A summary of ‘Spaces, places and practices’

large_5896530863On 31 March 2014, I was fortunate to be invited to a seminar on anthropology in libraries called ‘Spaces, places and practices’. This seminar was a joint venture by UCL and IOE, with generous support from the UCL/IOE Ideas Incubator Fund.

In the morning, we heard from several speakers who discussed the work that they were doing in different libraries and using different methods. I took limited notes because I was listening so intently to what everyone was saying so I hope my write-up is at least a fairly accurate representation of what was discussed.  We hope to be able to present a more detailed picture of some of the content summarised below on this blog in due course, thereby covering anything that I’ve missed.

Lots of tweets came out of the seminar and I have collated them all as a Storify.

Ethnographic methods: a student perspective

First up was Bryony Ramsden from the University of Huddersfield who is currently conducting research for her PhD looking at academic library behaviour. Bryony spoke about lots of really interesting things, including the research methods she has used, such as seat counts and student diaries.

One thing that Bryony mentioned about using a diary method is to ensure that you communicate what is expected of participants and that you are comprehensive in your overall approach as this set-up stage can greatly affect the final results and data that you get.

Also highlighted was the issue of asking people what they are doing in the library space. They may well say one thing and actually do something entirely different. An example of this is when a student says they are researching a project, but that they are actually doing other things at the same time such as booking plane tickets on library PCs. This “other” activity is just as important to recognise as it shows the variety of ways that library resources and facilities can be used, especially with regards to social use and academic use, and everything in between.

In addition, the issue of over-reliance on survey data was mentioned. Survey results can tell us that people are unhappy with our services but not necessarily why or how we can fix the problem. What surveys don’t do is create the opportunity for conversations with users. Longitudinal studies are also really important as they allow for us to see how people use certain services over long periods of time.

Bryony spoke a lot about various uses of space and mentioned several aspects that I had not considered before. One use is how people can adjust the space to fit their needs. These can sometimes be small changes but they indicate bigger issues at play. Also, there are issues of equality/inequality with spaces. Are the spaces accessible for all, especially those with disabilities, or those of a certain gender identity or ethnicity?

One good example that Bryony mentioned was how lighting and layout of a space can really affect someone with autism, as can the very nature of physically accessing a space and finding that that isn’t as easy as initially thought. A lot of these challenges can be addressed by gathering information from users, having conversations, and observing how people interact with the space in question.

In addition, to adapting spaces as needed, the issue of library zoning was also raised as some zones are put into place without much thought going in to how each zone will interact with another (i.e. noise from a group space travelling into a quiet zone).

After some group discussion, it was also mentioned that once studies have been carried out, the data collected can be passed on to management but there is never really a guarantee that the recommendations and findings will be implemented. One suggestion for representing findings appropriately was to offer snapshot examples that break down the data into something understandable and hopefully contextualising real change potential.

Bryony summarised with the statement that “everyone has a story to tell”…and we should be listening!

LSE Library Ethnography Project

Following on from Bryony were Martin Reid and Anna Tuckett from the LSE Library Ethnography Project. A really big theme of this section were the issues surrounding making judgements without having any evidence to go on, which is where gathering “thick” ethnographic data comes into play.

Anna Tuckett spoke about the different methodologies that she has used in her work, many of which I could see being easily applied to almost any library environment. They were:


  • “Sweeping” (Given & Leckie 2003)
  • Looking at the space & time of an area, as well as the atmosphere (are people looking at you as you pass by their workspaces etc.?)

Informal interviews

  • Conducted in foyer area of the library (snack area)
  • Interviews build on observational data
  • Observations feed into semi-structured interview questions
  • Potential for recruitment for future studies

Mapping diaries

  • Help understand how people are using library spaces: where they are working and what they are doing
  • Diaries allow for more reflective interviewees (in follow-up interview scenarios)
  • Addresses the gap between what people are saying they do and the reality of what they are actually doing
  • “I can’t ever find a seat” (interview quote): match with diary entries and explore reality of the situation. Not being able to find a seat may be down to busy periods or that person not being able to find their “spot”.

