Monthly Archives: August 2012

Bourdieu on Academic Libraries and Student Work: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Note:  this was originally posted in the Anthropologist in the Stacks blog.

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 Bourdieu and his co-author.

The Lille University Library. Image by Etudiant de Lille 1 (Own work (Photo personnelle)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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 “monastery,” 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.


Over the last several years, an increasing number of libraries and librarians have utilized ethnographic methods as a way to better understand their institutions and constituents (Khoo, et. al 2012).  Much of this recent history of ethnography in libraries has been heavily influenced by the principals and methodologies of design-ethnography as modeled by Nancy Fried Foster’s “Studying Students” project at the University of Rochester (Foster & Gibbons 2007 ).  However, anthropology as a discipline has had a long relationship with libraries that is often overlooked by these more recent works, and has a tradition of examining the culture of academia and the practices and meanings surrounding people’s location and use of information.

This blog is an attempt to mine that longer, broader history, to delve into and discuss works that are relevant to the ethnography of academic spaces (including libraries), to build on and expand the work of current library ethnography projects (including our own) (see Duke & Asher 2012, Wu and Lanclos 2011; Connaway, Lanclos, and White 2011; Lanclos, Ferrara, Evans, Davies and Suleski 2012), and to examine the theoretical underpinnings of design-ethnography and other methodological approaches to library ethnography.

Our goal is to post a couple of times per month, with each post discussing and commenting on a specific work or set of works that relate to these interested.  We begin with a post that was published by Donna Lanclos on her “The Anthropologist in the Stacks” blog, which examines a study conducted by Pierre Bourdieu and his students nearly 50 years ago that helped to inspire the creation of this blog.

Connaway, Lynn Silipigni, David White, and Donna Lanclos. 2011. “Visitors and Residents: What Motivates Engagement with the Digital Information Environment?” Proceedings of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 48 (1): 1–7. doi:10.1002/meet.2011.14504801129.

Duke, Lynda M, and Andrew D Asher. 2012. College libraries and student culture : what we now know. Chicago: American Library Association.

Foster, Nancy Fried, and Gibbons, Susan, eds. Studying Students: The Undergraduate Research Project at the University of Rochester. Association of College and Research Libraries.

Khoo, Michael, Lily Rozaklis, and Catherine Hall. 2012. “A Survey of the Use of Ethnographic Methods in the Study of Libraries and Library Users.” Library & Information Science Research 34 (2) (April): 82–91. doi:10.1016/j.lisr.2011.07.010.

Lanclos, Donna, 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.

Wu, Somaly Kim, and Donna Lanclos. 2011. “Re-imagining the Users’ Experience: An Ethnographic Approach to Web Usability and Space Design.” Reference Services Review 39 (3): 369–389. doi:10.1108/00907321111161386.

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