Folkloristic Approaches in Library and Information Science

G.E. Gorman (Victoria University of Wellington )

Library Management

ISSN: 0143-5124

Article publication date: 1 July 2000




Gorman, G.E. (2000), "Folkloristic Approaches in Library and Information Science", Library Management, Vol. 21 No. 5, pp. 271-278.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

This pair of Library Trends issues may appear to be linked only by a common journal title, yet the astute reader will recognise that “folkloristic approaches” are in fact a form of qualitative research and that the issues, therefore, are both dealing with aspects of the research paradigm in our discipline.

The first of the pair, Qualitative Research, is the more difficult to review and perhaps the more disappointing of the two, because it seems to promise more than it delivers. This may be a result of the title, which implies that here is a work about qualitative research, when in fact it is principally a collection of pieces within the qualitative framework. This is not to say that it does not deal with qualitative research qua qualitative research, for in part it does this. Thus the first essays investigate aspects of qualitative methodology rather than reporting the results of qualitative investigations. The first, by Jim Horn, is a bibliographical essay on selected frameworks that underlie many qualitative investigations – symbolic interactionism, phenomenological description, constructivist hermeneutics and critical studies. Approximately 120 works are cited in this very useful survey, which is important not only for this reason but also for the author’s insights into each of the frameworks. The second, by Gary Radford, uses literary criticism (à la Michel Foucault) to help develop “… an alternative post‐modern epistomology from which library scholars can rethink traditional notions of the library, librarian and … library users” (p. 616). Still in this mould, the third contribution, by Mark Day, surveys LIS literature on organisational change in academic libraries “… and uses multiple methods to build a syncretic interpretation that may be able to overcome some of the traditional problems of qualitative research” (p. 635).

Skipping a paper, we are then presented with three examples of qualitative research in action: Gillian McCombs’ cultural analysis (using thick description) of an academic computing centre, Marie Radford’s study of non‐verbal communication in initiating reference transactions, Smith and Yachnes’s use of metaphors to inform users’ understanding of electronic texts, Pendleton and Chatman’s study of “information behaviour in small world lives”. The last of these papers is little short of brilliant. In it the authors use ethnographic enquiry and four concepts from anthropology/sociology (social norms, world view, social types, information behaviour) to investigate how user behaviour might be reconstructed as information behaviour and utilised by public libraries to improve their outreach. Elsewhere I have commented positively on the work of Chatman, who never ceases to amaze with her insights – high on my agenda of Important Things to Do is a visit to North Carolina in order to sit at the feet of Dr Chatman.

The two remaining papers do not fit easily into this otherwise natural pairing of methodological discussions and practical applications. The first of the pair, Peter Liebscher’s thoughts on teaching quantitative and qualitative methods in an LIS programme, has particular interest to me and the few dozen others around the world who teach LIS research methods, but for the most part it is inappropriate in a collection which is not aimed at this specific group of academics. Perhaps a paper on the emerging synergies between quantitative and qualitative research would have been more valuable, given the readership of Library Trends. The final paper is equally limited – Wallace and Van Fleet’s reflections on the relationship between qualitative research and editorial traditions in LIS literature. Again this is personally of interest to me as editor of more than one journal, but it is really very much an insider’s discussion for those who wish to write qualitative studies for publication.

This collection, then, is part methodological and part exemplification of qualitative research in practice. Most of the papers are well worth reading, although some are unnecessarily abstruse. The most useful and most stimulating, by Horn, McCombs, Pendleton and Chatman, are required reading, and several others will assist students and practitioners to better understand what qualitative research is all about, how it can be applied, and what it can do to illuminate the work of information professionals.

The second collection, Folkloristic Approaches in Library and Information Science, is so closely linked with the first that the two should have been published back‐to‐back. In it, Betsy Hearne expresses a belief that folklore helps to “… reveal the values and conflicts of a society and its deepest wells of knowledge” (p. 341) and that there is a strong relationship between folklore and LIS: “… folklorists are experienced in collecting, categorizing, analyzing and interpreting informal knowledge. While ‘information systems’ might not be a favorite folkloristic term, most folklorists are in fact investigating them” (p. 342). With these principles in mind, Hearne has put together this issue of Library Trends from work by her doctoral students, and the result is an excellent compendium of papers that focus on an area of qualitative research that has been little investigated.

The collection does not open with a bibliographical essay, which would have been extremely useful given the intention of the issue. It is well organised, however, into thematic sections: oral history (three papers), customary and material lore (two papers), “technolore” (two papers), storytelling in oral and print traditions (four papers). Hearne’s introduction does not mention this organisation, and it would have helped to have her views on how folklore informs studies in each of these areas.

In each group of papers one stands out for its style, insights, erudition – or all three. Thus Elizabeth Figa’s “Mapping culture: rural circuit medical librarians’ information systems” combines oral history and fieldwork observation to illuminate how information systems were developed by a “circuit rider medical librarian” (Jean Antes Pelley) in the 1970s. What is outstanding in Figa’s telling is her recursive reflection on the nature of oral history as a research method; the informed categories she develops as a consequence of her investigation, using mapping as a metaphor for information representation; the conclusions she draws both about the subject and the method – essential reading for qualitative researchers, and oral historians in particular.

In the second group of papers, Laura Neumann’s “Papers, piles and computer files: folklore of information work environments” is singled out for the way in which it shows the clear application of a folkloristic approach to information studies. “It emphasizes the importance of studying folklore of information work environments in the context of the current shift toward removing work from any particular place via information systems, e‐mail and the Web” (p. 439). In Neumann’s view, understanding the folklore of work space gives clues as to the likely impact of this trend, thereby affecting the design of more appropriate information systems and working environments. She concludes – and employers and managers looking only at the bottom line and downsizing work spaces in order to save a quid take note – that the working environment matters significantly.

Any paper whose references range from Cawkell to Boas to Buckland, is bound to attract one’s curiosity, and Tidline does precisely this in “The mythology of information overload” in the next section. She concludes that information overload is a myth of modern culture, using “myth” in the sense of a nonscientific process that “confirms the reality of an elusive phenomenon” (p. 485). To do this, the author presents a most interesting, almost phantasmagoric, blend of myth, folklore and LIS. In the final section, “Storytelling in oral and print traditions”, it must be admitted that none of the four papers, three of which deal in some way with folklore and children’s literature, is within this reviewer’s expertise. However, in reading all of them one does gain a good sense of how the folkloristic tradition can inform our understanding of children’s literature, an important component in most public library collections. The fourth paper, “Juan Bobo: a folkloristic information system”, in my view falls outside the scope of the collection and would be better placed in a folklore journal.

Overall, then, these two collections are important, perhaps almost essential, additions to our armoury of works about qualitative research in LIS. If Library Trends keeps this up, they will have at least one more subscriber on the books, and it has been many years since I have said that about any professional journal, except of course the one in which this review appears.

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