Category Archives: Library Ethnography

Coding Library Cognitive Maps

After Donna Lanclos’s recent post on using my library cognitive mapping method, a few people asked me to briefly write up my approach to coding the drawings.

I developed the cognitive mapping exercise based on the sketch maps protocol used by Kevin Lynch in The Image of the Citywhich was introduced to me by an urban planner I met during my fieldwork on the Polish-German border.  Incidentally, I thought I was the first person to apply this method to libraries, until I ran across Mark Horan’s 1999 article, “What Students See: Sketch Maps as Tools for Assessing Knowledge of Libraries,” which used the same urban planning source materials to develop a very similar approach.

The examples I discuss below are drawn from the ERIAL Project, and the exact instructions I gave students were as follows:

“You will be given 6 minutes to draw from memory a map of the [NAME] Library. Every two minutes you will be asked to change the color of your pen in the following order: 1. Blue, 2. Green, 3. Red. After the six minutes is complete, please label the features on your map. Please try to be as complete as possible, and don’t worry about the quality of the drawing!”

This method assumes that the things people most associate with their “mental map” of the  library will appear as elements in the drawing, and that the most important things (or strongest associations) will appear earlier.  Therefore, by changing the pen colors, this approach creates both a spatial dimension and a temporal dimension.

The mapping activity was conducted away from library building itself both to obtain a diverse cross-section of students (e.g. students who do not regularly use the library) and to obtain a picture of how students conceptualize the library’s spaces that was not influenced by any direct visual references.

We used this protocol at four of the five ERIAL project libraries, but for simplicity, I’ll just use examples from one library.  The floor plan of this particular library looks like this:



Students were allowed an open interpretation of the instructions, which resulted in the wide range of approaches.  For example:




Coding these images basically involves counting the elements drawn in order to construct two indexes:  a identification index, which is the number of times that an element is drawn divided by the total number of individuals participating (i.e. the percentage of the time the element occurs), and representativeness index, which is the number of times an element is drawn divided by the number of times that category of element is drawn (e.g. the number of times a study room on the first floor is drawn divided by the number of times all study rooms are drawn) (See Colette Cauvin’s “Cognitive and cartographic representations : towards a comprehensive approach” for additional discussion).  I also constructed a temporal index for each element by coding the three colors in order (1 = Blue, 2 = Green, 3 = Red) and calculating the mean value for each element (you could do more complicated things by combining the indexes if you are mathematically inclined, however, I’ve found that these three get at most  questions).   You can set up a spreadsheet in excel to do this coding, or utilize the visual coding built into a QDA software package.   This process can be time consuming as every element must be coded.   You also need to decide which categories you will use (e.g.  “chairs,”  “computers,” “rooms”, etc.).  The presence or absence of all elements need to be coded for for every drawing, so if you find a new element in a later drawing, you need to go back and code for it in all the previous drawings (this is akin to coding against a closed codebook).

This is all fairly straightforward, except that there can be a lot of ambiguity in the drawings and you will have to decide rules for when something “counts” (this is why having students label things helps).

For example, in the drawing below, the computer stations (circled in orange) are clearly labeled, so these might be coded as element = “first floor information commons computers,” category = “computers,” time=1.


In contrast, the following drawing has unlabeled squares and rectangles (circled in orange) where there are tables and periodicals shelving.  In this case, the coder must decide what the element represents.  Since the squares are in the correct position, we coded these as tables, and since the rectangles are the correct shape and in the correct position we coded these as periodical shelves.  This can obviously become complicated, and you will need to decide what rules work for your particular context.


Some high index elements that we identified were reference & circulation desks, computer workstations, and study rooms, while low identification elements were librarian offices, journals, and new books areas.  Importantly, much high traffic library real estate was taken up by low-identification elements.  In this way, the blank spaces of the drawings can also be especially informative.  For example, in the following drawing almost the entire left side of the library is blank space.
This area is where current periodicals are shelved.
While I think this method is extremely informative for researchers, I would also recommend using caution in interpreting the results.  The assumptions about the association between an individual’s conception of  the library and the drawn representation can be questioned, and there are also a variety of potential sampling bias issues in the way sketch map methods are usually collected (e.g. problems stemming from convenience samples).   I therefore recommend utilizing this approach in conjunction with additional interviewing methods that can corroborate and add context to the findings.


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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