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Here we go again!  A few years ago, we (with our students) conducted an ambitious ethnographic research project on student life at Fresno State, with a focus on informing library services.  The Library Study ended up as a major statement about student life on campus at the time (2009).  Three years later, we’re embarking on another ethnographic study of students on our campus, this time focused on student IT use.  The study was inspired by some recent research by anthropologists at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.  That study caught the eye of our VP for Administration, Cindy Matson, who also happens to be TheAnthroGeek’s student in the doctoral program in educational leadership here.  Seeing an opportunity to inform looming decisions about how to invest scarce IT resources with data about actual student behaviors and attitudes, Ms. Matson asked us if we could do something similar to the Milwaukee study.  Just a few months later, we have the skeleton of a research plan and we’re meeting with various campus stakeholders to nail down the details.  The study launches this fall.

The way it’s brewing right now, mobile computing will be a major concern of the study.  Our campus is developing its approach to web presence, social media, data storage, software access and mobile apps, among other issues.  What do existing student practices tell us about the demand for proprietary Fresno State mobile apps?  Does the virtualization of software access make sense for student users?  What do students take away from Fresno State’s existing social media efforts?  What do they want to take away?  Stay tuned for updates on how the study evolves and what we find!


[Final Report recently posted on the IPA website at]

We are excited to announce the acceptance of a session of papers we organized about our Library User Experience Study.  We include the session abstract here and posted all of the paper abstracts at

Practicing Anthropology in the Shelves: Designing Academic Libraries via Ethnography, a Presentation at the 108th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Philadelphia PA

Session Abstract: Anthropology is most relevant to the public when it improves the lives of non-anthropologists. Practicing anthropology, as a type of research done to solve practical problems with relevant stakeholders who stand to gain or lose from a project, has a long tradition outside academia. Conversely, practicing anthropology on a college campus, across disciplines is a relatively recent phenomenon. Responding to this year’s theme, the papers on this panel speak to an “academic public” comprised of non-anthropologists across college campuses. Acknowledging one potential “end” of anthropology as an independent university discipline, panelists illustrate a bright future for practicing anthropology amongst this “academic public”.

Using ethnography to empirically investigate the factors that influence human relations between each other and their environment, practicing anthropology helps provide stakeholders invested and interested in this research to adopt effective and efficient responses to the problems relevant to them. California State University Fresno’s Institute of Public Anthropology (IPA) is an organization dedicated to improving the quality of life in California’s Central Valley through practicing design anthropology. By utilizing a mix of traditional and innovative methodologies, members of the IPA are able to make ethnographic approaches relevant to areas normally ignored by academic anthropology programs. The papers on this panel represent some of the latest research on user experience based upon a 15 month ethnographic investigation of CSU-Fresno’s Henry Madden Library.

In the first paper, Visser presents the context of the study, illuminating the relevance and use of traditional university libraries to “21st century students”. The following two papers by Barela, Arnold and Dotson provide a detailed explication of the background and methods of this study while emphasizing the strategies involved in ascertaining emic conceptualizations of “scholarship” (Barela) and ”library resources” (Arnold and Dotson) by predominantly ”first generation” college students. The next pair of papers by Mullooly, Ruwe and Scroggins explore some of the initial findings and that have evolved from the Library Study in terms of student/librarian disjunctures: disjunctures of the meaning of “reference” (Mullooly and Ruwe) “and of perception of time (Scroggins). The final paper by Delcore concludes the presentations with a discussion of the relevance of this sort of investigation to the evolution of design anthropology in relation to a variety of publics. Nancy Fried Foster, a leading voice in anthropological investigations of libraries, will discuss the papers at the close of the session.

The papers represent practicing efforts that analyze pressing issues in the contexts of scholarship, design, integration and innovation. Each presentation will be a rapid, data rich presentation (following the Pecha Kucha format) which will allow for an open discussion to follow including a critical analysis of the benefits of such approaches as well as the potential problems inherent in facing an “academic public”.

Michael Wesch at Kansas State recently blogged about how he and his students run their research class.  The quote that hits home: “First off, we organize it as a research group, not a class.”  The rest of the posting describes how this works in more detail.

For the last two years, The Anthro Guys have been doing something very similar.  We run the Institute of Public Anthropology as an anthropological consultancy at the service of Fresno’s non- and for-profit community.  Our mission is to use anthropological skills and knowledge to improve the quality of life in the Central Valley.  The students in our field methods class work the projects we land.  They get real life research experience and our clients gain insight into how to improve the way they serve their clients and customers.  Win-win.


From Left: Dalitso Ruwe, Kim Arnold (back), Jamie San Andres, Dave Moore (back), Felicia Salcido, Elfego Franco (back) and Ashlee Dotson. Alecia Barela not pictured.

