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Studying Students across Borders: An Ethnographic Study of Research Behavior

A. Click, M. Stöpel, M. T. Alam, S. Kreidieh, D. Flanagan, N. F. Foster, K. Ray


Librarians often feel that we understand the needs of our undergraduate users. Isn’t it possible, however, that we make incorrect assumptions based on our perception of these learners? In 2009, representatives from four American style universities, the American University in Cairo, the American University of Sharjah, the Lebanese-American University, and the American University of Paris, conducted an ethnographic study on their respective campuses. These librarians undertook the project in order to learn more about how students use library and campus spaces for learning, and how they conduct academic research. For the mapping study, students marked a campus map as they moved throughout a typical class day, and then explained their movements in an interview with a librarian. In the photograph study, students responded to a series of prompts by taking a series of photographs and then described the significance of each in a follow-up interview. Librarians assessed the data and identified assumptions, surprises, and overall themes. Each library then developed action plans to address the needs of the users, and to make necessary changes. The study demonstrates the usefulness of ethnographic research in developing library policies and services. It also identified the differences and commonalities between individual students, and the specific cultures in which they are situated, both academically and socially.

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