The main objective of our fieldwork project is to figure out the purpose of a library through a series of observations and interviews. We completed the fieldwork at College Library on a Sunday afternoon. We spent time on the first floor study section outside of the café area and the silent section on the upper levels. To my surprise, the fieldwork project taught me that the occupants of a location might perceive the purpose of a space different from its actual function. UW-Madison students perceive the purpose of a library to be a space with minimal distractions, which allows students to get their schoolwork done efficiently. Since it is a space that specifically caters to the needs of the academic, it maximizes the motivated students’ full potential, which allows them to get more work done as a result. However; following careful observation, I’ve determined that it’s purpose is rather to make students feel more academically stable and feel as though they are being more productive, although in reality it is not necessarily the optimal space to get work done. Instead, the library serves as a symbol of mental stability.
The students who I observed feel so much more grounded simply because they recognize the effort required to make the trip to the library. My interviewee said, “Even if they didn’t get a lot done, they still went to the library. So, they tried and can feel better about themselves”. It’s important to note that getting homework done isn’t the only way that academic stress can be relieved. According to my interviewee, “trying and thinking about strategy with school is still a good way to spend time. You still get yourself to prioritize work, even if you don’t tangibly get a lot finished”. The library is a space where students are able to quiet the mind. It’s a space designed to minimize the amount of distractions for students who want to feel that their busy life is manageable. Based on my observation, this is especially true in the silent section. The library seems to serve the students as a place to quiet their minds, even if they aren’t necessarily doing schoolwork. The environment supports healthy habits and everyone in the space is united under a common value of self-respect so that they can produce stellar work.
My colleague Allison Chmiel, who observed people studying in an off campus café, attests to the fact that the purpose of a “study” space is to make students feel mentally stable, and not necessarily to increase productivity. Chmiel explained that the woman she interviewed actually thinks that the fact coffee shop closes as early as nine (pm) is a benefit of the space because that way she doesn’t spend her entire night studying. The reason the woman travels to this specific location is because of its close proximity to home, the good tasting coffee it sells, and the fact that leaving the home allows for a healthy change of scenery. Another student who Chmiel interviewed explained that it’s worth it to travel across campus to a specific study space because of fact that it’s local, not corporate, and radiates a welcoming vibe. None of the reasons why the interviewees chose these coffee shops is directly related to the quantity or quality of work they get done. It is the way that the space is able to contribute to the well being of its inhabitants that makes it desirable. The second coffee shop from Chmiel’s observation offers such an awesome energy that an individual is willing to travel all the way across campus to experience. The time it takes to travel to the coffee shop cuts into their studying, which shows that they prioritize the healthy atmosphere over getting work done.
My interview and observations both showed that the resources in libraries contribute only indirectly to its purpose. The enormous quantity of books creates a physical focus on academia that produces a serious tone. According to my observations, about 50% of the room is filled with bookcases, but no one is searching through the books. The bookshelves serve as a way to break up the space so that the sound levels can be monitored. Rarely do people ever check those books out from the front desk. My interviewee said, “I’ve never even talked to a librarian at College Library before”. Furthermore, my interviewee explains that the books contribute to the “nature of a library” by creating the “association with learning”. Based on my observations, students are usually multi-dimensional individuals and putting themselves in a space that is uniquely associated with academia can help them feel focused.
The fact that conversation and collaboration is encouraged in libraries suggests that a purpose of the space is to feel less lonely during study time, rather than to only get schoolwork done. My interviewee said that she brings friends because “we usually get work done together, but then can talk for a little bit if a break is needed. We can walk here together and then leave together. It’s also really nice because then we don’t feel lonely. Otherwise, staying at the library for seven hours, for basically an entire day, can make you feel like you have no friends”. If the purpose of a library is merely academic, then no one would bring other people along because a friend definitely does serve as an additional distraction. My interviewee said, “I’d probably get more work done if I were by myself, to be honest. We usually just talk about the music that we’re listening to or different things that pertain to us- like studying abroad. It just boosts my mood, compared to being here by myself”. So, coming to the comfortable library atmosphere makes studying feel more enjoyable in the moment. It makes studying feel less torturous.
The students in my fieldwork observation choose to sit in the louder section with headphones by themselves instead of being in the quiet section to increase their level of comfort. My interviewee explains the reason why she loves the café area. My interviewee said, “I can move and eat and talk. If I want it to be quiet, I’ll just put my headphones in and listen to classical music. This section offers me more of an option”. According to my observation notes, the café area is significantly more crowded than the café section. People must find the pressure to not move around and make noise in the silent section bad. They think it is more important to be comfortable than totally zoned in to schoolwork.
Eugene Newman, another colleague from my anthropology discussion class, also conducted her fieldwork at College Library. We both found that the café section was a socially vibrant atmosphere, compared to other library settings. However, our data differed in that the students from Newman’s observation chose to study in the café section for different reasons than the students from my observation. The students from Newman’s observation prefer to study in the library café for the single reason that their loud study habits (moving, talking, eating etc.) disturbed individuals sitting in the quieter locations. Newman emphasized that students didn’t choose to study in the café area due to any benefits unique to that space.
In contrast, the students who were in my observation found the café section to be more ideal, even without the consideration of the individuals in the silent section. My interviewee explained that she prefers the café section to the silent section because “there are tables set up that allow you to view the lake” and “all the tables in the middle of the silent section don’t have outlets”. My interviewee also explained that the amount of background noise students prefer while studying varies, so, “the fact that the library has different loudness areas makes people more willing to come”. Lastly, my interviewee highlighted that studying in the café section makes individuals stay at the library for a longer time because they don’t need to travel to a restaurant for food. Chmiel also found that access to food allowed people to stay at the location for hours at a time. This variation in why students study in the café section instead of the silent section may be due to the difference between the specific individuals that each of us observed and interviewed. We would be able to resolve this discrepancy by interviewing a larger sample of students about this particular question.
It’s important to evaluate whether the fact that a library is supposed to be a space with minimal distractions necessarily results in an increase in getting schoolwork done. I’ve found that distractions exist even in a library that is consciously designed to limit them. My interviewee highlighted that people are often misled, thinking that technology is more distracting than paperwork or reading, but this is not always the case. My interviewee said that the amount of distractions can really “depend on the person. When you’re reading you could just be spacing out or people watching too”. Distractions are always present and the individual determines whether or not they will give in to temptations. The library doesn’t necessarily abolish distractions; rather, the association between a library and serious studying is what makes it less distracting. People see others around them trying with all their will power to focus and they naturally contribute to the rest of the environment.
My interviewee proceeds to say that individuals become so accustomed to their comfortable study spot in the library that it develops into a need. Individuals needed it in the past “for the same reason that they do today. Our parents needed to study somewhere. It’s still easier to go to a library to do schoolwork, compared to anywhere else”. This suggests that the function of libraries won’t change overtime. In a constantly evolving society, the library is a traditional space that makes people feel that their fast-paced life is totally manageable.
I’ve learned from this experience that there are definitely important questions that remain unanswered, even after a fieldwork project is complete. Often, the more that you explore a topic, an anthropologist can become increasingly more skeptical of the original hypothesis. Through my analysis, I’ve determined that a library doesn’t necessarily serve as a space where students can get more work done. But, what alternative to a library would be better? Is it even possible to create a space that will make a student completely focus, or is it fully dependent on the work ethic of each individual? Further fieldwork would be required to determine variance of study habits among individuals, but it would definitely be worth the time and energy. It is through asking these questions and carrying out series of observations that we find flaws with society’s assumptions about space and discover the need to come up with new innovations.