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«The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at JDOC Purls of wisdom 63,1 A collectivist ...»

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The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at



Purls of wisdom


A collectivist study of human information

behaviour in a public library knitting group

90 Elena Prigoda

Gerstein Science Information Centre, University of Toronto,

Toronto, Canada, and

Pamela J. McKenzie

Faculty of Information and Media Studies, The University of Western Ontario, London, Canada Abstract Purpose – The authors aim to apply a collectivist theoretical framework to the study of human information behaviour and the construction of meaning in a knitting group held in a branch of a large Canadian (Ontario) public library.

Design/methodology/approach – The research design was naturalistic and consisted of active participant observation of five knitting group sessions and semi-structured interviews with 12 group members. Field notes were taken, and both observations and interviews were audio taped and transcribed. Field notes and transcripts were coded qualitatively.

Findings – Information practices and contextual factors are mutually constitutive. The location of the circle in a public library, the physical characteristics of the act of knitting, and the social meanings of the activities taking place within the group, including the significance of gender and caring, are integrally linked to HIB in this setting. Findings are described verbally and illustrated through a model.

Research limitations/implications – This study applies collectivist understandings to enrich concepts such as the “information ground” that have previously been studied largely from constructivist perspectives. As a small-scale naturalistic study, results are context-specific and must

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Introduction This article considers human information behaviour (HIB) and the construction of meaning in a knitting group held in a neighbourhood branch of a Canadian public library. Group participation can be seen both to fill information gaps and to fulfil participants’ need to socialise, form a caring community, and participate in craft, and the knitting group is a site for collectivist information practices.

Journal of Documentation Vol. 63 No. 1, 2007 We understand HIB as taking place within a broader set of information practices, pp. 90-114 “linguistic and conversational constructions, [...] entities that are produced within q Emerald Group Publishing Limited 0022-0418 existing discourses” (Tuominen et al., 2002, p. 278). We therefore emphasise “the DOI 10.1108/00220410710723902 Purls of wisdom concrete and situated activities of interacting people, reproduced in routine social contexts across time and space” (Rosenbaum, 1993, p. 239) and we seek to understand HIB – “a broad term covering all aspects of information seeking, including passive or undetermined information behaviour” (Spink and Cole, 2004, p. 657; see also Case, 2002) – in relation to information practices situated within collective social practices.

Theoretically, this study builds on three bases. First, we contribute to the literature in everyday-life information seeking by taking a collectivist approach to addressing the social, cultural, and physical contexts of information practices in a group setting.

Second, we draw on the literature of leisure activity and, in particular, on studies of handcraft group involvement and the meaningful (and often gendered) communities they provide for members. Finally, we contribute to the discussion of the public library as a place and address the varied and sometimes unexpected ways that public libraries can contribute to HIB.

We will focus on the ways that a semi-private space created by a group of public library users becomes a discourse community and a site for information practices, and on the role of HIB in contributing to the caring atmosphere so valued by group participants. In this way we hope to achieve a greater understanding of both everyday-life information seeking and of the uses of public libraries as spaces.

Theoretical framework Human information behaviour has become an increasingly important research focus in LIS. HIB in everyday life has gained serious recognition since the work of Wilson (1981), who theorised about discovering information during the course of ordinary everyday activities, and Savolainen (1995), who coined the term everyday life information seeking, or ELIS. Since that time, ELIS has been studied in a variety of settings and from a number of theoretical perspectives.

A collectivist perspective understands information needs, seeking and use to be “a part of or embedded in a cultural, social, or organisational practice. Collectivist approaches question the validity of universalistic models and argue against studying ‘users in general’” (Talja, 2005, p. 86). Collectivist approaches move away from the perspective of an individual user within a context, “a monologic actor affected by environmental variables” (Talja, 2005, p. 86); instead, they “aim at capturing field differences in information practices and relevance criteria” (Talja, 2005, p. 88). In other words, collectivist approaches aim at understanding the ways that discourse communities collectively construct information needs, seeking, sources, and uses. The unit of analysis in collectivism is therefore the group rather than the individual, and “attention during the research process is focused externally onto the characteristics of the environment” (Hartel, 2003, p. 233).

The environment in our case is textile handwork – knitting – performed jointly by women in a Canadian public library branch. A brief introduction to each of these elements will contextualise the ways that participants in a specific local setting understand information needs, seeking, and use within a broader discourse community.

The environment: leisure and textile handwork Hartel (2003) argues that studies of everyday life information seeking have focused on “sombre” situations, such as those “in which access to information is perceived as JDOC compromised or there is a major life change like an illness” (Hartel, 2003, p. 229). She calls for scholarly consideration of the informational aspects of leisure activities, and 63,1 suggests a collectivist analysis using the work of Robert Stebbins as a starting point.

Hartel (2003) advocates the adoption by LIS scholars of Stebbins’ concept of serious leisure: “the systematic pursuit of an activity that is sufficiently substantial and interesting for the participant to find a career there in the acquisition and expression of 92 its special skills and knowledge” (Stebbins, 1992, p. 3). Stebbins distinguishes serious leisure from casual leisure, “activity that is done passively and requires no expertise, such as daydreaming, chatting with friends, or being a couch potato” (Hartel, 2003, p. 230).

