Anthropologists in Practice: An Interview with Donna Lanclos, Library Ethnographer at UNC Charlotte

Anthropologists in Practice is an ongoing series of interviews featuring anthropologists (and professionals with anthropology training) who work outside of the academy. The goal of the series is to provide a source of information and inspiration to other practitioners and (potential) students of anthropology, and to illustrate the wide variety of jobs, skills and competencies held by anthropologists for employers and anyone else who is curious about what anthropologists actually do. While the interviews all follow a similar framework, each one is unique in its reflections on anthropology training and education, workplace applications, and advice for current and future practitioners.

DonnaLanclosTalk about about your role as “Library Ethnographer” and how you came upon such a position.

I work for the J. Murrey Atkins Library at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.  I was hired in 2009 by the University Librarian.  At that time, I was teaching as an adjunct in the UNC Charlotte Department of Anthropology, where my husband was on the tenure-track (he’s an archaeologist).   When a new University Librarian was hired in 2009, one of the first things he wanted to do was hire an anthropologist to work in the library—he had been at the University of Rochester before he came to UNC Charlotte, and was familiar with Nancy Fried Foster’s usability and user experience work at Rochester’s library.  I was intrigued by the notion of academia as a “second field site” for me (my first research was in Northern Ireland), so I interviewed for the job, and got it.

My official title is Associate Professor for Anthropological Research.  It is both a library faculty position and a 12-month (as opposed to 9-month) research and policy position.  I was hired to conduct social science research to inform library policy—essentially, I am asked to look at how students and faculty are using library spaces (digital and physical), how they connect (or don’t) with library resources (human and information), and what the practices of academic work look like whether they take place in the library or outside of it.

Early in my job, I helped conduct usability testing on our website and did field observations on the library’s 1st (main) floor.  The usability testing helped begin the long (and continuing) process of web redesign for the library, and the field observations helped us begin to think about our library spaces, the kinds of things students were trying to do in the space, and how our spaces at the time did (or did not) help them do that work.   It was pretty basic fieldwork—I went into the place, watched people, took notes, and did some informal/open-ended interviewing.  I also tried to do semi-structured interviews with faculty and students who agreed to talk to me about their work and how they did it.

At this point, I’ve got a regular graduate assistant, and have done several small projects involving observations, structured and unstructured interviews, and the use of students as field researchers.  We have done research that has helped inform the design of our newest space, a study commons on the ground floor with lots of digital screens, places to plug in, and configurable furniture, to suit students’ various needs to work in groups, alone, remotely, and face to face, with both digital and analog tools.  The interview and fieldwork data that we have collected so far are being entered into NVivo (a qualitative analysis software), and coded, so that we can begin to look at what we’ve been collecting since 2009 and start to see the larger patterns.

Tell me about your anthropology background. What were some of your favorite research projects, subjects, courses, or experiences as an anthropology student?

I earned my PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, in socio-cultural anthropology.  My advisor was the folklorist Alan Dundes, so in addition to my courses and training in anthropology, I got to explore the field of folkloristics as a graduate student.  My undergraduate degree is from UC Santa Barbara, where I focused on archaeology, but also took courses in cultural and physical anthropology as well.   I really liked acquiring a multi-subfield grounding in anthropology, and kept my hand in the other sub-fields during graduate school with my teaching assistantship in physical anthropology, and by attending archaeology talks (and socializing with lots of archaeologists!) on campus.

I really loved doing archaeology fieldwork as an undergraduate—I did a lot of survey work (I was never particularly good at excavation), and was lucky enough to do fieldwork in southeast Alaska as well as California.  I just couldn’t figure out what I would do for a dissertation project, so when I got the chance to study abroad in Ireland as a junior, I explored the sociocultural (and folkloristic) side of things.  On a quick field trip to Belfast, I got the idea that would be the nugget of my dissertation research on primary school children’s folklore in Belfast.

Do you have a favorite anthropologist?

It feels terribly old-fashioned, but I have a deep respect and admiration for the work of Margaret Mead, not just her fieldwork, but her work as a public voice for anthropological perspectives on social issues such as education and gender politics.

What are you most passionate about when it comes to anthropology?

I think our disciplinary commitment to holistically representing the human condition, and critically examining structures that people surround themselves with in the course of their everyday lives, should be a fundamental part of every public policy discussion everywhere.  Anthropologists are trained to have a critical eye that should be a part of every organization’s everyday workings—I cannot think of an institution that couldn’t benefit from having a full-time employee whose job it is to ask questions about why things work the way they do, whether or not those ways are effective, and what other ways might be out there.

How have you been able to use your anthropology training in your current job?  What specific skills, experiences and competencies have been most useful to you?

I am lucky in that I have been explicitly hired to “be the anthropologist,” and so I have been able to directly apply my training and knowledge about fieldwork, specifically in parsing the differences between what people say and what people do.  The comparative approach that to me is so fundamental to anthropological perspectives has served me really well in my position, as I have been able to do fieldwork not just at my university, but at University College, London.  I hope to add more field sites to expand my sense of what academic work looks like as I continue in my position here.

I have also had the opportunity to collaborate with scholars in other organizations and from other disciplines (education, information science, etc.), to do multi-year research projects on information-seeking behavior and engagement with technology.   Working with scholars from other fields and sub-fields that are different from my own has been valuable preparation for the constant collaboration that my current job requires of me.  I am not doing any of this work on my own.  It is all a group project.

How have you navigated your workplace as an anthropologist?

I have been hired to be a kind of professional outsider, but I am also a part of the administrative structure of the library, so it has been interesting to navigate in the sense that I am not terribly powerful, yet I get to bend the ears of people who are quite powerful at this university.  It gives me an ability to directly impact policy that I didn’t get to experience as a more traditional teaching academic.  I work with library professionals who are used to interdisciplinary collaboration, so it hasn’t been hard to find people to collaborate with, both within “my” library and elsewhere.  I think that library professionals have been using social science techniques as a part of their assessment toolkit for a long time, but a lot of their methods are heavily quantitative.  I have enjoyed adding my voice to those who speak about qualitative research and its value for institutions.

Describe the most interesting projects you’ve worked on in your current role.

The new Ground Floor study commons in my library is one of the biggest things I’ve helped with to date, and I blogged a bit about that project here.  I have also been working for the past two years on the Visitors and Residents project (which I alluded to above), which looks at individual engagement with information and technology in academic and non-academic contexts (I’ve blogged about that in a few different posts).

What advice do you have for anthropology students for marketing their skills to prospective employers? Is there something you wish you had done as a student to prepare yourself for the workplace?

I am not sure I am the best person to answer this question.  I identify strongly as an anthropologist, and was hired to be an anthropologist, so I haven’t had to do a lot of translation of myself into something that doesn’t feel like it fits.  I guess I would say be confident in what anthropology (and you, the anthropologist) has to offer.    I think that the strength of my conviction that anthropology is great, interesting, worthwhile, and relevant, was effectively communicated to my boss when I interviewed for the job.

Harry Wolcott wrote that all careers have a path in hindsight, and that is certainly true for me. I did not set out from graduate school to get the job I have now.  I feel like I lucked into this job, in that I didn’t see it coming, but also that I earned it, by being well-qualified for it when it did come around. Anthropology surely prepares you well for taking advantage of being in the right place at the right time!

For more information on Donna’s work, check out her blog and follow her on Twitter.

Editor’s note: Are you an anthropologist who practices outside of academia? If so, I am currently looking for additional participants for the Anthropologists in Practice series. If you are interested in doing an interview, please get in touch!

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