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December 05, 2012

Nancy Fried Foster honored for research on library culture

woman in library

For nearly a decade Nancy Fried Foster’s anthropological studies of library culture have helped the University and other institutions in the United States and abroad better understand and serve their library patrons. In recognition of her innovative methods and influence, Foster will receive the Martin E. Messinger Libraries Recognition Award for 2012. The annual award, created and funded by University life trustee Martin Messinger ’49 in 2007.

“Because of Nancy, librarians have a deeper understanding of how students and faculty think about and do their academic work and how they want to use the library,” says longtime colleague Judi Briden, digital librarian for public services. That knowledge, Briden says, has “become part of our culture.”

Those contributions and her service to librarians and patrons alike are “above and beyond what is expected of libraries staff,” adds Mary Ann Mavrinac, vice provost and the Andrew H. and Janet Dayton Neilly Dean of River Campus Libraries.

As director of anthropological research for River Campus Libraries, Foster has focused on how people use the library and perform research. She is particularly interested in how patrons use information technology both in and out of the library. In 2005, Foster helped to establish UR Research, a customized online repository that allows faculty members, researchers, and graduate students to create personalized researcher pages and post work online. Foster also is part of the leadership team for Rochester’s eXtensible catalogue, an open source, user-centered software that connects library users to greater resources.

Foster’s application of ethnographic tools to study how students access information at the library led to the 2007 book Studying Students: The Undergraduate Research Project at the University of Rochester, coedited by former Rochester library dean Susan Gibbons. The book has become a bestseller in the library world and more than 40 university libraries in the United States, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East have adopted the research methods outlined in the book.

“Even though librarians have a lot of contact with students, they often don’t have the kind of very fine-grained and specific information that we were able to collect,” says Foster, who was the first library staff member to be employed as an anthropologist. “The library here took a chance on bringing an anthropologist in. No one else has ever done it. They gave me the best professional opportunity I’ve ever had in my life and that makes my heart sing.”

Foster has been invited to share these methods with other institutions through workshop and talks. Recently, she traveled to Prague, Beirut, and Dubai to give workshops on participatory design of software and spaces for the Council on Library and Information Resources and the American International Consortium of Academic Libraries. In participatory design, designers, developers, and users collaborate from the earliest stages of conception through to the implementation of websites and other technology.

The annual Messinger Award honors contributions that advance the educational mission of the library or the library profession. Previous awardees include Judi Briden, digital librarian for public services (2011); Cynthia Carlton, department head for River Campus Libraries Applications Group (2010); and Ann Marshall, subject librarian for political science (2009).

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