My ethnographic study on user behaviour, motivations and social learning in libraries just got published:

Bilandzic, M., & Foth, M. (2013) Libraries as co-working spaces: understanding user motivations and perceived barriers to social learning. Library Hi Tech, 31(2). (eprints)

Aim: Understanding User Motivations and Perceived Barriers to Social Learning in Libraries

The aim of the project described in the paper was to inform design strategies for smart space technology to enhance libraries as environments for coworking and informal social learning. The focus was on understanding user motivations, behaviour, and activities in the library when there is no programmed agenda.

Literacy in the 21st century requires a different set of knowledge and skills compared to literacy in the previous century. In today’s knowledge economy, core skills include creativity, interdisciplinary thinking, problem solving, and the ability to collaborate with others – skills that cannot be learned easily from books, but rather through learning-by-doing and social interaction. Libraries, as facilitators of education and life-long learning, have been challenged to reshape their approaches, services and spaces to meet these changing needs.
In practice, we see more and more libraries removing bookshelves to make way for infrastructure and interior design elements (e.g. lounge areas, couches, meeting rooms, whiteboards, projectors, video consoles, cafés and food bars) aiming to facilitate social learning, open sharing and collaboration among their users.

However, is such physical infrastructure and interior design sufficient to foster social learning among library users? How do library users actually make use of such new library spaces? How do users experience social learning when they work among other users in the library?  

Shedding light on these questions through user observations and ethnographic research would reveal challenges and barriers for social learning, thus inform future design strategies for social interventions and smart space technology to overcome those challenges and barriers.

Case Study: The Edge – A Digital Culture Centre at State Library of Queensland

The paper presents results from a case study at The Edge, an innovative ‘Digital Culture Centre’ and prototype concept by the State Library of Queensland (SLQ). As a ‘bookless’ library space, the physical architecture of The Edge has been designed with collaboration and open sharing in mind, i.e. to provide a space for the local community to engage in peer collaboration and creative practices in various areas related to digital technology.

The study analyses gathered data at The Edge over

  • 5 months of ethnographic visitor observations during their informal everyday visits
  • 70 contextual inquiries / informal conversations
  • 30 in-depth interviews with selected visitors


The results from this study at The Edge show that

  • library users have a range of different pre-entry motivations, attitudes and behavioural patterns
  • most users work individually or within pre-organised groups, but usually do not make new connections with co- present, unacquainted users.
  • social interaction between strangers in public libraries does not come naturally, but is subject to social barriers
  • there is a perceived lack of affordances to directly or indirectly learn from other unacquainted creative users in the space
  • users find it difficult to identify or approach other likeminded users.
  • in general, users remain unaware of and uninspired by each other’s subcultural domains of interest and expertise.

By way of solidifying these findings and perceived issues towards informing future action and design interventions, the paper presents 5 Personas, i.e. archetypal users with distinct (sometimes extreme) motivations, attitudes and behavioural patterns as they emerged from the ethnographic fieldwork at The Edge:

Implications for Design

The personas show that the people in our case study of The Edge mainly use the space in three different ways:

  1. to access computers, the internet, multimedia equipment, hardware and software for free that would otherwise be too expensive to buy (Doesn’t-care Claire);
  2. as a third place for coworking among individuals and groups (Coworking Chris); and
  3. as an informal learning environment, i.e. to attend workshops, presentations, exhibitions, and similar events (Learning-freak Frida, I-wanna-share-it Garrett).

Based on these personas and behavioural patterns, the paper suggests 4 strategic design dimensions for designing and directing further research on digital technologies towards improving the library as a place that affords serendipitous inspiration, social learning, and collaboration by exposing the user to a diversity of other users and their subcultural topics. Each of those design dimensions aims to facilitate potential encounters among library users that would not occur otherwise; i.e. encouters between

  1. library users or groups of library users that share the library space at the same time for different high-intensive activities;
  2. current in-situ library users and users who engage in relevant high-intensive meetings at another place outside the library;
  3. current in-situ library users and activities of previous users in the library, and;
  4. library users in different high-intensive meeting places.

The personas and design dimensions are intended as an invitation and tool for other designers to help brainstorming, conceptualising, and designing for smart space technologies in library settings.

Strategic design dimensions for digital technologies to facilitate low-intensive meetings through the library as a place

Strategic design dimensions for digital technologies to facilitate low-intensive meetings through the library as a place

2 thoughts on “Understanding User Motivations in Libraries

  1. Pingback: Gelatine – Designing for Digital Encounters in Coworking Spaces | kavasmlikon

  2. Pingback: Libraries as Coworking Spaces: Understanding User Motivations and Perceived Barriers to Social Learning | tales of a librarian

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s