Tag Archives: library ethnography

Sleeping and Successful Library Spaces

.@DonnaLanclos have you read the ‘learning aviary’ paper yet? Fave quote so far is if students fall asleep in 1 area then design success 🙂
— Bryony Ramsden (@librarygirlknit) August 27, 2013


So the article my colleague Bryony is referring to is this one : 
 Legerton, G. (January 01, 2013). Encouraging choice, serendipity and experimentation: experiences from Griffith University library (G11) extension and Gumurrii Centre. Journal of Interprofessional Care, 27, 51-62.
I am interested to read it further, but her tweet reminded me that I had never pointed out one of the fun facts uncovered by the behavior mapping that myarchitecture grad student, Alison Schaefer, carried out last semester.   First, I want to show you a typical circulation pattern through our ground floor collaborative space.  This map was generated not long after the space opened, but this primary pattern has yet to deviate substantially.   Then look at the next two maps, in black with beige highlights.
The dotted lines show the circulation paths.  This map was made on Jan 24th, representing the pattern at 12.40PM. 

Sleeping map, January 2013


Sleeping Map, April 2013

Notice, in the two maps above, where people were sleeping

While some of the sleeping is indeed happening away from the high traffic areas, some of it is certainly happening right in the middle of relatively noisy and active parts of the ground floor.  

Another thing to note is that these maps were not created during finals week, a time when it is assumed there will be lots of sleeping in the library, along with studying (and, avoiding studying).
In short, making assumptions about where students will sleep in the library based on a) where we think they should be sleeping, or b) where we would prefer to sleep, or even c) conventional wisdom about where students sleep, will not get you very far.
Our students sleep anywhere, as they need to.  They are working hard, and sometimes need to recharge.  If sleeping students are symptoms of successful spaces, then Atkins Library is doing very well indeed.

ALA 2013, Ethnography, Ethnology, and Libraries

So, Chicago.  Wow, eh?

Those of you who have been to ALA know what it’s like.  Apparently the 2013 meetings were even more massive than usual.  So, I have lots of thoughts, and will attempt to get some of them in this blog, but not all at once.  That would be crazy.

The first thing at the top of my head is the panel I attended on social science practices in Libraries, sponsored by ANSS.  At this point, there is a thin but widespread tradition of doing ethnographic work in libraries to inform the design and deployment of spaces and services in libraries.  I think it’s clear that it’s another useful method for helping us figure out what to try and why it might or might not be working–for assessment, as well as planning.

@aasher says we need more #anthrolib that talks about the embedded structures and power relationships that libraries are in #ala2013
— Donna Lanclos (@DonnaLanclos) June 30, 2013

But in the discussion after the panel, one question piqued concerns that I’ve had for a while–that there isn’t enough work out there on the structural causes for what we see in libraries (in particular, academic libraries), and, importantly, the power relationships that are shot through how and why libraries look and work the way they do now.  I would love to see someone in ILS take this on as a PhD project.  Maybe someone already has?  I think that embedded in some of our worries about access, fluencies/literacies, and informed citizenry are class, race, and gender inequities that underlie all of our society, not just the one that erupts in libraries.  Explicitly connecting those could well facilitate getting closer to more effective information landscapes for everyone.

I also think that we anthropologists working with library folk need to do a better job of bringing up the importance of ethnology in the field–that is, comparative work, not just deeply descriptive work.  Both ethnology and ethnography are necessary for effective analysis–how can we know that a problem is unique, if we have never tried to see where else this might occur, how else it might look?  How can we talk about gender constructs, for example, if we only observe and describe them in one culture?  How can we talk about student work if we only observe it in our university?  How can we reimagine librarianship in the absence of comparative data?  There are comparative projects out there–ERIAL was one in that it was more than one university, and PIL is certainly trying, in a North American context.  There are international presentations in the ALA2013 program, discussions about issues in libraries in Africa, for example, and this poster session about librarianship in Germany.   (apologies to those for whom those links will not work–you might need an ALA password to see the program)

As anthropologists, each of us working in library-land need to encourage people engaging in qualitative work to look beyond the confines of their own institutions, and even borrow from insights gained in other research.  Ethnology helps us not just triangulate, sorting the unique from the widespread, the structural from the individual, it can also helps us realize (from a policy perspective) we are not alone, there are solutions and suggestions to be gathered from the experiences of other institutions.  My own small project at UCL’s Institute of Archaeology was an attempt to try this, and I hope to continue.

