The Anthropologist’s Tale: A Caution – Donna Lanclos #open17

Anthropologists get to do the work they do because someone lets them in. Listen, collect, collate, interpret, and tell stories. Stories are data – ways of representing and interpreting reality. She studies the ‘village’ of academia, investigating the logic behind the behaviours in academia – students, academics, others.

Example of bowdlerised version of Chaucer’s “Wife’s Tale” when she was in high school – she wanted the real story. Also as a folklorist, very aware of different versions of stories. There’s meaning not just in the story but in the fact that there are different versions. Who tells the tale informs how it’s told.

Early anthropology work was literally a tool of the Man. Finding out more about a people in order to colonise and control them. Eg “The Nuer” by Evans-Pritchard. Franz Boas ‘the father of anthropology’ when native American groups were the object of study because people believed they were ‘disappearing’ (a framing that ignores the agency of colonisation). In WWII armchair anthropology by Ruth Benedict informed post-war occupation strategy of US in Japan. Margaret Mead worked in Samoa and other people in the Pacific – many issues around whose stories she told and why. But her purposes shifted from institutional control to understanding. Wanted to make the unfamiliar familiar and relatable. Also to make the familiar unfamiliar – so people can look at things they’ve always done and wonder why.

Moving to libraries. Andrew Carnegie (as a retirement project from his life as a robber baron) founded lots of libraries all over US, UK, NZ, basically everywhere – to impose his ideas of what communities should have. There was an application process – communities wanted to be associated with the respectability and power. Libraries as colonising structures. And assumption that if you don’t put a library there, don’t establish a colonial government, there won’t be anything. It ignores what’s already there. There were people long before there were libraries.

Colonising impulse in libraries:

  • When she presents on student behaviour (googling, citing Wikipedia, not putting materials in IR) she talks about motivations, conflicting messages people get around these, the ways these things make sense to people where they are. And gets the question “So how do we get them to change their behaviour?” Wants the idea of what’s “best” to fall away. Listen to what people, understand why.
  • When she proposes open-ended investigations, eg day-in-the-life studies, geolocating emotions across various institutions and look at the pattern of their lives. No particular question or problem in mind, just wanted to know what it looked like. But often got asked, “How will that help me solve [very specific problem]?” Exploratory research isn’t about solving problems, it’s about gaining insight.

You don’t do anthropology to shift how they do library things; you do it so the library can shift its practices. How do we listen? How do we change? Study people not to control, but to connect. We don’t want to be the colonising library! We may think we’re powerless, but have so much more power than our users, so have a responsibility to be careful.

Approaches beyond ‘solutionism’:

  1. Syncretism: cobbling together, where you can see the component parts. In libraries, users already have a fully formed set of practices. They’ll make room for new ones if they’re useful. We should expect to be taught by them, as we teach them, what libraries mean for them.
  2. Decolonisation – listen to users, make space so the definition of what a library is emerges from the community. (cf Linda Tuhiwai-Smith’s “Decolonising Methodologies”)
  3. Community – not just responsible to users but to the whole community. (Public libraries are good at this.) Anthropological approaches can help if moving away from colonialism.

“Trying to predict the future is a really neat way of avoiding talking about the present.”

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