, but the fact is that the economies of prestige in our discipline favor tenure track professors who produce theoretical innovations. And this is odd because if you combined the applied crowd with the number of adjuncts they might actually be a larger faction than those with/ en route to tenure. Still, the AAA’s not handing out awards in lifetime achievement to adjuncts, nor are the big name profs at impressive schools citing the work done by applied anthros. But in information science the professional focus of the discipline actually runs in the opposite direction, giving it an almost “blue collar” culture. The whole raison d’etre of the big name prof at the impressive school is to produce work that will help the librarian at your kid’s elementary school. From day one the Masters program is giving the nextgen librarians specific and helpful instruction on dealing with the public’s information needs. When the applied focus comes first it can never be a second class citizen. This year the American Library Assoc gave a lifetime achievement award to a woman here in Newport News. She works with kids in the downtown library and she’s really good at it too.

  1. Making sense/ Making strange

We all know that old saw about how anthropology makes the strange seem familiar and the familiar seem strange (I sat in on a conference paper once where the author traced it back 50 years or more). I love taking on the mantle of anthropologist as strange-maker because it is impish and chaotic. In the classroom it can make students momentarily uncomfortable and then you can prompt them to reflect on what cultural assumptions underpin their comfort zone. The librarians do this too in their own fashion, only they say they make things make sense. As sense-makers librarians take people with information needs, often needs the library user themselves do not fully apprehend, and fill the information gap. This opens up a really neat analogy between the two fields.  Anthropologist:Informant::Librarian:Patron. Whereas the anthropologist is interested to learn from the informant what they “really” know about their culture but are perhaps unable to state explicitly, the librarian is interested to show the patron what they “really” want to know but are unable to ask for. We are both driven to explain the world in terms of knowledge

  1. Neutrality, relativism, and the native’s POV

Librarians share many of the same ethical stances as anthropologists, ranging from the confidentiality accorded to patron requests for information to the neutrality one must practice when filling those requests. Just as the anthropologist must hone their cultural relativism through reflection in order to strive towards an ethnographic analysis that is not culture bound, the librarian has to be detached to a certain extent from their own values and politics. Librarians do not pry or judge, but ideally function as a conduit between the user and the information they need regardless of what you think of that need or how it might be used. This extends to cultural sensitivity as people with different histories are going to be more or less comfortable in the library/ technology environment or in expressing their information needs to strangers. Both the anthro and the librarian are putting conscious effort into avoiding making assumptions, whether or not they’re successful that’s still the goal. We both try to achieve this through radical, active listening in structured, purposeful conversations, by paying attention to context clues like body language and speech style. The point is to see things from the other person’s point of view.

  1. Reflexivity in method but not theory

Returning to the theme of constructivism versus positivism, one of the reasons why anthropologists can never be positivists is because we have drunk the Kool-Aid of reflexive theory. We are constantly challenging our conceptual explanations, guarding against ethnocentrism and naive realism. There’s a lot of doubt and partial explanations in anthropology because we recognize the limits of our knowledge. At the same time our field methods are kept close to the chest and the field experience can be a profoundly private one for the cultural crowd. Save for archaeologists, we don’t play well with others. For many of us field work technique is something you just figure out along the way. Librarians are the reverse of this, their method is more reflexive than their theory. Methods of librarian/ patron interaction are honed and refined in formalized ways. Their professional organizations provide proscribed, step by step directions for methods of user interaction. The PhD’s come out and study the practitioners observing interactions and asking, “What are librarians thinking and doing?” Anthropologists critique method with theory and rhetoric, not ethnographic study. At the same time librarians do not aggressively analyze their theory, as positivists they start from the premise that the concepts they use to explain information behavior are real.

  1. Mixed methods

One last methodological musing. Librarians really do mixed methods, whereas cultural anthropologists mostly pay lip service to it. In information science the quantitative and qualitative methods are always blended, which granted their qualitative research is positivist and theoretically nonreflexive, but it is reliably holistic. The anthropological sciences use quantitative methods, for sure. But in cultural anthropology the effort is rarely made (perhaps because we rarely work in teams bringing together experts in different approaches). The cultural anthros’ idea of holism is multiple perspectives among stake holders on the ground, historically, and theoretically, but all of that is done within the qualitative framework. The librarians put survey data with administrative data about circulation and page clicks, then go out and make observations, conduct interviews and focus group.

