Library UX Reading Reflection, Week 8

Anthropology Inc.

Graeme Wood’s “Anthropology Inc.” for The Atlantic was a stimulating introduction to the practice of corporations like Coca Cola and Pernod Ricard USA  to hire ReD, a research firm that specializes in field studies, to get qualitative data so they can understand consumers better. My former ad agency, DDB was doing this in the 1980s and I imagine its competitors were too. I’m not sure of the academic qualifications of all our researchers, but I found their presentations on topics like children’s opinions of their closets’ contents and conditions to be fascinating. 

When Wood described the home party in the beginning of the article, I immediately wondered about the ethics. How would I feel about being studied at a party so that I might buy more Absolut vodka? How would the guests feel after reading this article? Not only were they studied, the party was then reported so there’s a double lens through which the party and drinking behavior was recorded. It’s both interesting and creepy.

I felt conflicted about the process. On the one hand, I love discovering new insights and would find this work fascinating. On the other, I value privacy and feel our world is getting more and more like the setting of the novel WE, a futuristic world where all rooms and buildings have windows for walls. I agree with the academics who point out that without a code of ethics research can be harmful. It can also be flawed as Heisenburg’s Uncertainty Principle tells us that when behavior is observed, it’s different.

ReD’s six hour long interviews sound like an endurance test, as well as a major imposition. Most participants will opt out of such a long interview so I wonder if the subjects who agree are representative. I would hope that those commissioning the research would take the results with a grain of salt.

The parts of the article that described Chinese group-orientation was half-right. Yes, Chinese person’s and other Asians’ circle of concern is wider than the stereotypical Westerner’s, but it isn’t all-encompassing. There’s a bright, sharp boundary. Most observers would note that Chinese people tend to think in terms of their in-group rather than their individual self. An “outsider” is not someone whose welfare is important, whereas though Western consumers may emphasize self, communal generosity or justice is a value. So the anthropologists who note this communal/individual dichotomy aren’t engaged in good scientific observation. Wood’s article would have been stronger had he mentioned this shortcoming. Since The Atlantic frequently features perceptive reporting on China, I’d expect its writers not to write from inside a silo.

I wish Wood had included some information answering the question of “To what extent do today’s cultural anthropologists exoticize their  subjects?” There seems to be an inherent trap of dramatizing their findings or emphasizing the behaviors that seem different. A mixture of P.T. Barnham’s “Give the people, (e.g. client) what they want” and the practice of “orientalizing” behavior so the client feels they’ve paid for treasure rather than the expected. Wood was a bit guilty of hyping his article in this way as his examples of the Orthodox Jewish subject and the lesbian drinking party are more exotic than a mundane middle class family of four. While all groups should be studied, the way the findings are delivered should not be fashioned to dazzle or entertain the client. We all should be leery of how and what Madison Avenue presents to us. I think Wood should have been a bit more skeptical than he was.

An interesting read, “Anthropology, Inc.” calls attention to the business world’s growing use of social science to understand and market to consumers.

Getting to Know Your Patrons

“Getting to Know Your Patrons” provides methods and rationale for conducting field research or contextual research even in libraries with small staffs and limited resources. After reading about PhDs who conduct qualitative behavioral research, it was freeing to understand that doesn’t need the academic expertise ReD’s researchers have, to conduct a study that yields important insights.

Smaller libraries may think they must forego such significant work since they don’t have a dedicated staff that specializes in UX. That’s not the case. By organizing staff to do short observations and showing the sort  of descriptions that are useful, this article prepared me to do my first contextual inquiry.


Schmidt, A. (2011, June 1). Getting to Know Your Patrons. Library Journal, Retrieved from

Wood, G. (2013, March). Anthropology Inc. The Atlantic, Retrieved from


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The Harbor


Ernest Poole‘s The Harbor is tied for the most exciting book I’ve read this year (with The Count of Monte Cristo). Written in 1915, The Harbor tells the story of New York’s harbor from the late 19th century till WWI through the eyes of Bill, whose father has a lucrative business. The Harbor gripped me from page one when seven year old Bill shares how he hates the harbor. Though crude to a sheltered rich boy, this harbor is filled with sailing ships, exotic foreigners, spices, silks, and riches. Yeah, there’s plenty of spitting and cursing and the odd fist fight as Bill learns when he meets a Dickensian boy, Sam who’s something of a “harbor-urchin” leading a back of wildish boys who scare and fascinate Bill. He’s never the same after meeting Sam. The rich kids in their starched shirts with their gentle games lose whatever charm they had.