That is, we don’t need to encourage everyone to do their own full blown ethnography project.  We do need to try, those of us engaged in such work, to network and speak and collect our data and insights so that they can be considered, critiqued, added to, refined, and acted upon by a larger group.  I am frequently in the “better living through anthropology” camp, and this is no exception, but ethnography is not the same as anthropology.  It’s one methodological piece, one analytic angle.  Library-land can benefit from borrowing much more.  We should encourage them to do so.  And support them as they do.

Guest Blog: Mitchell L. McGregor on groupwork, observing spaces, and the Prequel to our new spaces

Last time I blogged on some of the work my current architecture student, Allison Schaefer, is doing in the new ground floor spaces of Atkins Library.  This time you are going to hear from Mitch McGregor, whom I advised last year during his MA (architecture) thesis research.  Mitch did his work in our ground floor before it was reconstructed, and the work he did helped inform decisions we made about furniture and technology in our new student spaces.  All of Mitch’s work was covered by the Atkins Library Ethnography IRB Protocol.


I wanted to find a way to design a space based on research of what inhabitants really expected from the space. I chose the Atkins Library due to the amount of people that use its spaces,  and the variety of activities done there. My intent was to observe the activities that were taking place, and to try to understand why certain group spaces that had been tried in the library were not being very successful. What was causing these spaces that were equipped with new useful technology to be overlooked?
After observations and a few low technology experiments in different parts of the library, I decided to find a specific space that would be more conducive for group dynamics.  I chose the corridor on the Atkins ground floor connecting the main stair and the coffee shop as the area of study.

Part of the ground floor in Atkins Library, Spring 2012.
This space had areas that allowed both private and group work mainly due to the type of furniture and arrangement of it. I observed that people wanting to be alone would come and sit at the long tables between each “bay” with a whiteboard, couch, coffee table, and soft chairs.  This “living room” arrangement of furniture facing white boards promoted group use of the space. The space was adjacent to a busy travel corridor, and people working there seemed comfortable communicating aloud to group members. During my observations, I sketched diagrams to analyze the types of activities that were happening in this space.  Here are some examples of the cleaned-up drawings (created in Adobe Illustrator): 
The long table that tended to attract students studying alone is on the left.  The “living room” arrangement is in the center, comprised of a couch, chairs, and coffee and end-tables.  In this sketch, 2 students are working at the whiteboard, and using the coffee table to hold the laptop and textbook they are consulting for their studies.

Here one student is taking notes on the couch, referring to material on the laptop, while the other sketches out thoughts on the whiteboard.

The student at the long table is referring to a textbook and laptop while the other uses the whiteboard to think through the reference materials.
My goal was to understand what people were already coming to this space to do. Rather than recreate the space with a new type of activity in mind, I wanted to think about redesigning the space to enhance the current use. I observed the space for about 12 hours, and found that I groups were coming to this space for a few main reasons. One was that groups would come to the space to work on problems or brainstorm, often using the whiteboard while referring to a book or laptop.  This often became difficult because there was no place to put books or laptops that was adjacent to the white board. Other groups used the space to work on group presentations, by sitting in the couch area and working from one or multiple laptops, discussing a group project.  I then derived scenarios for additional activities that could happen in this space if certain amenities were added.  I thought the space could benefit from a large screen adjacent to the whiteboard that students could hook up their laptops to. To allow for multiple uses, I decided the screen should be able to be connected to while near the whiteboard, as well from sitting in the sitting area facing the screen. I chose this arrangement:
 In one week I spent about 56 hours observing this space, varying my time of observations from early morning to after midnight. I observed the screen station was used for every thing from a cell phone charging station , to practicing power point presentations, to solving physics equations.  The first few days proved to be difficult, because some things that I as the designer took for granted were not obvious to new users. For example, I thought it would be obvious how to plug into the screen, but ended up having to make the cords far more obvious than “sleek” designs would allow for.  
As I worked through these issues and tried to make the installation more user friendly, I also conducted several interviews. I asked users of different varieties what they liked and disliked about the space and what could be improved. Most students said they really liked how they could move things around in the space, such as the furniture or where they connected to the screen. The space met their basic needs, yet was manipulable to specific groups’ needs.  The more flexible spaces can be the more apt people are to use them. 

