Non-Academic Research Statement
A hobby is an activity done regularly during leisure time for pleasure. Popular hobbies in Canada are sports such as hockey or soccer, and handicrafts like knitting or photography. The typical Canadian spends about an hour per day on a hobby. Anyone who has practiced a hobby can attest it involves learning and often leads to considerable expertise. To this end, a large percentage of public library and Internet traffic is motivated by hobbies. At the Faculty of Information, University of Toronto, my research explores the nature of information within all forms of leisure, and specifically hobbies. I aim to understand how people seek, use, and manage hobby-related information in their lives and the role played by information institutions such as the public library and the Internet.
My first original research in this vein was about my own favorite hobby at the time, gourmet cooking. Equipped with a digital tape recorder and camera, I went into the homes of zealous gourmets to record stories of culinary learning and to examine cookbook and recipe collections in their natural setting. Among other things, I discovered that information in this hobby can take the form of outings to markets or restaurants, trips overseas to sample foreign cuisines, and the taste or feel of food itself. Within households I witnessed sprawling personal culinary libraries (Hartel, 2010), that is, collections of cookbooks and recipes that accumulate over years, and that are lovingly maintained by the hobbyist for everyday use and for future generations. There remains much to explain about culinary information phenomena, including the increasingly significant role of online and multimedia resources in satisfying the hobbyist's appetite for information.
In the past year I have turned my attention to a different hobby, the liberal arts hobby (or LAH, for short). An LAH entails the systematic and fervent pursuit during free time of knowledge for its own sake (Stebbins, 1994). People engaged in an LAH are not academics or researchers per se, but citizens who relish the quest for a profound understanding of arts, sports, languages, cultures, histories, sciences, philosophies, literary traditions, or politics. This hobby attracts sometimes eccentric aficionados of quirky subjects such as an obscure historical figure, an ancient religion, or a particular baseball team, among innumerable possible topics. Liberal arts hobbyists are avid users of public information institutions such as libraries, archives, and museums, and are among the most active consumers and producers of content on the Internet. I speculate that many great Wikipedia pages are created by liberal arts hobbyists. They constitute an exceedingly interesting and important population for the information professions because they have turned the acquisition and expression of knowledge—usually seen as a problem or work-driven scenario—into a form of leisure.
Recently I conducted an interdisciplinary literature review to establish what is already known about the liberal arts hobby. For example, the field of education calls the same leisure activity an adult learning project (Tough, 1971), which is a mode of self-directed learning. My next step is to engage in original ethnographic research on liberal arts hobbyists in greater Toronto, using longitudinal interviews with enthusiasts, and then photographic inventories of their information collections. At the Faculty of Information my research and teaching are intertwined. I offer a 6-week workshop on LAHs in which graduate students working in teams conduct research on a local community of liberal arts hobbyists, such as the Town of York Historical Society which attracts local history buffs or the Toronto Entomologists Association where people curious about insects gather.
Understanding and appreciating information within leisure and hobbies helps the field of library and information science and the information professions to attain a more complete understanding of information in the human experience. Hobbies may reveal the characteristics of organic, flourishing information environments and the habits of effective information actors—proving a benchmark and target for information provision. Such foundational insights are valuable in their own right, and have practical applications in an Information Age in which people increasingly gain meaning from leisure and hobby pursuits.
Hartel, J. (2010). Managing documents at home for serious leisure: A case study of the hobby of gourmet cooking. Journal of Documentation, 66(6), 847-874.
Stebbins, R. A. (1994). The liberal arts hobbies: A neglected subtype of serious leisure. Loisir et Société/Society and Leisure, 16, 173-186.
Tough, A. (1971). The Adult’s learning projects. Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.