Field Ethnography: Law Library

The Law Library – certainly looks like one.

On Saturday and again yesterday, I visited one of the larger libraries on campus – the Law Library. The library has considerably more human activity than the other libraries I visited and a notably different study culture. There are a wide variety of types of study spaces here to accommodate this: a common room near the entrance, meeting rooms, computer rooms, individual desks, large tables, armchairs with coffee tables, offices, and probably other spaces besides.

A table for ten in the main reading room.

I conducted an observation of one of the large tables in the quiet reading room in order to learn more about their habits. Between 5 and 7 pm on Monday Sept. 17th, here is the log of activity at this table. The diagram below indicates the initial seating arrangement of the individuals.

Subjects A-G were initially seated in these locations as of 5:00 pm.

5:16 pm – C closes laptop, leaving open book on top, and leaves.

5:17 pm – A & B confer quietly over a book.

5:33 pm – F gets up, confers with E, E shows F something typed on a smartphone. C returns, confers with A, sits down.

5:35 pm – F packs backpack, checks smartphone, and leaves.

5:37 pm – C gets up with book, confers with A.

5:39 pm – C takes laptop to comfy chair by window, sits down.

5:44 pm – G packs backpack, leaves.

5:47 pm – A library tour group passes by, talking audibly.

5:50 pm – A walks over to adjacent computer cluster with book.

5:51 pm – D and E confer, D walks away. A returns to grab iPod/headphones. E and B confer.

5:55 pm – D returns, puts on headphones.

6:14 pm – E packs backpack, leaves.

6:15 pm – D packs backpack, confers with A at computer, leaves.

6:20 pm – B packs backpack, lets C know that her stuff is now unattended, and leaves.

6:21 pm – C returns to table.

6:31 pm – A confers with C, A and C pack backpacks and leave. The table is now empty.

A common posture for studying at one of the large tables.

From the observation of this table, several things were learned. First – what appeared to be 7 unconnected people arranged at this table turned out to be a group of 6 acquaintances and one loner – explaining the initial seating arrangement. Throughout the library people seem to prefer a buffer zone of at least one seat with those they are presumably unacquainted with. Second – nearly everyone has headphones, a laptop, and some form of beverage. Third – they do actually use books. Fourth – posture varies considerably and people alternate between working on the table surface or reading/typing in their laps.

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