Study Behaviors

A certain level of distraction can be great for focusing.

One of the great things about the library system as it exists at Harvard right now is the variety of places it creates. There are places where you can work with a group of people, there are places with food available, there are some great window seats, there are desks, there are obscure libraries with few people… you get the point. One of the best things can be roaming around a library and discovering the perfect study niche you didn’t know existed (Lamont Library Poetry Room, smelled like chamomile tea the day I went in).

I have found, however, that I focus best with a certain level of distraction. By ignoring something else (I’ve found a lecture works best), it causes me to actively direct my attention to the task at hand. But this is not true for everyone, some people need complete isolation, some need to talk out loud with others, some need company but no interaction. There are a whole range of study behaviors and a library system which best serves the intention of studying is one which provides for variety.

Do you think it would be worthwhile to catalog study behaviors? Or should we just make a profusion of offbeat spaces and see what balance works best?

Audio Displacement

Audio Displacement

One of the things I’ve noticed in the libraries are how many people choose to wear headphones while there. This is interesting because the library is a quiet environment, supposedly ideal for studying, but these people are choosing to replace it with their own sound environment.

It makes me think that perhaps the library represents a quantity of STUDY and although that STUDY is conducive to studious activity, it proves to be too much all at once. Visitors choose to tone back the feeling of STUDY by modifying one of its elements, the soundscape, while still retaining the visual and social cues of the library.

When we displace the STUDY sound, where does it go? Is this quantity of STUDY something we can package and take elsewhere, creating newly studious environments?

Do we want to create newly studious environments when already people choose to work at home, in coffee shops, outdoors, etc. or is the goal to draw them together as much as possible?

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

William H. Whyte: The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces – The Street Corner from MAS on Vimeo.

We watched this film in Jana Cephas’ “The Subject and the City” course the other week and it’s been sticking in my head. The documentation and codification of social behaviors—always interesting, yet never quite enough to really make a design. At any rate though, the film is worth a watch and quite cute.

Entry Sequence

I’ve noticed a recurring theme in the sculpture which greets library visitors—old white men. Which makes sense in some ways, they are often sculptures of patrons of the library or else distinguished alumni. They impart a certain enculturated sense of authority.

But is there any need for the library to convey a sense of authority today?

Anyway, I’d rather they greeted me with a little less gravitas sometimes. A little more like this:

Field Ethnography: Design

Observing a group of acquaintances studying together – or more accurately, studying in each others’ presence – reveals something about one reason why students go to libraries. Libraries are places of social reinforcement, in this case for studious behavior. The designated “quiet” zone of the reading room meant that a group of acquaintances is able to work together without being permitted to converse asides from the occasional discrete whisper. They companionably reinforce each others study habits while the larger social pressure of the library prevents them from socializing and distracting each other. Other individuals appear also to be in the library for this same reason – the social reinforcement of studious behavior.

Although the large tables in the Law Library were the area available for a group of six to study within proximity of each other, they did not seem to be all that comfortable and individuals generally seem to prefer to sit in an armchair or else at a desk on another floor. People at the tables alternated postures frequently, shifting from leaning back to leaning forward, from reading over the table to reading in their laps, draping legs over a chair arm, etc.

Perhaps six people can study together more comfortably.

Studying postures.


Fluid furniture for group study.

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.