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Liveblogging CAIS 2008: Writing Ourselves In: Institutional Ethnography as a Strategy for Understanding and Contesting the Marginal Positioning of Public Libraries in Community Partnerships June 5, 2008

Posted by JR Dixey in events, events@UBC.
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Rosamund K. Stooke, University of Western Ontario

[Please note: These are merely my notes on the presentation, taken live while the presentation was in progress and edited for sense afterwards. They are not a verbatim transcription of the presentation. Please contact the researcher directly for more information on her work. — JRD]

Notes on the presentation:

Public librarians and very young children’s development. Somewhat more focused on methodological issues because of Dorothy Smith’s work in institutional ethnography.

25 public librarians, 1/3 had responsibility for children’s library services.

Conundrum faced by the public library community: how can we get more involved in community efforts for young children’s education and development? Public librarians have always felt strongly about children’s development; also, librarians always feel that they need to demonstrate their usefulness in the educational world.

Methodology: institutional ethnography

“local site of institutional activity” (library, hospital, etc.) — in support of institutional work, ‘networks of social relations organized around a distinctive function such as healthcare, education, & the economy’ (Smith, 1987?) (Dorothy E. Smith)

Institutional ethnography aims to ‘explicate, not explain’ — focus on how something happens (“What do you do to support young children’s education and development?”) rather than establish a course for something happening.

Book recommendation: Institutional Ethnography as Practice (edited by Dorothy Smith).

Back in the 1980s Smith was trying to ‘turn sociology upside-down’. Informed by ethnomethodology, marxism (concept of ideology), and feminism. Ideology names a process by which ordinary activities that take place in local sites like libraries are turned into what we call ‘discursive entities’ (i.e., a ‘checked out item’ reduces all the work that goes into the exchange into something that can be ‘accounted for’). Feminism’s influence is to emphasize ‘life as usual’ (an ongoing social accomplishment, the product of work carried out by insiders and outsiders). ‘Work’ includes all work that doesn’t get written up in a workplace report.

Local and extralocal organization. Advice from outside (such as from CLA and ALA) connects local work to other local work (that must be where the network part comes in).

The problematic:

“In the search for community assets … public libraries are frequently overlooked … libraries are often left out of community initatives” (the typical explanations, I decided to ignore these explanations and look instead at the work)” (quote from an article in a public library publication from the U.S.)

Competitive public marketplace, ‘competing for children’.

Local work <–> institutional work.

It’s like unraveling a ball of string … one conundrum led to another. “It was impossible to talk about children’s librarians’ work without talking about the difficulties many of them face in the workplace.” Part of the folk wisdom of librarianship is that children’s librarians are marginalized within the field.

“What do children’s librarians do?”

Outreach and Story Hour. But they couldn’t do either one without layer upon layer upon layer of relationship building. Categories for this work come out of public administration, doesn’t acknowledge this as real work. Collision between gender and power makes this work ‘disappear’ (it gets ‘disappeared’). What are the work processes by which this happens? Look for the texts … in post-industrial societies almost all work in the public sphere is mediated by text. Not necessarily printed form.

Two examples: Report forms and applying for grants. Work gets ‘disappeared’ from both of these places.

Virginia Walter: Children and Libraries, Getting it Right

“My informants were in synch with the official version”. But when we talk to librarians we find out that the relationship work is there, just unnoticed. ‘You had to earn their trust before they were willing to bring big questions …’ Trust also has to be developed at the inter-agency level.

What discourses organize librarians’ work? The ‘politics of stats’ (“Ann”) — ‘it’s very important to bring people into the library’ … “they sweat the stats” … “it’s part of our culture to think about how many people attended” our events. “Your activities have to serve the people you serve, but you also have to serve the library” — “the gift that keeps on giving” — “everything you do has to function in both directions” — “all of my informants were charged in part with caring for the library” as well as the patrons.

Bowker & Star, 2000, Sorting Things Out. A classification scheme is a systematic encapsulation of values (something like that). “does not apply at this time” (i.e., organizing recreation). Visibility attracts the “glare of enlightenment science” [Example of leech therapy in nursing literature] “How can you capture humor in nursing?” Laughter at storytime? It’s all ‘situated and subjective action’.

DeVault, 1991 — ‘feeding the family’ — it’s hard to call it work because you don’t want to commodify something you’re giving freely

Fine-grained accountability is problematic, though, especially when others don’t see the value in your work (how do you quantify imagination? example: old keys for kids to open a “secret special place” for storytime)

But, if work doesn’t get recorded, what happens to librarians? Creates a false sense of security for admin, because you’re not representing the actual work that’s getting done, they never have to budget for the work that isn’t being accounted for, and the caring work can get eroded when this work is more and more needed yet less and less accounted for/budgeted for/funded.

“For public libraries the consequence is the erosion of our community service mission” (i.e., ‘work that just gets done’)

Managerial level talked about positioning, workers talked about relationship-building/equalizing relations. Writing ourselves in will help us flip it around and rethink how we do things.

Question from the audience: Thinking about the ethical implications of not calling work ‘work’, is there another way to come at it, instead of commodifying it?

Answer: I thought I’d invented this until I discovered the work of Roma Harris … she wrote that we have to change the way society values care … in part it’s about advocating for the people we work with.

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