20 December 2012

Seven questions with library anthropologist Nancy Fried Foster

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In her work anthropologist Nancy Fried Foster applies anthropological principles to the study of the university’s libraries and their users. By focusing on the work that people are doing inside these spaces, they can identify needs and imagine new solutions to address those needs.

“My background provides me with a lot of field experience and a grounding in anthropological theory, all of which I apply when I look at what happens in libraries or, more generally, in academic work. At the same time, I have read and received on-the-job training in work-practice study and user-centered design, which are more recent applied social science traditions.

In participatory design projects we learn about the work practices of faculty members, grad students, undergrads, and our own colleagues in the library. As we learn, we discover opportunities to provide better technology, services, and spaces. To dig a little deeper, the way we learn is by including a lot of different kinds of experts in the design process—both the traditional experts such as software engineers and the people who are experts on the work that is to be done and how best to do it.

My broader studies—the projects that are not specifically related to building a piece of software, but are more generally about investigating how people do their work—resemble ethnographic studies. The focus is always on the work that people are doing: how they are working, where they are encountering obstacles, what they are trying to achieve. We are looking at people’s work practices in their broader life context and our goal is to understand and support their work.”

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