This process showed that with research into what a space is currently used for, and how those current uses can be enhanced proves much more efficient than just creating a space and intending for specific activities to take place there. Students wanted a semi-private space that they could adapt to various types of group work. The possibility of multiple types of media showing information at the same time, in this case, whiteboard and media screen, allows the group to function even more efficiently. Students also want this technology to be easy to use; if the technology in this space takes too much of a learning curve it is possible that students will avoid it. Overall, a research-based process allows designers and educators to greatly increase the success and efficiency of a space.
Looking at the new spaces now, a year since the original research started, it is great to see how the new spaces have implemented some of the discoveries of the research. The new spaces that have both white boards and media screens where students can connect allow for the group collaboration and efficiency.  The type of furniture and dividers being used also give the students power over the space they are working in. 
I would add to what Mitch has written here that while his research was just part of the information we compiled and responded to in thinking about and designing the new ground floor, it was a crucial part.  Because it was grounded in the actual behavior of our students, we could use this work to think through ahead of time the details that demanded our attention.


McGregor, Mitchell L.  Principles of Space and Interaction (unpublished M.A. thesis) Department of Architecture, University of North Carolina, Charlotte, NC.

New Learning Spaces and the role of Ongoing Research

This is going to be one in a series of posts, because I’ve got fun maps to share, and if I share them all at once, the post will be entirely tl;dr (if it isn’t already…)

Atkins Library recently renovated our “basement,” that is, we took space that had been inhabited by staff doing the work of the library, gutted it (having found new places for our staff to work in), and turned it into  an array of spaces in which students can do collaborative work.  Here is what it looked like before there were people in it (photos by Cheryl Lansford, Interior Designer for UNC Charlotte):


We have created configurable furniture arrangements in some areas, and more fixed arrangements in others.  This picture shows the T1 touch screen tables (which also have screens at the head of the table, so students can plug in and share from their laptops. 
This is a view into one of our new group study rooms, with tables that are wheeled as well as wheeled task chairs.  Surfaces near the digital screens allow students to share from their laptops, and there is also a dedicated computer for them to work from if they do not have their own device with them.  Whiteboards and the glass walls are meant to be written on (and are).
The space just outside of the library cafe has been set up to be more cafe-type seating, but with larger low tables, to accommodate the need to spread out with laptops, books, notebooks, and even more than one person’s “stuff” that they are working with.  There are outlets in the wood-paneled pillars, to allow for student to plug in wherever they want to work.
The most configurable part of the open space (that is, the space not contained in the study rooms), has more of the wheeled tables and task chairs, as well as some soft seating (relatively lightweight, so it can be moved around), rolling whiteboards, and movable privacy screens.  

I think it’s all pretty cool.  Our students seem pretty happy with it so far.  We had a fancy grand opening for the space, and are grateful to all of the work that went into the design and building of it.  Some of the work was done by me, and students under my supervision, in the form of studying the kinds of behaviors that go into collaborative work, and thinking experimentally about how to reveal the best configuration of space and technology to facilitate effective student learning.

In many learning space design scenarios, the opening is the ending.  Universities continue to build new spaces, open them, and then walk away without thinking about what comes next.  What did they get right about the new spaces?  What did we get wrong?  How can we improve it?  When can we make changes?

I wonder sometimes if there is a fear of looking bad, somehow, if one goes in and makes changes to brand new spaces.  As if the planning wasn’t good enough, and that’s why we need to change things so soon after the opening.  I hope that is not the case, because we are already looking at the new spaces and thinking about things we need to change, to better respond to how people are actually using the space, rather than assuming that they are using the space as we imagined they would.

Sometimes, people just do their own thing.