  1. This is the end

I have written a lot on Savage Minds about my life as an adjunct from pedagogy to my decision to enter library school and transition into a new career. Anthropology will always be a part of my identity but frankly I haven’t been very successful professionally (if success is to be defined as getting on the tenure track). There’s a lot of reasons for this and one that I will mention here is that anthropology is hard. It is hard because it is so open-ended. That can be thrilling in the sense that there is always something new to explore and that sense of adventure is what first drew me to the field, but it can be intimidating because there is never a clear finish line in anthropology. Anybody who has ever had to leave a field site knows this ambivalence. It’s never over. Information science is more transactional. The level of personal commitment is less intense, the behaviors studied are more discrete, and the librarian/ patron relationship ends when the person gets the information they need. Librarians have closure and at the moment anyways I’m finding satisfaction in that.

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.

13 thoughts on “An anthropologist among the librarians

  1. “The information science crowd is staunchly positivist.” I’m not sure where you are taking courses, or who you are reading but this is a very naive statement. There are certain sub-fields of IS that take a statistical approach to measuring information use (bibliometrics) but I wouldn’t say that a positivist logic is dominant, nor even all that prevalent (anymore) in this field. You might read someone like Blaise Cronin’s work in this area for an indication of what I mean ( – Your history of IS is also sorely mistaken- it is not a rhetorical grab by librarianship. Library Science and Information Science are, what I would call, curiously coupled – they have some overlaps in their subject of study, but they are not nearly as similar or interchangeable as you are making them out to be here. And the title to your first section is just laughable – you’re being satirical about that at least, right?

  2. Welcome! It is ironic I’ve used Anthropology theories to do my research. If you like reading about why questions don’t get answered check out the work of JW Ely J Am Med Inform Assoc. 2005 Mar-Apr;12(2):217-24 and J Am Med Inform Assoc. 2007 Jul-Aug;14(4):407-14 and MA Graber Am J Emerg Med. 2008 Feb;26(2):144-7. I’m glad you have chosen Library Science.

  3. Love it! Started at a library as soon as I got my MA in anthro, and after some resistance have jumped into an MLIS course (I’m focused, predictably, on qualitative data archiving). You’ve captured a broad take on some of the differences quite well– look forward to reading more on these topics. I do believe the differences you’ve outlined provide us with a fruitful place in which to explore how theory overlaps with action, and how a deeper ethnographic perspective can engage with very grounded goals.

  4. I worked in an academic library or three years after getting my Anthro MA. This perfectly describes most of my experience, especially the strong tendency for positivism. It was an observation that I made when trying to describe why certain conversations with my colleagues annoyed me so much. LOL

  5. I graduated from an Informatics department, where we would hang out at “iSchool” conferences with Information Studies, Information Science, Schools of Information, etc. Each of these names tends to connote different recent past (engineering school gone social, or library school gone internet-ty) and a different stance towards knowledge (info studies tends towards less positivist). In information studies, anthropological writings have been very influential in certain programs (Cornell, Irvine, UCLA) but your broad strokes definitely describe the majority of the field in my experience.

  6. The debate in the pages of Library Quarterly, from 1995 to 1999,outlined some of the concerns about scientific and non-scientific ethnographic research that we felt, as anthropologist and librarian, were not being discussed in library schools or in LIS/IS PhD programs. The issues are far from resolved in either field, but good work (and poor) goes on in both. If you are attracted to the social constructivist approaches, it’s important to distinguish between the social nature of science, and science’s epistemology — too often these are mixed up in critiques of science. You can find the original 1995 LQ article, and the subsequent debate, cited in our final response — Sandstrom, Alan R., and Pamela Effrein Sandstrom. 1999. “Antiscientific Approaches to the Study of Social Life: A Rejoinder to Nyce and Thomas.” Library Quarterly, Vol. 69, No. 2 (Apr., 1999), pp. 299-303. Stable URL:

  7. I agree with Nic Weber above. Also, I’d like to say that the science portion of “information science” has a lot to do with what I do. I use the scientific method and everything I do is data driven. The data is data that I and my colleagues collected. I think it’s fine for people to believe this kind of stuff that is written on this blog, except that I feel it’s sentiments like this that won’t drive the profession forward.

    If you actually believe this “and the librarian/ patron relationship ends when the person gets the information they need” THEN LIBRARIES WILL DIE because the relationship doesn’t end. Coming to ask for help is the BEGINNING. Good luck!

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