We follow Bill from his often adventurous childhood through college when he meets Joe Kramer, a worldly politically active man, whose family became destitute after his father unknowingly gave tainted medicine to children with small pox. Though the fault was with the drug company, Dr. Kramer and his family were driven out of town and had to move from town to town as rumors caught them. Joe is full of the straight dope. He sees through society’s shams and thinks most of college is a “tour through the graveyard.” Joe comes and goes always making Bill and his sister Sue question their views and life.

The Harbor has the tone of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, that vivid, robust tone from the turn of the century. Poole’s not as polemic or biased as Upton Sinclair (whom I do like). The middle class and upper class views are presented honestly. It was amazing and sad to see how work and life on the harbor got harder when sailing ships were replaced by bigger steel ships.

Poole was the first writer to get a Pulitzer Prize, which he got for his second novel, The Family. From what I’ve read The Harbor‘s the better book and the new prize wanted the author of The Harbor to get credit for the fine writing in that book.

I’ve got that joy of discovering a new favorite writer whose every book I want to read. I’ll get to The Family after I finish his Giants Gone about “the men who made Chicago,” which I’m getting from the library this morning.

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Posted by on July 11, 2014 in American Lit, classic


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Images of America: Chicago’s Gold Coast

When I picked this up at the library I didn’t catch the smaller type: Images of America. So I thought there would be more text about Chicago’s Gold Coast. Once I figured out the subject of this book I appreciated the wide selection of old photos of grand houses in this Chicago district. Images of America: Chicago’s Gold Coast upped my understanding of how the city looked in the late 19th century and beyond.

Here’s a few of the homes featured.

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Posted by on July 10, 2014 in history, non-fiction


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Chicago History Museum, Service Safari

Today I went to the Chicago Historical Museum to do some research for a writing project I’ve started. It’s a historical

Chicago Historical Museum Research center

  • What was my goal  and was it met? My goal was to get some primary sources on the 1870’s in Chicago to find out about how
  • What was good about the service? The librarian was very approachable and helpful. She showed interest in my search and checked on my progress and offered new ideas as I worked.
  • What detracted from the experience? I had no complaints.
  • With whom did you interact? I spoke with a friendly reference librarian and I suppose an intern who brought the items I needed. You have to show a membership card or give the librarian the entrance ticket ($10) when you arrive.
  • Were you confused at any time during the experience? I had to use a microfiche machine, which I hadn’t used since probably high school. The librarian gladly showed me how, but all the different knobs are hard to get straight right off the bat.
  • Describe the physical space. The reference desk is near the entrance. In the main room there were several long tables with slips for patrons to fill out to request items. Along one side of the room are books on shelves and the opposite wall has several computers and microfiche machines.  Beyond the tables is an area with lots of old maps on tables.

When I went, I didn’t know what to expect in terms of the scope of their collection or what would help me. I want to also try the Chicago Public Library, if non-residents can, and the Newberry Library so I wasn’t sure that I’d be back so I didn’t purchase a membership. Now I think I’ll go back perhaps weekly and hope to take one of their walking tours. So I will get a membership.  Going to one of these special libraries is kind of cool, but also a little intimidating at first. You can’t bring in any bags, pens, food or drink. You’re not supposed to bring in cameras, but one woman was snapping photos of documents with a camera. That was pretty obvious since her camera clicked loudly. I guessed she must have had permission.

You can just bring in a pencil and/or a laptop computer.

They’re only open in the afternoon. I did find out quite a bit from their history magazine about servants in that era. I went perused several weeks of the Chicago Times, a now defunct paper on microfiche. Best of all I got to go through Mrs. George Pullman’s diaries and address books of the time.

