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ACLS Humanities E-Book is happy to feature HEB’s Q&A with Dr. Danielle Cooper, senior researcher at Ithaka S+R and panelist on the upcoming Humanities Roundtable in Washington, D.C. Her expertise on information and information systems is an excellent resource for those in the academic and scholarly fields. She will be speaking at the Humanities Roundtable on March 11 on “Conveying Value to Faculty, Students, and Researchers,” for which you can register here.

Danielle Cooper is a senior researcher in Libraries and Scholarly Communications at Ithaka S+R, a not-for-profit organization that provides research and strategic guidance to help academic and cultural communities serve the public good and navigate economic, technological, and demographic change. She holds a masters of information from the University of Toronto, and a doctorate in gender, feminist and women’s studies from York University. Her professional experience, including as a librarian at Ryerson University Library and Archives and at George Brown College Library and Learning Commons, continues to deeply inform the aims of and approaches to her research. To date, she has had the privilege of working on qualitative research with more than 200 librarians in nearly 70 academic institutions in the U.S., Canada and Ireland.

Q: Explain what being a “Library Ethnographer” entails.

Being a “library ethnographer” entails meaningfully incorporating ethnographic methods into one’s library research practice. Ethnography is a qualitative social science method that emanates from both the anthropological and sociological traditions and is characterized by a commitment to understanding human culture holistically by engaging, and ideally participating, in that culture. I utilize library ethnography in my work in recognition that information activity constitutes and creates unique forms of culture. I am drawn to the method because it is particularly useful for characterizing information cultures that exist beyond mainstream cultural heritage collections. For example, for my PhD dissertation, I conducted fieldwork at a variety of LGBT libraries and archives in Vancouver, B.C., which included spending time at those collections, working with them and having ongoing dialogue with the collections’ creators, managers, and users. Some of these collections were located in private homes, which made ethnography an ideal method for capturing the activities undertaken therein.

While utilizing ethnography provides opportunities for creating deep understanding of how individuals engage with and perceive information and information collections, such as those found within libraries and archives, there have also been critiques of how the method has been taken up in the information professions. A blog post I wrote for Ithaka S+R delves more deeply into those critiques and considers the ongoing viability of the method for the library profession. It’s also important to recognize that ethnographic inquiry cannot be disentangled from its colonial underpinnings and therefore should only be taken up in conjunction critical and transparent reflection of its limitations as a method. Learning about and beginning to practice decolonizing research methodologies as part of the new work I am undertaking on the research support needs of Indigenous Studies scholars has been hugely informative towards my thinking here and I am grateful to the scholars who have forged the path for pursuing this kind of work.

Q:HEB’s Lee Walton will be a co-chair of the upcoming NFAIS Humanities Roundtable on March 11, where you will be one of the guest speakers. The panel you are part of, “Conveying Value to Faculty, Students, and Researchers,” is tasked with the challenge of discussing stakeholders who have different needs and uses in an academic library. Speak to what you look forward to discussing during this panel.

I am looking forward to exploring how recent trends in scholarly activity have implications for how we develop and communicate the value of library services. At Ithaka S+R we have a strong body of research that explores evolving perceptions and practices of scholars as well as library leaders. This research includes our ongoing Research Support Services program that examines the research support needs of scholars by discipline (including in the fields of History, Art History, Chemistry, Religious Studies, Public Health) and our triennial survey of US faculty and our triennial survey of US library directors.  From this research we are seeing time and time again that faculty conceptualize their needs in ways that greatly diverge from the ways that library services are traditionally defined and organized.

I’m also looking forward to discussing methods for conveying the value of library services to faculty and for ensuring that these services are useful. My work at Ithaka S+R focuses on fielding large-scale collaborative projects where local teams of academic librarians conduct research on and with their users as well as providing one-on-one trainings to build staff capacity for conducting user research in libraries. User research enables librarians not only to learn from their users but also to foster relationships with them in the process. I’m proud to have had the opportunity to work with so many librarians as they develop their qualitative research skills and love sharing what I’ve learned about developing user research programs in libraries along the way.

Q: What from digital collections or archives are humanities scholars wanting or needing more of and not getting?

From Ithaka S+R’s research on historians, art historians, and Religious studies scholars, and from our forthcoming work on Asian Studies scholars we’ve learned about how humanities scholars continue to mitigate digital discovery barriers to archival content by traveling to collections in-person, particularly when the collections are held beyond the West. Their activities while conducting research at these sites, however, have shifted dramatically due to technological affordances, moving away from on-site analytical work to capturing work for future analysis off-site. The increasing power of mobile technologies, particularly through cellphone cameras, scanning apps and cloud-based storage, enables scholars to focus on gathering as much content as possible.[1]

While scholars are increasingly capturing primary content digitally, they lack the infrastructure for storing, preserving and sharing their content. Scholars need more resources to support their work as collectors: they are gathering unique content and digital copies of primary content across the globe that universities and cultural heritage organizations do not have the resources to comprehensively gather and make available themselves. We need more tools that enable scholars to digitally manage their personal collections and ideally also share those collections with others so they can be leveraged to the fullest extent possible. And when thinking about what affordances such tools should have, it’s important to recognize that the needs of scholars must not be privileged over the needs of local cultures whose heritage is being documented by those tools. Murkurtu, which is an open-source content management system for Indigenous communities, provides a really compelling example of how to build sharing tools that are grounded in respect for cultural protocols as opposed to focusing exclusively on the requirements of scholars, librarians, archivists and the institutions they serve in their professional capacities.

[1] See, for example, StandScan Pro, http://standscan.com/index.php/product/standscan-pro.html