Some of this bore fruit that past weekend.  On May 1, seven Fresno State undergrad anthro majors and one recent graduate traveled to SWAA’09 (the Southwestern Anthropological Association conference) in Las Vegas to present findings from Institute of Public Anthropology projects.  Four — Ashlee Dotson, Alecia Barela, Kim Arnold and Dalitso Ruwe — talked about the Library Study, two — Jamie San Andres and Felicia Salcido — about the anthro-architecture collaboration on ArcHop, and two — Elfego Franco and Dave Moore — about using anthro in product development, aka “how anthropology can make you wealthy.”  The audience was particularly attentive at that point.

I, Anthroguy, was there and can tell you that they acquitted themselves superbly (and at the early hour of 8am!) with some astute observations, interpretations and reflections on everything from libraries to urban revitalization to iPhone apps.  “Anthropology: we do more before 9am than most sociologists do in a day!”  😉

Aside from working IPA projects, Dalitso, Elfego and Dave are also in my interdisciplinary anthro-business-engineering class this semester.  The class is actually organized as a start-up venture, and the ten students (three anthros, six entrepreneurship, and one engineer) have been working on developing an iPhone app that will enable electric guitar players to practice anywhere anytime and still have access to all their guitar effects:  “self-expression on the go,” as they say.  The anthro students did fieldwork and design workshops with guitar players to explore how they experience effects pedals and the feasibility of putting it all on an iPhone app.  All the students collaborated to work up a business plan based on the results of that and other research.

So….while the anthros were in Las Vegas, five of their entrepreneurship major classmates were in Chicago at Illinois Institute of Technology’s Interprofessional Projects (IPRO) Day.  IIT requires all students to participate in an interdisciplinary team project centered on an innovative design solution to some socially pressing problem or market need.  On IPRO Day, teams present their projects for judging, and for the last two years I have sent a team from my interdisciplinary class to compete.  Last year, the Fresno State team took the award for best business plan.  This year, the business students from iPhone app team – Jared Apodaca, Jason Tromborg, Donna Dizon, Cesar Sanchez and Lee Vue – presented their business plan.  They didn’t win any prizes, but they were approached by a private investor asking for more financial projections.  (Fingers crossed.)

My last few postings have been about ArcHop and plans for developing more affordable, high-density living spaces in downtown Fresno.  But now that the Feb. 5 exhibit is over and we’re in data analysis mode on that one, I’m back to having the library on my mind more than ever.

Fresno State just opened a new library this month — find it on facebook by searching “Henry Madden Library.”  But already for the last six months, The Anthro Guys and our students have been studying student life for the library.  Dean Peter McDonald commissioned the study last year.  His goal is to increase student usage, enhance the experience of all users, and make the library central to campus life.  That’s a tall order, but when we met him, Dean McDonald was already aware of Nancy Fried Foster and Susan Gibbons’ “Studying Students: The Undergraduate Research Project at the University of Rochester.”  Rochester anthros Foster and Gibbons, in collaboration with their campus librarians, probed student study and paper-writing habits and translated the results into design insights for library services.  Dean McDonald saw the potential for an ethnographic study of Fresno State students to help him achieve his goals for library services, and the study was off and running.

What are we doing?  Over the next few weeks, I’ll try to post about our actual research activities.  Last fall, we attended the Participatory Design Conference at Indiana University and came away with a wealth of new methodological ideas.  Most are united by the reality that merely asking people what they want in products and services is woefully inadequate to inspiring better design for rich user experience.  In general, people simply can’t tell you what they want from something as complex as “the library.”  However, they do know — at some level — what makes for a rich experience.  The challenge is to get that out of them, find the design insights, and translate them into actions and policies.  Consequently, one thing we’re deep into right now is Student Theater. In Student Theater, we direct some student participants in the first half of a skit that implicates the library somehow, then invite other student participants to direct the players toward a conclusion.  In a related exercise, Bootlegging, students induced elements of library use (who uses the library, what do they do there, what technologies do they use, etc.) onto index cards.  We then shuffled the cards, re-dealt them, and asked the students to construct skits based on the new combinations.  In these exercises, we are all moving, laughing, thinking on our feet, and creatively trying to put our understandings of the library into action.  This catches people off guard and breaks down the barriers of the usual “tell me, what do you want from the library” approach.  The value of this technique is that it inspires subjects and analysts to think outside of the box.  Looking at the video, we can then induce design insights from the latent, off-the-cuff things the student-subjects produce.

In the last round of skits, a common theme was that someone was misbehaving in the library and other users call them to task.  The line, “call security,” kept coming up.  Interestingly, our library doesn’t have “security” per se, though we do have campus police who sometimes patrol the building.  So why did this “call security” line keep coming up?  These are the sorts of issues that our team is now focusing upon.

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