Ottawa Public Library
For this assignment, I chose the setting of the Ottawa Public Library, because its visitors belong to a more diverse demographic – whereas the campus library, though larger, welcomes mostly students and staff. The first approach I took was simply to walk around the second floor of the library and watch the staff and guests interact. I’ve always loved libraries, and I feel that the Main Branch is particularly interesting because of how diverse the clientele is. The first mini ethnography is simply a description of my observations – I’ve tried to “stick to the facts.” The second mini ethnography is more multidimensional, as it is the description of the scene, but from the perspective of the library itself, accompanied by a few photos – I suppose it is somewhat of a narrative analysis.
I’m starting my observations on the second floor of the library. I walk towards shelves “300 – something” and pick up the copy of Queering Anarchism (306.7601) from the shelf, something I planned to do earlier. I take the book and begin looking around for a place to sit. I choose a corner that is at the end of a row of shelves and intersects with the main walk way behind the librarian’s desk. I can see the exit to the stairs beyond the desk, and everyone coming and going from this exit. I’ve sat myself for now in the corner next to what appears to be beside the interior decorating section. To my left, approximately twenty feet away, a very tall and very large man is sitting hunched over in a tiny black, hard backed chair and he appears to be asleep – his glasses could fall off his face at any moment. I cannot see the title, but a book is in his lap. An older gentleman wearing a dusty toque is wandering through the shelves with a magnifying glass, mumbling to himself, intent on his work. From what I can see he is not looking at the titles of the books through his magnifying glass, but at the Dewey decimal codes on the bottom of the spines. I’m going to begin another round through the history section once again. There’s a red haired man (who appears to be) in his early thirties, who seems to be observing me, observing others. I brought Queering Anarchism with me for the walk. I look down at the book, and when I look back up again this man is still looking at me. I wonder if he’s also making observations. I smile at him, he returns the smile, and I wander off. A man passes the librarian’s desk and says, “Alright, I’m leaving before you kick me out!” He chuckles at his own joke and leaves through the exit, and out of view; the librarian gives a slight smile, one that implies that she’s heard this joke not once, but likely several times over. She goes back to whatever it is that she’s doing. I crane my neck a bit and notice that she’s doing a crossword puzzle. From around the corner of one of the shelves I can see the very tall, and very large man jump from his chair – he’s red in the face and he’s making grunting noises and the book that was previously in his lap is now on the floor. A bespectacled man pushing an empty trolley comes around and asks the now-awake-man if he is finished with his books – which he seemingly is, as he nods to the trolley man, who picks up his books, places them neatly on the top shelf and continues on his way between two rows of shelves. I walk towards the exit and see through the glass door that there are two women and one man walking down the staircase from the third floor, the man is carrying a pile of large books, the women are speaking to each other, one woman appears to be telling the other a story, based on her swooshing hand motions. I turn back toward the interior decorating section and once again sit down in the corner and become settled with Queering Anarchism beside me on the floor. A balding security guard wearing glasses that make his eyes quite magnified is making his rounds through the shelves, and once he comes across me on the floor, he gives me what I interpret as a “once over” and once he has established I’m no threat to the library’s ecosystem, he continues on his way and I sip my coffee.
Perspective from Library as Ecosystem
The second floor is quiet yet buzzing with movement subtle enough to miss if you haven’t watched the shelves stacked with books and the people that pass through them for as long as I have. The hundreds of thousands of pages that line the shelves have come together to create a miasma of musty smells, indicative of the age of crispy, wrinkled pages.
Tonight, the same man is asleep at the same chair, while one of the thousands of books that contribute to the overall smell of my cavernous rooms sits precariously on his lap. Looking down at the mazes of shelves and halls free of obstruction, pathways intersect to create access for one organism to interact with another, at wooden desks, with the same faces week after week. The familiar sound of “Alright, I’m leaving before you kick me out!” interacts with the sounds of the man with his magnifying glass, searching through shelves 821, slowly towards 834, inspecting every carefully placed label on every spine caressed by countless hands over. Rummaging through the codes, rummaging through pages.
Cross-word puzzles are abiotic, adaptations for the librarian who’s heard the same joke, but is hopeful for a new one. Symbiotic relations between biotic and abiotic, those who read and those who are read.
The man with the magnifying glass has finally reached 921, his consternated face, and the clear look of inquisition still shining in his one enlarged eye. The man in the chair has woken up and bellows and grunts his displeasure at having fallen asleep, his yelling the loudest sound on the second floor since the man chuckling to his own wit. His face is red, a more vivid and alive rendition of the red spots in my carpet’s patterns. My book falls onto the carpet with a muffled sound of ruffling pages bending under the weight of its own hard cover. That book will never be the same. The threat of coffee stains on my already well-worn carpet, as a solemn-looking girl defiles the rule of no food or drink in the corner of the interior decorating section. This is why there are hired security, but the threat goes undetected. Stains in the interior decorating section.
The Main branch almost always has people snoozing in the armchairs surrounding the escalators, and during the winter, in the morning, as the library opens, more often than not there will be a long lineup of street folk who are waiting to get into the library to warm up.
I’d like to produce a descriptive tone, but I find that my tone is usually reflexive, even when I’m trying to invoke a sense of objective description. I tried to stay mindful of this issue. I found Stewart’s reading, “the Anthropologists” from Ordinary Affects to be helpful. The writing style is personal, and the description reads as literary – I myself think it is more interesting to read, which was what I was attempting to accomplish.
I’ve learned that while writing in a different perspective, I tend to automatically rely on personification. The library isn’t sentient, nor did I really want it to be, and I found it difficult not to rely on personification as a strategy for the descriptions of what was happening in my observations. I wanted the library to represent an eco-system – a place where living organisms interact with non-living counterparts to form a place I could observe. I chose the Public Library – the Main Branch as opposed to the campus library. There are more interactions that occur between the staff and the library guests than on campus – not to say that the library isn’t a jungle in itself, (the 5th floor comes to mind) but the interactions and communications occurring tend to happen between students and I wanted more than that.
Stewart, K. 2007. Ordinary Affects. Duke University Press.