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What's a Library For? ARCLIB Conference 2014 Beautiful Libraries

Published on Nov 18, 2015

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What's a library for?

Finding out how libraries are used
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How do you think libraries should be used?

We all have preconceptions about the use of libraries, whether that's from work experience or from personal use. We all have ideas of what is supposed to be the 'right' use. From the first time we are introduced to the school library, or we go to the public library as small children and are told to be quiet by our parents, we develop ways of seeing them that can follow us well into the future.

Design of libraries and the technology they house is changing that a little, by developing new, more engaging environments that support a variety of uses.

People are using libraries in ways we don't always perceive as 'normal'...


The traditional library environment is the one that will probably spring to mind when most of us here think about libraries.

Books piled or opened everywhere, heads down to read under a desk lamp for solo work, wooden tables, echoing high ceilings.


In contrast to the traditional, modern libraries are being built for collaboration, for comfort, for a wide variety of uses. The environment is more about the 'customer' which is a terrible way to refer to library users, but summarises that sense of being for the benefit of each individual visitor, no matter what their intended use is.

During our pilot study, some 33 different kinds of activity were observed. Of these, 22 suggested distraction or relaxation, with some students endlessly checking their watches as if they were about to leave, others chatting continually with their neighbours or getting more involved in what their friends were doing than in their own work.

Here's a quote from some research in university library use.

Sound familiar? Anyone want to take a guess at the source of this?

Bourdieu and de Saint Martin

It's familiar behaviour to a lot of us because some behaviours never really change. However, we seem to see them as new behaviours as we modify our libraries.


So maybe we will start to think of libraries as less like this...
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OR shhhhhh?

And more like this.

Libraries often communicate a very religious atmosphere, no matter whether they are traditional or modern. There's that sense of need to be silent for many, but there's a growing number of people who use academic libraries with little prior library experience, and don't make the connections many of us had as children with that concept of library as holy. We end up with some level of conflict between use because of lack of experience meeting the messages of the design.

And seriously, why else would we have comfy sofas in libraries if not to provide napping spots?
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Martyrs in the church of studying

Just a quick poll - how many librarians here have a policy that allows food and drink in their libraries? To what extent?

So we have 24 hour opening in most academic libraries, but many libraries don't want people to eat or drink while they visit?

Public libraries like Birmingham are providing vending machines for their visitors...

With extended opening hours, we are encouraging our visitors to spend a huge amount of time in our buildings, but with limited opportunities to take breaks. They could pack up and leave, but when they have a deadline, they'll put in all the hours they can, and we encourage them to do that, but discourage them from making sure they can sustain themselves throughout that period.
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Home from home

We are creating spaces that are an extension of people's homes. They want to nap, eat and drink, and sing whilst listening to their own music (via headphones). The library is no longer a church for studying, it is an environment that mirrors what people have at home, or can't get at home.

But I think we forget that we are providing that kind of space with new designs. We shouldn't be surprised that people visit our libraries and want to use them in lots of different kinds of ways. And we are missing lots of usage patterns as most of us don't use the library. We create spaces, but often don't know how they are used, and whether our policies work with or against what they tell library users.
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Behaviour might not change, but culture and technology does
Behaviour itself doesn't always change, but culture and technology does, and that means that behaviours and reactions to the environment can modify to reflect how library provisions are changed.

So if we compare our library users to what Bourdieu saw: students might not look at their watches all the time while studying, but they'll, check the time on their phones or computers, they'll find ways to take a break online, and won't always be as overtly clock watching. And something he doesn't seem to consider in detail is that the chat between students is something that could work as stress relief, generate working partnerships, or actually produce a learning outcome later. Collaboration is important, whether it's used to produce a piece of work or to develop a support network to discuss problems encountered, or as a social activity.

Many library users might not ask staff questions, but they'll find ways to answer their questions themselves by Googling or asking their friends via Facebook or by texting. All of these actions can be construed as wrong, or strange to us, but we don't always know the difference between socialising, and seeking out help.

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There's an old (2008) quote from a library conference panel that Joyce Valenza discussed - libraries shouldn't be grocery stores, they should be kitchens. Libraries should be the place people can start to put their research ingredients together, but those ingredients include a lot of items we don't realise contribute to the final product. Valenza talked about how the library should also be a dining room and a family room, so that they allow people to gather and share what they are working on, and we've put the spaces in to allow that kind of action, without remembering that there are other actions connected with that environment and collaborative style that appear to be 'wrong' use but may well help productivity.
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What to do?

How do we find out about use and learn to respond?
If we want to support our library users and provide an environment that benefits as many people as possible, we need to get into our libraries and study how they use the spaces.

There's a few ways we can do that.

1 2 3 4 :-) :-| :-(

We can ask our visitors to fill in surveys and give us numeric data, or smiley and sad faces, and this might give us some information on some things. They can tell us if they use the library, about their favourite spot in the building, whether there are enough books or computers... We might even be able to get answers about what students use Facebook for.

