Thanks to the generosity (via Twitter) of my colleague Andrew Asher (@aasher), I was alerted to the existence of Pierre Bourdieu’s 1965 ethnography of French undergraduate university student behavior, Academic Discourses, including an essay entitled, “The Users of Lille University Library” (co-authored with Monique de Saint Martin). In 1964, over 800 questionnaires were distributed to and filled out by students “from the sociology group in the Faculty of Arts at Lilles (p.132),” and the answers were then tallied and analyzed by Bordieu and his co-author.
What is most amazing to me (after the discovery that library ethnography has its roots not just in design ethnography, but also in the work of such a practitioner as Bourdieu!) is that the concerns expressed about undergraduate academic behavior appear to have changed not at all, not after over 40 years have passed, not in the transition from French academia to that of the US. Bourdieu and his colleague asked questions about where the students lived, whether or not they were employed, where they prefer to study, what their favorite part of the library is–all of these questions are familiar to those of us doing library ethnography today. He worries about their lack of attention to librarians: “Students reject working through a librarian, rarely asking for assistance. ‘It is very difficult,’ a librarian says; ‘there is a door to go through, they don’t know, they dare not.’ (p.132)”
He says that students don’t work in the library, because it does not suit their needs: “Students in their great majority do nothing at the Library which they cannot do as well or better at home because, by unanimous consent, the Library is an unfavourable site for scholarly reflection (p.123)” He goes on to say that “…most users of the Library only appear to be working rather than actually getting anything done (p.123).” He does acknowledge that “students …seem to want something from the Library which they cannot find at home, whether this is the real or imaginary encouragement to study induced by the ‘atmosphere’ of the Library or the psychological gratifications of contact with their peers, known or unknown, or a vague expectation of making these contacts (p.123).”
Bourdieu points out (with not a little dismay, I think) that “students misrecognize the particular function of the Library and more often treat it as a meeting-place or at best a study area. (p.123).”
He says that like it’s a bad thing.
The work of academia that Bourdieu clearly hoped to see in the Library (reading, thinking) was actually, according to students, being done in spaces such as cafes, bedrooms, even on walks, “in circumstances where other, non-studious activities can be fit in (124).”
There are some interesting gendered observations he makes at the end–young women at the university saw the Library as a “beehive,” whose activity both fostered and also got in the way of their getting work done, while men saw it as more of a “monastary,” quiet and occasionally oppressively quiet. Those differing views of the library are no longer easily assigned to particular gender identities, but do represent different poles of perspective on problematic spaces in the library.
In short, Bourdieu was confronted with students who were uncomfortable working in the library, who preferred to do their academic work where they were comfortable. The students went to the library if their professors insisted (frequently to check out or refer to a book). Their presence in the library had as much social as it did academic purpose. Some students who did go to the library got things done, but also struggled to achieve balance between academic work and leisure time.
We have worked hard at UNC Charlotte to make the library a welcoming space that meets a wide variety of student needs, but there is still much work to be done. Anxieties about whether or not students are getting to all of the resources they need to be successful also persist.
On the face of it, we are still grappling with much the same issues that Bourdieu and his colleagues described in the mid-1960s.
Bourdieu, P. (1994). Academic discourse: Linguistic misunderstanding and professorial power. Stanford, Calif: Stanford Univ. Press.