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Posted by on July 9, 2014 in book lovers, historical fiction


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For Milosz’s Birthday, a Poem




The history of my stupidity would fill many volumes.
Some would be devoted to acting against consciousness,
Like the flight of a moth which, had it known,
Would have tended nevertheless toward the candle’s flame.
Others would deal with ways to silence anxiety,
The little whisper which, though it is a warning, is ignored.
I would deal separately with satisfaction and pride,
The time when I was among their adherents
Who strut victoriously, unsuspecting.
But all of them would have one subject, desire,
If only my own—but no, not at all; alas,
I was driven because I wanted to be like others.
I was afraid of what was wild and indecent in me.
The history of my stupidity will not be written.
For one thing, it’s late. And the truth is laborious.
Berkeley, 1980.
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Posted by on June 30, 2014 in poetry


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Non-Critical Thinking in China

February 24, 2014

Justin Renteria for The Chronicle Review

By Jennifer Ruth

It’s late October at a Chinese university in Fujian province, and I’m sitting in a large, chilly classroom. The class is “Introduction to Critical Thinking,” and the topic is credibility in journalism. Using a microphone to compete with an industrial-size heater belching tepid air, the instructor asks 60 Chinese undergraduates, “Do you believe what you read in the newspaper?”

The Chinese Service Center for Scholarly Exchange flew me over as a “foreign expert” to evaluate a pilot program in general education. I am to observe a class, talk with faculty and students, review course materials, and report my impressions. The invitation and the very name of the class are signs that times have changed, or so I think. Gone are the Maoist days when swaths of the past were off limits, or when student monitors reported their professors’ and peers’ politically incorrect remarks to Communist Party secretaries. Gone are the days when “critical thinking” meant only bashing the United States.

The scholarly-exchange center started the program three years ago, when Wen Jiabao was still premier. “Students don’t only need knowledge; they have to learn how to act, to use their brains,” he once said. The consensus among many commentators in both China and the United States is that China’s educational system creates skilled but unimaginative students.

So do the Chinese students in “Introduction to Critical Thinking” believe what they read in newspapers? I never heard an answer.

At the outset of the discussion, a young man raised his hand and mentioned People’s Daily, but the instructor firmly directed the students to American newspapers. “Since our textbook focuses on America, let’s stick with American examples,” he said. Straying from the assigned material is considered bad teaching.

Few students had traveled to the United States or consumed American-produced news. Less sophisticated than their peers in Beijing and Shanghai, they were unfamiliar with The New York Times, the primary example used in the lecture. (The irony that The New York Times is periodically blocked in China was not discussed.) The lecture focused on corporate and business influence on Western journalism. When a few conglomerates own the news, how much independence does it really have?

This is a daunting enough question in the West, but it was totally lost on these Chinese freshmen and sophomores, most of whom responded with blank looks, while a few seemed merely baffled. I felt frustrated. More pertinent would have been an analysis of political pressure on the press. It seemed odd that no one in the class mentioned politics—as if money were the only thing to ever compromise objectivity—even though I knew that the party tells Chinese news media what they can and cannot cover, that it imprisons journalists who report on sensitive topics, and that it hires tens of thousands of Internet scrubbers.

When I talked with the instructor afterward—a Polish man with a Ph.D. in philosophy—he agreed with me. “But I can’t talk about the Chinese situation,” he said. “Were you told you couldn’t?” I asked. “No, but I know.”

He had taught in China before earning his Ph.D. in Europe and was back, after a year or two of failed job searches. “I don’t want to get the students in trouble,” he said. “What if one of them says something that causes trouble for them later?” We were laughing, but in that bitter, rueful way, as we acknowledged the irony of a critical-thinking instructor feeling that he must avoid fostering critical thought. “Mei banfa,” he said, using the phrase Chinese often use to express helplessness, as in “What choice do I have?”

Later that day, I was asked to give verbal feedback to the scholarly exchange center’s staff and the university’s administrators and faculty. “The textbook is too focused on America,” I said. “You’ve got to get the students talking about things that are real to them. People’s Daily is real; The New York Times isn’t.”

I told them my concerns about their written work. The final essay assignment asked the students to: “Make an argument that either: (a) Everyone should be forced to exercise; or (b) TV should be abolished.” The results were moralistic essays comfortable with the idea that one authority should force everyone to do, or not do, something for their own good. For a class intended to teach students to think for themselves, I explained, this assignment is a kind of contradiction because it presumes that most people cannot think for themselves.