Although Stebbins’ critique of dichotomous understandings of work and leisure is particularly useful to ELIS, his distinctions between work, serious leisure, and casual leisure may not be appropriate in all cases. Aitchison, (2003, p. 41) argues that defining

leisure in relation to full-time paid work:

[...] has traditionally meant defining leisure in relation to men’s work and therefore only offers a useful definition to a minority of women as the majority is not engaged in full-time paid work... Thinking of leisure as free time is also problematic for women whose freedom may be relative freedom dependent on the financial support of a male partner or free time constrained by the need to provide support and care for others.

Researchers are beginning to pay serious scholarly attention to hidden, unwaged, and often marginalised forms of work, particularly caring work, done in the course of what might be considered serious or casual leisure activities; for example, feeding the family (DeVault, 1991), engaging in small talk (Coates, 2000; Green, 1998; Tardy, 2000), or participating in crafts such as textile handwork (Schofield-Tomschin and Littrell, 2001;

Piercy and Cheek, 2004; Cerny et al., 1993).

Visser (1994, p. 13) observed that handwork in particular is marginalised:

[M]any people nowadays seem to think of “crafts” as an amusement for primary-school children, when it is not a therapeutic device or a harmless activity to while away the time. The word “crafts” has come to be used for hobbies, outlets for creativity. And crafts that are not done for money are by that very token, in the modern world, activities not to be taken seriously. Such crafts are practiced in merely free (that is not working, and not paid) time...

Where “craft” is used to denote skill expended on things handmade for normal, everyday use, the connotation can still be patronizing, for “art” (a term unquestionably of praise) has been reserved since the nineteenth century for things, chiefly painting and sculpture, made, not to be used, but only contemplated for their beauty; it also became a term for the skill required to make them.

Canadians have a long tradition of handcraft, including knitting, as both work and leisure (Scott, 1991), and knitters have ascribed many kinds of meaning to the activity.

Knitters who worked from home to provide garments for a non-profit distribution network claimed that they knit neither for the small income nor as a creative outlet.

Rather, they saw knitting as an activity that enabled them to avoid idle time, a means of occupying the mind to stave off worry or loneliness, a link with past and future generations, an appropriate demonstration of their competence as women and mothers, and a source of accomplishment and pride as they decoded a difficult pattern or finished a garment. A finished handwork project therefore serves as a physical Purls of wisdom manifestation of a knitter’s effort, talent, and productive use of time (Stalker and Harling, 2000).

Knitters also identified the practice of knitting as both a gendered occupation and a collective pursuit, whether undertaken alone or in the company of others (Macdonald, 1988). Knitters often create functional items for friends and family and there exists a long tradition of knitting for charity: during World War I, men and women alike knitted items such as socks and balaclavas for soldiers, and the Seamen’s Church Institute of New York and New Jersey provided sailors with sweaters, scarves, and watchcaps (Macdonald, 1988; Scott, 1991). Recently the “Afghans for Afghans” program (Afghans for Afghans, 2005) has sent many knitted blankets, some of which were collaborative efforts, to Afghanistan.

Although often practised alone, knitting is an activity increasingly undertaken by people in groups. The role of craft in creating communities and identity, especially among women, has attracted the attention of researchers in various disciplines. Textile guilds are fairly formal and organised, with regular meetings where members meet to work on and discuss current projects. Some guilds provide formal educational programs and workshops, and the combination of novice, experienced, and master crafters in the guild setting allows members both to participate in a leisure activity and to interact with and learn from others sharing a common interest in a craft. (See Schofield-Tomschin and Littrell, 2001; Piercy and Cheek, 2004; Cerny et al., 1993). A number of knitting guilds are active in Canada (Canadian Knitwear Designers and Artisans, 1998-2004).

The environment: joint engagement in activity There is a growing tradition in LIS research of studying the ways that “people find information unexpectedly as they engage in other activities” (Williamson, 1998, p. 24) such as reading newspapers (Savolainen, 1995), or chatting informally (Williamson, 1998). Research on information seeking (Foster, 2005) and information behaviour (Wilson, 1999) is increasingly taking this dimension into account as, for example, in Pettigrew’s (1999) and Brown’s (2001) studies of the exchange of human service information in seniors’ foot care clinics and beauty salons.

The concept of the “information ground” (“an environment temporarily created by the behaviour of people who have come together to perform a given task, but from which emerges a social atmosphere that fosters the spontaneous and serendipitous sharing of information.” (Pettigrew, 1999, p. 811; see also Fisher, 2006)) provides a starting point for a collectivist analysis. Collectivism can enrich the “information ground” concept by providing a deeper understanding of the nature of the other activities performed and of the cultural, social, or organisational practice of the discourse communities in which they are embedded.

Ethnographies of people’s activities in public and semipublic places (e.g. Wiseman, 1979; Kenen, 1982), have addressed the ways that groups of people come together collectively to understand and interact within a domain. For example, both a foot care clinic and a beauty salon could be conceptualized as close-contact service encounters (McCarthy, 2000); participants’ activities are performed in fairly intimate physical proximity in a room where other dyads are doing the same thing. McCarthy (2000) found that hairdressing salons provided an interactional environment in which casual conversation is facilitated (e.g. a fairly standard set of phases such as an initial JDOC discussion of how the hair is to be cut followed by hair washing and then cutting; and long periods of activities that create little background noise). However, “the field is 63,1 circumscribed by those topics relevant to the business at hand, and to topics that construct and reconstruct the satisfactory ongoing client-server relationship” (McCarthy, 2000, p. 96). Researchers in other hair salons found that both the patterns and the topics of conversation varied depending on the type and location of 94 the salon and its clientele, but few such studies of social interaction (see Tardy, 2000, for example) have addressed questions of interest to HIB researchers.

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