Semi-structured interviews

These interviews have been carried out with both students and staff. Topics covered include:

  • Space (do students have a preferred desk?)
  • Resource (are students writing notes or reading off screens?)
  • Study patterns (how much time is spent in the library?)
  • Library services (what kinds of services could we be offering?)
  • Likes and dislikes


Flipcharts were placed in study areas to gather informal feedback. This was inspired by work carried out by Gibbons and Foster at Rochester University.

Findings so far

  • Diversity of opinion
  • Concept of library as a social hub
  • Changes over time: rite of passage
  • Time wasting
  • Regular study spot
  • “Gives you the right mindset”

One question raised by the findings so far was: is the competition of resources and seats reflective of LSE student attitudes?

When approaching students for research purposes, the timing is key. Undergraduates and MSc students are fine in Lent Term but are completely off limits during Easter due to exams and other deadlines. However, PhD students are more flexible so they can take part while the UG/MSc students are unavailable.

There was some discussion of whether the ease/preference for some students to read from a screen demonstrated a generational difference between 1st and 3rd year students. I would disagree with this idea, especially as I explored this as part of my MSc dissertation. On Twitter, other people were also disagreeing with the “generational” concept and argued that it was more complicated than that simple idea.

It was also suggested that service provision be staggered over time, in line with how students’ needs and wants change over the course of their studies.

Comparative library ethnography: recent research at UCL, IOE, and UNC Charlotte

Next up was Donna Lanclos and Lesley Gourlay, who spoke about recent ethnographic research at UCL, Institute of Education and UNC Charlotte. Donna mentioned that ethnography is helpful for illuminating the reasons behind certain behaviours happening across campus. She also mentioned Nancy Fried Foster’s work at the University of Rochester as a key influence.

Donna’s work is mainly based around academic ethnography, looking at groups ranging from first year undergraduates to senior level academics.

Donna spoke about photo diaries as a methodology and even though they produce really visual results, they are often quite time consuming. She also mentioned an easier visual tool – cognitive mapping, and showed us quite a few interesting examples of how people draw their learning landscape onto a piece of paper. Some kept to very standard “this is my desk and books” approach, while others demonstrated how wide their learning landscape was with mentions of coffee places that they study in and the simple act of reading on the train.

By looking at learning landscapes, we are able to see where people are learning, how and what happens on the journey into university (via bus etc.) as part of this landscape.

The topic of quiet/group spaces came up and Donna summarised various concerns by stating that if you see behaviours taking place in certain spaces (group work etc.), see how this can be implemented through effective policies, rather than restricting and reallocating this activity into a fixed space, like a dedicated group room.

Spaces should be as flexible as possible, within limitations provided by the physical space as well as the overall quality of the resulting space. The topic of eating/drinking in library spaces also came up, which still never fails to surprise me because it always seems such a hot topic when really it shouldn’t be. Donna concluded the discussion with what I felt was the perfect response: by having a monastic approach to the academic environment and denying scholars the ability to eat in our spaces denies them the chance to use libraries comfortably, thereby driving patrons away.

Digital needs were also covered with the point being made that we should be leveraging digital tools so students can engage with all the resources that we have on offer. Students are also resources for each other, through providing insights and research guidance through peer-to-peer assistance. The traditional reading room spaces are very fit for purpose in a way that computer labs are not, so these traditional spaces can and should be retrofitted to suit digital needs of the future.

Donna's final slide

Donna’s final slide


A huge amount was covered in this seminar, and even more was covered in the afternoon group discussions. I felt very inspired by all that was discussed and I really feel that a qualitative approach to library research could bring out some fascinating findings. We are so beholden to annual surveys and crunching of data that we forget to look at the real people behind those figures. I think that qualitative research is very achievable and can be done as part of day-to-day library work, without necessarily always having to have a huge funded project in place. We already do a lot of research as professionals without even really thinking about it and I think that the more observational methods shouldn’t be any different.

The future of library research, both theoretical and practical, could certainly be shaken up a great deal by this new approach to looking as our services, users and how we even perceive ourselves as professionals. We just need to be willing to experiment and engage with these new approaches.

CRONIN Georgina
Georgina Cronin
User Experience Librarian, Judge Business School,
University of Cambridge
Personal blog: cardiesandtweed.wordpress.com

Photo credit: Popupology via Flickr Creative Commons


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