To that end, I am enlisting the help of my graduate assistants this semester, Allison Schaefer (an MA student in Architecture), and Carrie Vass (an MA student in Communications), to systematically observe what is going on in our new spaces, and report back.  At this early point in the semester (the spaces have only been officially open since January 23rd), we already have several days’ worth of observations, and some nice visualizations of that observation data.  We are interested not just in how people are using the spaces and the furniture

Allison created maps of our ground floor using Revit, and then added color for movement or activity using Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator.  She mapped the kinds of activities people were doing, and also where people walked when they moved through the space, over the course of her observations.  First up:  the activity maps.

This shows where people were eating in the course of her observations (about 8 hours altogether).  The heavily blue areas are adjacent to the library cafe.  But eating is clearly happening near the nice windows overlooking the Student Activity center (on the right, in this diagram), and in the central parts of the spaces.

This is where studying is happening in the new space.  All over.

This is where talking in happening in the space.  Also, all over.

When we overlap the maps for eating and studying, we see that they are not mutually exclusive areas.  These maps were created from afternoon observations–if they included evening hours, we know that there would be even more overlap.  Atkins library has allowed food and drink in its spaces (except in Special Collections) for several years, now, and this shows that we are right to not treat these activities (eating and studying) as mutually exclusive.

Can you study and talk at the same time?  Our students can and do.  While some areas clearly show one thing or the other happening, the overlap is significant.

Just because students have a laptop open does not mean they are studying.  Likewise, just because they don’t have a laptop, doesn’t mean they are not studying.

These maps are beautiful and informative, and of course are only part of the picture.  Next post, I will talk about the maps Allison created that show how the density of occupation varies, as well as length of stay, and the maps that show circulation patterns through the space.  I will also have pictures of what the spaces look like when they are occupied!

Optical Fabrication and Testing, Ethnography, and Poster Sessions

I presented my first ever poster at a session at the Optical Fabrication and Testing conference at the end of last month.  We were the only presentation in the entire conference that had anything to do with social science.

We were apparently the best-attended poster at the meeting, which was both surprising and gratifying.  There is a lot of interest among optical science practitioners in how to train effectively the future practitioners they need for their field to continue to thrive.  I thoroughly enjoyed the conference (not just because it was in Monterey, CA!) as an anthropological experience–it was a fascinating combination of intellectual exchange, commercial marketing, and networking.

The conference was also an opportunity to kick off the survey part of the project, where we tried to gather information from a much wider audience of optical science and engineering academics and professionals.

Click here to download a readable copy of the poster–it presents our initial impressions of the research we did in labs and classrooms at UNC Charlotte, as well as interview conducted among UNC Charlotte optical science and engineering community members (current and former).  I’d be interested in your thoughts.

D. M. Lanclos, A. M. Ferrara, M. A. Davies, C. J. Evans, and T. J. Suleski, “Collaborative work within Optical Engineering: Ethnography and curricular development,” in Applied Industrial Optics: Spectroscopy, Imaging and Metrology, OSA Technical Digest (online) (Optical Society of America, 2012), paper JTu5A.1.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

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[1964]). Academic discourse: Linguistic misunderstanding and professorial power. Stanford, Calif: Stanford Univ. Press.

More on Visitors and Residents

This video (it’s about 20 minutes long) gives some more of the history and rationale behind the V&R project I’m working on, in collaboration with these two scholars, Dave White (Oxford), and Lynn Connaway (OCLC).

Nice still shot of Dave there–if you’re interested, it’s worth watching.  This project is trying to break down assumptions about how, when, and why people of all ages look for, acquire, and evaluate information.

Information Literacy and deciding what is “good”

This article in the Chronicle of Higher Education is the latest discussion of the woeful information literacy skills of contemporary undergraduates (a topic about which I have blogged already).  No fewer than six of my friends and colleagues sent me the link to this article, because it’s also an excellent presentation of the ERIAL library ethnography project.  My colleague Andrew Asher was one of the anthropologists participating in this large-scale study, which aimed to ground what we know about students and their interactions with libraries and library resources in their actual behavior, through open-ended interviews, participant observation, and other research instruments like photo diaries (all methods I engage in as a part of the Atkins Ethnography Project here at UNC Charlotte).