Nobody responded. One of the center’s leaders finally said, “Let’s skip this.” I’d given them what they’d asked for—my honest opinion—but the vibe in the room indicated that I’d done something wrong. I felt a kind of fight-or-flight panic coming on but managed to stay quiet. I reminded myself that I shouldn’t be surprised if everyone looked uncomfortable. Hadn’t I essentially called their class a farce, a kind of cruel joke? But what was I supposed to do?

After more silence, a man I’ll call Professor X—a Chinese professor evaluating a science class—asked if he might say something. I relaxed, sure that he was about to support my points. “I disagree with Jennifer,” he said, turning his body away from me and the exchange-center staff to speak directly to the administrators and faculty: “Do not have the students talk about their own lives or China. That might cause trouble. I want you to be able to continue to develop this class.”

Wen Jiabao might believe that greater political and educational freedoms are needed for China to continue its astonishing ascent, but apparently President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, the current leaders, do not. They are attempting, according to the journalist Chris Buckley, “to carry out market-driven economic overhauls while reinforcing the Communist Party’s pillars of political and ideological control.”

Can a state fully liberalize the market without liberalizing society? History has not issued any definite conclusions. Economic growth without political and intellectual freedom worked so well in East Germany for a spell that in 1970 Hannah Arendt wondered in an interview if “people there … will live just as well and eventually even better than those in West Germany.” What if China’s authoritarian capitalism, Slavoj Žižek has asked, “shows that democracy, as we understand it, is no longer the condition and engine of economic development, but its obstacle?”

Xi’s strategy could succeed, at least long enough for several more generations to go through life muzzled.

Before I returned home, I had lunch with Professor X in Beijing. He apologized for disagreeing with me but said that he felt he had to. “That class is a baby step. You must encourage the baby steps,” he said. He hoped the students might apply the concepts learned with American examples to China.

But wouldn’t that require them to have understood the concepts in the first place? I asked. He conceded this, smiling. As we walked out of the restaurant, he told me that his father, a high-ranking party official, had said before he died that he wanted to live long enough to see Chinese Communism fall.

Arendt said that if East Germany caught up with West Germany economically, the only difference would be that “in one country people can say, and within limits, also do what they like and in the other they cannot.” She added, “Believe me, that makes an enormous difference to everyone.”

Professor X and I continue to correspond by email. He shares all of my concerns and none of my cynicism. He is optimistic that change will come, but he believes it will come from the party’s leadership, not its downfall. “In 120 years, there have been several changes in Chinese history,” he wrote me recently. “We may wait and see.”

Jennifer Ruth is an associate professor of English at Portland State University.

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Posted by on June 28, 2014 in essay


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Word of the Week

parvanimity, n.
[‘ Smallness of mind, meanness; an example of this. Also: a small-minded person.’]
Pronunciation: Brit. /ˌpɑːvəˈnɪmɪtɪ/, U.S. /ˌpɑrvəˈnɪmᵻdi/
Etymology: < classical Latin parvus small (see parvi- comb. form) + animus mind (see animus n.) + -ity suffix, probably formed as an antonym of magnanimity n. (compare quot. 1829 at main sense).
Now rare. Smallness of mind, meanness; an example of this. Also: a small-minded person.a1691 R. Boyle Free Disc. against Swearing Plea xiii, They will justly esteem your parvanimity so great that you deserve derision.
1829 Edinb. Lit. Gaz. July 131/2 The meanness and parvanimity of Bonaparte. [Note] I coin this word parvanimity as an adequate antithesis to magnanimity.
1840 Tait’s Edinb. Mag. 7 37 Memorably connected with the parvanimities of the English government at one period.
1873 F. Hall Mod. Eng. 33 (note) Persons..of the class of hopeless parvanimities of the true insular stamp.
1950 Social Forces 29 202/2 Shall we prefer parvanimity?

parvˈanimous adj. small-minded.1819 Examiner 14 Nov. 731/2 We mean..any parvanimous great man, who would fain revenge his slavery at home by lording it out of doors.
1855 L. Hunt Let. 26 July (1862) II. 204 What I partly did myself, half for the reasons above mentioned, and half perhaps out of a sort of parvanimous wish not to assist the critics.
1945 Amer. Hist. Rev. 50 286 The conduct of most of the Republicans respecting the Treaty been discouragingly parvanimous.

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Posted by on June 19, 2014 in Uncategorized


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