An exercise in Ethnography

As an ethnographer I will conduct my research by comparing an academic library with a public library. I will be looking at person to person interaction in my academic library partly because university library is the core for a university. This is because it is one of the places where most students go at sometime regardless of their course or level of study as well as many researchers and academics. I will also look at person to person interaction in a public library because it is the local centre of information that makes all kinds of knowledge and information available to its users. Public libraries and academic libraries provide a wide range of information and ideas. They have an important role in our society in that they are both there to serve the interests, aspirations or needs of the individual. The main difference between them is that public libraries serve the interest of all communities.

Groucho Marx (1890 – 1977) once quipped that,

‘Outside of a dog, a book is a (person’s) best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.’ (pg 7 Libraries Without Walls 4).

And he also stated that,

‘I must say that I find television very educational. The minute somebody turns it on, I go to the library and read a book’ (pg 7 Libraries Without Walls 4).

I want to see if this still applies to both those who use academic and public libraries as so much information now is in virtual form. Today someone might argue Groucho’s first quip as thus ‘Outside of a library, the internet is a person’s best friend. Inside of a library it’s the internet too!’ This can be seen on page 7, in Libraries Without Walls 4.

I will be investigating, firstly the social interactions between people and others and secondly I will be looking at the level of noise and space in both libraries.

As a researcher I will be covertly carrying out a participant observation. My role will also involve taking notes inside of both academic and public library. I have to also keep in mind that each of these methods of data collection will come with ethical implications attached to them. The participants in the academic library were effectively students. The participants in the research carried out in the public library varied, the library users were made up of children, adults and elderly people.

‘(Ethnography is) a particular method or set of methods which in its most characteristic form… involves the ethnographer participating overtly or covertly in peoples daily lives for an extended period of time, watching what happens listening to what is said, asking questions…’ (Hammersly an Atkinson 1995:1)


My main aim was to maintain adequate records of what was going on but I had to take reasonable steps to preserve the confidentiality of information that I gathered in my research. I had to take care in order to prevent the identity of individuals and participants in my research so that they remained anonymous and not revealed deliberately or inadvertently without their permission. I asked some questions to the users of both libraries if they were willing to answer questions of their use of the library. The data that was collected had no names or any other data that would identify individuals in any way.


As students and those in the public library were under the constant scrutiny of the library staff it may be reasonable to assume that this space is one in which they expected to be observed. I on the other hand dealt with by not making them the focus of the study. I was mainly concerned with students and public as ‘users’ of the library and not he staff as service providers.

As I didn’t have official permission to carry out my library study access was restricted and so was data gathering. For example I could not approach individual members of library staff for interviews. As a result I could not use any other technique or equipment, such as being able to openly film in both settings or use flash photography that might have drawn attention to my work. There was no well-defined objective for the study. I initially used naturalistic observation. This allowed me to spend time in the library, with my note books where I kept a record of activities, situations that were possibly interesting.

I observed the layout, structure of both libraries. I focused on the noise patterns, user movement patterns, how student study and public use of the library and I also spent time in particular specialised area of the public library i.e. where people have access to the computers in order to gain an insight into how people interact with each other. Surprisingly I witnessed an argument that occurred in my public library between two adults. The person on the computer was meant to leave as his time had come, the person that booked the computer told him that his time was up but he insisted to stay a bit longer. The library staffs were called and the other person had to leave. I did not approach members of both libraries

In both libraries I noticed varying types of reading and study areas with comfortable chairs with more tables.

The actual observation took place over two hours period on Friday 11th April beginning at 1’oclock (academic library) and the public library took place on Sunday 13th April beginning at 1’oclock. The Friday where I was observing in the academic library it was a very busy period in the library with a lot of spaces filled with students and the same applies to the public library. The more I was observing people on both occasions the more I felt as though I was spying on people. I also realised that when I was trying to directly observe people I began to concentrate upon the different areas in the library instead. I believe that there was the issue of feelings of guilt surrounding the secrecy with which I was observing. This feeling of mine could have perhaps changed if I was to proceed this kind of activity.

As there is no single, right way to carry out ethnographic studies, nor is there any single technique that will provide some kind of ‘ideal’ data. If the project were to continue, the next steps I would take would be to combine techniques which can then provide an insight into a range of issues, by using triangulation, to cross-check results of different methods in order to confirm reliable results and ensure their validity. For example, interviews can be used to check the validity of data gained from participant observation. The two approaches can be used together so that a more complete picture of the social group being studied is produced.