Surveys are great for finding out whether you need to buy more chairs or get more staff

BUT they don't tell us much about what actually happens beyond the surface.
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Real answers?

When you look at how you yourself respond to surveys, what do you do? Do you find yourself rushing through the form to be able to go and do other things?

Surveying people might get some useful information, but sometimes, when you ask people for an honest answer about what they do in the library, they won't necessarily give it to you.

They will sometimes just tick boxes in a single column to get out of there as fast as they can, or they might hide what they really do knowing it doesn't conform to library policy. Or you might get someone who has had a terrible day, and that skews how they answer the questions that day.

And sometimes they don't even realise what they are doing when they are using the library - it's common behaviour that they know about, and assume we do too, or it's something they aren't even aware they are doing.

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So what else can you do?

There's a growing field in the UK of conducting ethnographic based research in libraries. The US is way ahead of us, but we are starting to catch up.

Joanna Bryant conducted observations at Loughborough for her library Masters dissertation.

UCL have collaborated with Donna Lanclos, a US library anthropologist, to learn about how their libraries are used.

LSE have appointed an anthropologist to research library use.

Cambridge have a user experience librarian, and are currently working with a service designer who uses human-centred design to develop a new library.

So what does using ethnographic methods involve, and how can we learn from them?
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If you can get ethical approval, observation is an important way of learning about what happens in libraries.

A key thing is to remember that you aren't there to judge what happens, but to learn, and find out. You might see what you already know happens, in which case, you have data to confirm it. You might also see something you had no idea was happening, and you can try and learn more about whether it is common or a freak occurrence. Everything I talked about earlier I have seen happen in libraries (and that's a plural - they are common). There's lots more, and much of it I wouldn't have known without going out observing. And sometimes, you see things where you have no idea what is happening, but you can take note of these to try and learn about them.

There are tons of things that happen in our spaces that we don't know about until we go out there and look.

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Talk to your library users. Ask them to come for an interview to talk about what they do in the library, what works and what doesn't work. Give them examples of what you've seen, and ask if that's normal, how they'd react.

Interviewing in an ethnographic way means you need to be pretty open with your questioning, and work hard not to prompt too much to lead interviewees into an answer, but establishing rapport with them can lead to all kinds of new information.

Katie Fraser has used (at Sheffield Information Commons), and Cambridge are using, tours as part of their interview process. Take a library user, or nonuser, around the building, talk to them about how the spaces make them feel, how they work or don't work.
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Cognitive mapping has been used successfully in the US in the ERIAL project, and by Donna Lanclos at UCC Atkins. In the UK, Meg Westbury has been using it to learn about the use of library spaces at Cambridge.

Give someone a piece of paper with a question on it, three different coloured pens, and ask them to map out their answer to the question for six minutes They need to change the colour of their pen every two minutes so you can see what they draw first. Then ask them to label up what the map shows, and for more information about everything they have.

It isn't a new technique, but it's new to libraries, and has so far proven to be highly illuminating for something that takes comparatively little time.

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Leaving flipcharts around the library are a simple, cheap and easy way to get feedback from your users too. Naturally it isn't as extensive as some other methods, but if you are short on time and money, you can learn a lot from them.

Write a question at the top, leave it in an area you want to learn more about, and get feedback that is often more honest than a survey. It's done on the visitor's own time and motivation, with some level of privacy from staff, so you can use it to ask key questions and about services.

Be aware the kind of question you ask might mean you will get LOTS of different answers, or might just end up with yes or no answers, so think carefully about what you want.

Then what?

Using ethnographic methods isn't the easy option, depending on how you do it, it could be expensive. You can do some things yourself, or you can hire an anthropologist or design expert to conduct the research on your behalf. Either way it can be quite complex, especially when it comes to how you interpret the data you collect, but it is IMPORTANT data. Utilising that data can save you money by preventing you make unsuitable design choices, or increasing staff to police and preserve policy that doesn't work.

What you do with the data is up to you, but I'd personally suggest that you don't try to fight everything you don't like about library use. We need to think more about what suits our users than what suits us. Library visitors are PAYING for services and provisions, library staff are PAID to be there. We should be working with our users as best we can to build environments that are supportive to their needs. We need to look at providing as broad a base as possible, and while we can't make all things work for all people, we can use data to provide the best we can.
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Any questions?


Bourdieu, P., & de Saint Martin, M. (1994). The Users of Lille University Library. In P. Bourdieu, J.-C. Passeron, & M. de Saint Martin (Eds.), Academic Discourse: Linguistic Misunderstanding and Professorial Power. (pp. 122–133). Cambridge: Polity Press.

Bryant, J (2009) "What are students doing in our library? Ethnography as a method of exploring library user behaviour" Library and Information Research, 33 (103)

Fraser, K (2009) Investigating how the Theory of Change approach can inform the evaluation of a learning space: Sheffield University’s Information Commons

Donna Lanclos’ cognitive map:

Joyce Veranza discussing libraries as kitchens: