What is a library like?

Two long study tables in Davis occupied by only a few students.

When you think of a university library, you might think of a building with shelves and shelves of books that people check out for dissertations or massive research papers. However, the library has become a space for studying and doing homework rather than a research oriented place (May, 2015). Davis Library at UNC-Chapel Hill is what you might think of as this new type of library: a learning oriented building. The first floor of Davis has tables, desks, and comfy chairs surrounded by bookshelves, large windows, and an atmosphere of silence creating a studious environment. When they arrive, students occupy a vacant seat, usually separated from other people, and focus on completing whatever work they have with them. They typically remain silent, respecting the established quiet that permeates the building.

Davis Library is a common study spot for many UNC students. Though it is a public space where many students congregate, there is very little social interaction. Students often remain seated for long periods of time glued to their own homework or to their phones, not conversing with others. Students seek to finish their work without distraction, so they turn to the library where many others work quietly. This ethnography observes Davis Library in order to understand why students prefer to study alone in a group environment. The design of Davis library, with ample seating, natural light, and quiet background noise, encourages individual study in a group of others who study alone.

How did I do it?

To observe this culture, I sat in Davis Library at 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. for 30 minutes each time. As a common study spot, Davis was a perfect environment to study and explain why students seek to study alone within a group of people who seek to study alone. To see the whole first floor, I moved to a different location on that level about every ten minutes. I sat in one of the couches or chairs in these areas and took notes on my phone. It was easy to avoid notice since everyone was focused on their own work and paid little attention to people around them. I wrote down everything that I saw: architecture, furniture, people’s behaviors, their clothes, what they had on their desk or lap. You name it, I probably wrote it down. Also, I also interviewed six people to get their view of Davis Library at 4 p.m. This allowed me to get other perspectives on the library. Three of these people were sitting alone and three were in a group. By interviewing these students, I was able to get two perspectives: individual studiers and group studiers.

The Furniture

This area of Davis has both study tables and comfy chairs. Yet the group tables are mostly occupied by only one person.

Even though some furniture is meant for individual study and some for group study, students often make any seat they choose into an individual study space. When students look for a spot to settle in and do their work, they most often find individual desks or sit at an emptier part of a table. The key to sitting at the table, however, is that they don’t sit directly next to or across from anyone. I noticed that when people chose their seats, they typically preferred having space around them to spread out or simply to avoid contact with other people. So when the table was only about half occupied, students walking past would say that the table was full, since they want to avoid sitting directly next to or across from someone. Students will choose their seats to avoid sitting next to someone else (Khoo, 2016). One of the unique features of Davis are the booths that line one wall on the first floor. One student said “I love the booths! They’re comfy and it’s easier to talk to people when you’re sitting here. It’s not as awkward as at a table” (personal interview, Nov. 1, 2016). But the booths’s unique construction, with the tall backs that create walls, creates a more personal space. It’s acceptable for friends to share this closer space, but strangers did not typically share a booth. Therefore, it’s common to see only one person at a booth and to consider it full. That person has made a designed group study space into an individual study space.

“Open and Airy”

Students value the natural light and the openness of Davis Library. In most places on the first floor of Davis, the ceiling is two stories high. These vaulted ceilings make the library feel open and bright, as can be seen in the picture. Helping this brightness, there are many large windows, some even reaching from the floor to the ceiling. Students tend to prefer natural lighting when doing there homework, rather than dark, enclosed spaces (Khoo, 2016). One student said “I like the high ceilings. It’s less oppressive than the UL” (personal interview, Nov. 1, 2016). The UL is another library on campus that has lower ceilings and less natural light than the first floor of Davis. One student said that she liked the tall windows because she could see the people right outside the library while she was studying (personal interview, Nov. 1, 2016). As I’ll explain more in the next section, students like “the activity of bust group spaces, even when studying alone” (Khoo, 2016). Seeing activity outside the windows makes them feel like they’re in a group, yet they focus on their own work, making them alone in that group setting.

The vaulted ceilings and wide windows provide lots of natural light for these students sitting at the long tables.
The vaulted ceilings and wide windows provide lots of natural light for these students sitting at the long tables.

Background Noise

Though students tend to study alone, they prefer having some activity around them while studying. Generally, the library is quiet, just like you’d expect a library to be. There are generally people that talk, whether they’re studying together or socializing, and people walking by. In one area right next to the entrance of Davis, large windows stretching from floor to ceiling look out on one of the central points of campus where people walk to their classes or stand and socialize. Despite their behavior that indicates they want to study alone, such as sitting far from others and listening to music through their earphones, students seem to favor studying in an active environment. Most of the students I interviewed preferred studying alone rather than in a group. Students value privacy when they study by themselves (Regalado, 2015). Contrarily, it seems, the students I interviewed said they preferred studying in Davis Library because there are more people and it’s more “lively”, according to one student (personal interview, Nov. 1, 2016). If they preferred studying alone, it would make sense that they would prefer working in a room alone with no distractions. However, it seems that people like working individually, but around other people who also are working individually. May and Swabey (2015) also note that people prefer to work individually in a communal environment. They explain this phenomenon saying that students get motivation when they see others around them working. Also, students often prefer to have an active environment in which to do their work (Khoo, 2016; May, 2015).

So What?

This study highlights the creation of personal bubbles in academic libraries. People go to the library to study and construct spaces for themselves to focus and complete work. Various behaviors such as sitting apart from others, focusing on their work, and listening to music through earphones demonstrate the existence of these bubbles and aid in their construction. This can influence how architects design the libraries and how librarians conduct their work in this environment. The concept of private space when studying can be discussed in the benefits of individual versus group work in an academic environment. One or the other may be emerging as a more common form of study

Works Cited

Khoo, Michael J., Rozaklis, Lilly, Hall, Catherine, Kusunoki, Diana. (2016). “A really nice spot”: evaluating place, space, and technology in academic libraries. College & Research Libraries, 77(1), 51-70. http://dx.doi.org/10.5860/crl.77.1.51

May, Francine and Swabey, Alice. (2015). Using and experiencing the academic library: a multiple observational study of space and place. College & Research Libraries, 76(6), 771-795. http://dx.doi.org/10.5860/crl.76.6.771

Regaldo, Mariana, Smale, Maura A. (2015). “I am more productive in the library because it’s quiet”: commuter students in the college library. College & Research Libraries, 76(7), 899-913. http://dx.doi.org/10.5860/crl.76.7.899

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