Such methods of triangulation that could be used in the future could be the use of questionnaires and semi structured interviews. Interviews have the advantage of flexibility, enabling me the researcher to be able to follow up interesting lines of enquiry. They are also easier to replicate the research and check results. Questionnaires could also be used. They have the benefit of providing both qualitative and quantitative data, however they are not as flexible as interviews and care needs to be taken with question wording and overall design. They are practical, easy to do, less time consuming and are easily accessible. Both open and closed questions can be used. In closed questions I will be able to fix the range of responses, allowing the respondent to select from two or more given alternatives. Open questions require the respondent more freedom allowing them to say things in their own words. Questionnaires could be given out to library users depending on what institution is being observed so that I could reach a large number of people in a short time.

Future observation could also look into gender patterns and at any differences seen could be made note of. This could perhaps look into whether girls and boys use the library differently. It could also look at various groups whether they use the library differently i,e mature and less mature people.

I could also compare different academics libraries in different Universities. Instead of researching on my own I could work with a small group made up of four people. Team members could observe the layout, structure and interior decoration of the academic libraries and public libraries when being compared. They could also observe the type and distribution of furniture, noise patterns, staff and user movement patterns, use of technology, use of furniture, how students and other users study and use the library and how people spend time in particular specialised areas of the library. For example computer rooms, staff counters, photocopy centres, special collections enabling me to gain an insight into how they function. Records could be made of notices and complaints. Photographs could be taken inside of the libraries that are being compared; the focus could be on ‘space’. One hour video of the inside of the library could bee secretly filmed in order to see people’s interactions with one and other and their use of other parts of the library more coherently.

I will be approaching the social group as a covert participant observer where the fact that I am a researcher will not be revealed. The main advantage of this method of research is that the members of the group being studied are not likely to change their behaviour as a result of being studied since they are kept of the fact that they are being observed for research purposes. Another benefit of participant observation is that it provides the best means of obtaining a valid picture of social reality. If they were to know that they were being observed they could then become more self conscious and think more about their actions, they could then obey the rules of the library such as switching off their mobile phones or they could then start putting food or drink away. More over through carrying a covert participant observation it is also more difficult for the people being studied to lie or mislead me. This is because the research puts me on the spot enabling me to witness their actual behaviour rather than relaying upon peoples accounts of their lives. Participant observation can then provide a clear first hand picture of the library users in a particular institution.

The disadvantages of being a covert participant observer is that it gives me little choice but to become a full participant in the group however if I was open about it all, there is then an element of choice in the degree of how involved I may get. For example I could have asked people questions on how useful they find a particular library, but this was not possible as I was acting as an ordinary person. Much of carrying my research involved watching, listening and taking notes. When I was observing the academic library somebody’s mobile phone went off I heard the girl near by me say, ‘I hate it when i am trying to study in the library and somebody’s mobile phone goes off, and the worse part of it is when the person answers the phone an starts a conversation in the middle of the library when everyone else is trying to study’. I was surprised by this comment because when I was observing students they usually answered their phones in the library and run outside with it. Other disadvantages covert participant observation will also have are;

Firstly the sample used in my participant observation is small this would effect the representativeness of the results obtained and untypical for generalisations to be made on the basis of my findings. Any conclusions can only apply to the specific group I studied in that time and place. Secondly such studies cannot be checked. It is therefore difficult to compare the results with the findings of other studies. The data from participant observation rely upon the particular interpretations of a single individual and are specific to a particular place and time. As a participant researcher I heavily relied upon my own observational and interpretive skills. I decided what to record and what to omit and imposed a framework upon the data in the process of interpreting it.

Basically participant observation is not systematic or rigorous, its findings cannot be checked, the research cannot be replicated, it is a subjective rather than an objective research method.


Different people have different view of what a ‘library’ is. To local people the public ‘library’ may be a place to read newspapers and magazines. To students it may be a place to do quite study. On the whole libraries exist to serve the needs of their users.

Ranganathan’s (law of library science’, which was formed over 50 years ago in India are still useful today. Ranganathan argues that, ‘libraries are about people-readers, users, patrons-that is the use of these information objects that is central. This can be seen on pg 42, The Academic Library.

From the two libraries I studied I realised that there was not much difference between them. They both provide service to their users in a different way. I realised that each library has the same benefits; they are used in the same way. The main difference between them is in academic library students know precisely what they want in a public library this is not the case. Academic libraries are specialised in one subject are public libraries are not so detailed in one particular area.

Academic libraries tend to know what book their users want, in public libraries people come up with vague titles and vague subjects and expect librarians to know what they want. Academic libraries have more than one copy of certain books whereas public libraries don’t really have more than one copy on a specific book or subject. Public libraries therefore have limited space.