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The Power and Perils of Participant Observation in Library and Information Science Research: Reflections on Three South African Studies

Genevieve Hart


This article reports on three participant observation studies conducted in schools and libraries in South Africa, between 1999 and 2015. The study findings have been reported on elsewhere, thus the focus is on the methodologies used, with the common thread being the author’s preoccupation with the information literacy education of South African pupils. The author’s purpose was to provide evidence of the impact of the dire lack of resources and libraries at South African schools. The first study in 1999 explored how teachers at an under-resourced primary school in Cape Town, Western Cape, were coping with the demands of the new curriculum. The second study in 2006 examined two public libraries in a rural town in Mpumalanga, with seven local schools, but no school libraries. The third study in 2015 involved the library at a high school in Kayelitsha township outside Cape Town, which is part of a non-governmental organisation (NGO) project to employ school leavers to manage school libraries. Participant observation is rare in the Library and Information Science (LIS) research literature and the author’s aim is to demonstrate its power to dig beneath the surface. The article uncovers the complex relations and tacit beliefs that existed at the three research sites, which are probably at play in other contexts and which have to be taken into account in planning effective programmes in South African schools and libraries. The article also acknowledges the ethical challenges, arguably inherent in participant observation, which relate to the often sensitive relations among participants, and to the researcher’s positioning.


Research methodologies; School libraries; Public libraries; South Africa; Participant observation; Ethnography

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