Particularly highlighted in the Chronicle’s coverage of the ERIAL project (and its upcoming publications via ALA) is the surprise that so-called “digital natives” could be so terribly unskilled at evaluating information.  I don’t think we need to be surprised by students capable of googling not being aware of how to pick which source to use, any more than we would be surprised by children kept away from books all of their lives being unable to figure out what to do with all of those large blocks-full-of-paper things in the library.  Digital literacy has never been the same as information literacy, and all of the digital toys in the world will not render our students (or anyone else’s students, for that matter) capable of distinguishing a reliable source from an unreliable source.

Persistent, consistent instruction in information literacy is what will give our students that skill set.  And it cannot begin at university–this skill should be taught and exercised throughout K-12 education (and beyond).  The testing culture of our current educational system makes critical thinking far less valued than retention and regurgitation of facts, and we are paying for that emphasis with the lack of preparation we see in our undergraduates.  The idea that an undergraduate degree is “to get a job,” rather than a basis for becoming a thinking and contributing (not just in economic terms) member of society, also gets in the way of educators advocating for critical thinking in the classrooms.  Some students get frustrated by it (being asked to think critically about class content, society, life in general) because they are not necessarily used to being asked to do it, and professors are frustrated by students’ frustration–why did they come to college if not to think?

I am collaborating on a project now that involves interviewing and observing high school seniors and college freshman as they look for information, academic and otherwise.  My research partners and I are beginning to analyze the interview data now, and among the many striking things is the standard by which students judge information to be “reliable:”  repetition.  Several students say things like, “if I find it more than once on the web, I know that it’s reliable information.”  Why do they think this?  Where are they getting this standard of reliability?  Is it possible that they’re not being told any other standards?  Or are they simply assuming that the most popular Google link is popular for a fact-based reason?

I think about how students evaluate information when I see their interest in the library website providing reviews of books, articles, and other materials that they can access in our collections.  They want an Amazon.com-style service whereby they can see what previous users of the materials have said about the materials, so that the students can make an informed decision about the utility of the materials for their purposes.  If you think about the Amazon-style reviews, (see, for instance, the reviews of this Economics textbook), you see that the reviewers writing the “most useful” reviews are explicit about what they wanted out of the book, how the book met their needs (or didn’t), and allow the reader of the reviews to evaluate the extent to which the reviewer’s standards are the reader’s own.  Something is given stars based on whether or not it met a particular user’s needs, therefore context is necessary in a review, for other users to be able to effectively evaluate the potential of an item.

What is “good,” therefore, is a subjective, shifting thing.  Students who are writing five-page essays might review books as “too long” for what they need to do, and articles as “just the thing.”  Graduate students working on dissertations might review books according to their theoretical perspectives.  Reviews on a library web site might give students the ability to get in virtual form the kind of feedback that they already ask their peers for in person (or on facebook, via text, or via emails) about the materials they need for papers, exams, and other coursework.

Students already evaluate information in non-academic settings.  They read (and act on) reviews of movies, cars, live music shows, and restaurants.  They take into account who is doing the reviewing, and whether that reviewer’s perspective is relevant and informed (or not).  It is not that they are utterly incapable of critical thinking.  It is that they are not doing it in academic settings.  They have not been trained to do it.  Neither have they been told by our educational institutions (writ large) that critical thinking is terribly important.

Beefing up information literacy programs at the university level, and at K-12, would be an important first step towards remedying the problem.  But the problem has other deep structural reasons for its existence, and those problems require fixes that come from outside of the educational system.

So, here we are

The easels are down, and I’m trying this instead. As the Anthropologist in the Atkins Library, my job is to find out what the UNCC community is doing, in going about getting their work done here at the university. In particular, I’d like to know what works and doesn’t work for them here at the library.

We’ve had easels up around the first floor for the last several weeks, and I think we’ve reached the point of diminishing returns, where we are hearing the same suggestions over and over. Not that the suggestions are not good, but we’ve heard them now, and need to think about ways to act on the appropriate ones.

In the meantime, I need more feedback. And I’d like to be able to push back, and respond to some of the feedback you give us. One of the suggestions was that we have a blog, rather than easels or suggestion boxes. So here we are.