The Power and Perils of Participant Observation in LIS Research: Reflections on Three South African Studies
The paper reports on three participant observation studies that I have conducted in schools and libraries from the late 1990s. My focus is not on their findings, which have been reported on elsewhere, but on their methodologies. Their common thread is my interest in the role of libraries, school and public, in the information literacy education of school learners. Audits of school facilities have quantified the dire lack of resources and libraries in our schools. My purpose has been to provide evidence from the ground of the impact of their neglect. The first study set out to explore how teachers in an under-resourced primary school in Cape Town were coping with the demands of the new resource-thirsty curriculum. The second study took place several years later in two public libraries in a small rural town with seven local schools, none with a library. The third study in 2015 was of a library in a high school in a township in Cape Town, which is part of a NPO‟s project for young unemployed school leavers to manage school libraries. Participant observation is rather rare in the LIS research literature and my aim is to demonstrate its power to dig beneath the surface. I also argue that it brings certain risks, practical and ethical.