Heather Buist


This ethnographic experiment takes place in a library. I chose this site because it is a public setting that welcomes everyone, yet where people come for a limited number of reasons. Typically, library visits carry a particular set of connotations: reading, books, studying, and deep silence. Although many of these elements were present during my observations at this particular branch, I discovered more use of technology among the patrons than I had expected to find, combined with an enduring respect for the tradition of reading. For the first version of my ethnographic description, I wanted to look at the library as a character in itself, shaped both by the people who visit and the physical aspects of the building, space and environment, that make the library what it is. For this reason, I chose to approach the assignment through a poetic description. In the second format, I was more interested in the things that people were doing. I found the use of technology fascinating and, since I also used technology while I was there, I decided frame this second essay with a partially reflexive approach.

Format 1: Poetic Description

The library is not just for holding books. It is bustling. There is a constant buzz: clicking of computers, beeping checkout machines, crinkling of plastic bags, and rustling of pages. There is a lot of movement. With few exceptions, no one stays at one place for long. People go back and forth trying to find the right book to read, or movie to watch. But it is also silent. It is not silent because people are reduced to whispers. In fact, they do not tend to hold back when they speak. It does, however, have an aura of authority. Generally, there are no lengthy conversations. They say what they need to say and they move on. Yet it is relaxed. The short discussions are friendly and calm. People seem to know where they need to go, how to find what they want to find. What shelves hold which genre of stories, where the DVDs are, or the location of the CDs, in order to flip through and examine them, one by one. Some seem to go straight for one of the many computers. Others navigate themselves around the room comfortably, like being at home.

It is modern. Technology is embraced. Computers, tablets, and self-checkout machines are used to aid inquiries and connect people into the modern world, giving more ways for people to explore. Some of these are here to keep up with the times. Self-checkout machines ease the work of staff, so they can focus on other things. The tablets offer new types of software that the computers may not have access to.

It is traditional. Despite the technology, the walls are lined with shelves, and each shelf is packed with books. Each section is labelled not only with genres: science fiction, romance, mystery, anime; but also with formats: large print or paperbacks. Every reading preference is represented. On the top of the shelves are more books on display and mingle with artwork on the walls. It is overflowing. Here, tradition is not held down and does not hold down.

It is diverse. Many roles are present: staff, patrons, students, parents, and children. These come from all ages, from elementary school age to seniors. They are here for different reasons. Most people on the computers sit there in silence for some time. Here they can either take advantage of the internet access, or find out specifically where the book they want is being held. They seem focused despite all of the movement around them: people coming and going, dropping off or checking out items. Many teenagers gather here to study. This is perhaps because there are less distractions here than at home. However, this is complicated by the use of their phones. This technology that holds both music and friends, even if they are converted digitally, adds to the bustling silence. As expected, a common reason for people to be here, is to checkout items. Some pick up few, carefully examined items. Others pick up handfuls. Finally, the staff is there to facilitate the ease of everyone else. They organize returned items, help those with inquiries, and offer a familiar and friendly face. They are the blood of this organization.

The library is alive.

Format 2: Reflexive Narrative

I walked up the stairs to the second floor of the library. I selected a spot where I could see most of the room, in a corner where the only thing that was behind me was a shelf of books. It was a good place, except I did feel a bit strange about being there to observe people, when I knew that anyone who wanted to search in the shelf behind me could easily read my notes of observing others. I took notes with my laptop, so for self-conscious reasons, I would occasionally switch to a different program window on my screen when people walked near. I was relieved to see that this did not happen often. I was unsure if my relief was out of my self-consciousness, or out of feeling intrusive, but really it was both.

A teenager wearing earbuds sat down at an empty table. He pulled a science textbook from his backpack and put it on the table. He stood up and circled the table once. It was perhaps a study ritual, or a method of procrastination. Slowly and methodically, he does one thing at a time: open the textbook to a page, pull a binder out of his backpack, adds pages to the binder, and take out some loose sheets with a PowerPoint presentation. Finally, he settled on staring at the sheets for some time. After a few minutes, he picked up his phone, looked at it, then just held it for a while, looking down towards the textbook. For the next half hour, he went back and forth from his textbook, to the PowerPoints, and to his phone. He did not stay on one for very long, perhaps a few minutes at a time, occasionally flipping through the pages of his textbook. At some point, another man sat at the table across from him. This man engages in small talk. The teenager responded quickly and went straight back to his textbook and phone. Another young man joined the second man and the two stare at a laptop and laugh. The teenager picked up his PowerPoint sheets and went to the main desk to staple them into his notebook. Eventually the two men leave and the teenager follow suit not long after. He studied for a total of approximately 45 minutes, much of the time staring at his phone.

A man sat at a table staring at his phone. After some time, he searched through some bookshelves and checked out an audiobook. He had trouble with the checkout machine and asked a staff member for help. The process had already finished. He had just misunderstood the machine.

A woman put two books down on the table across from me. After flipping through some pages of a cookbook, she pulled out her phone from her bag and takes photo of a recipe. She examined phone for a few minutes, then took another picture of the same page. She then pulled out her wallet for her library card and checked out both books.

The library Wi-Fi shut down. People on the computers started asking the staff about the problem. The staff began to warn new people as they approach the computers. The internet was still available on the computers at the front desk. The staff allowed some patrons with inquiries to look things up there. One woman, likely someone that comes in regularly, sat down at a computer. One staff member told her the computers are down. She turned around and said, “Liar” and they both smile. She went to the front desk to look something up on the Michael’s website. While she browsed on the staff computer, they tell her about the problems they had with the internet that day.

A man and his son walked by. The boy went straight to one of the tablets. The father stopped him and told him he cannot go on it. The woman checking the Michael’s website explains that the internet is down. The child asked, “even the iPads?” The woman continues, “But there are lots of books,” and motions to the many shelves. The father told the child that he still would not be allowed to use the tablet anyway. As they head towards the children’s section, the father explains to the woman that he works in a book store and that his kids should know. Soon after, he started reading out loud to his son.

Technology serves as a useful tool, yet it also brings up a number of issues. It is both a solution and a problem to a few the people at this library. Even for myself, I used a computer to take notes, yet it felt like it could be open to read over my shoulder, causing me to feel some anxiety. It also served as a distraction aid for some, caused some confusion or disruption for others, and was a helpful tool for some. It served to aid and hinder goals. Technology can be useful, but we must ask ourselves, at what cost? Perhaps though, there are times where it is worth the price.


This exercise forced me to carefully examine how I would take a snapshot of people doing seemingly menial things and make it meaningful, to analyze why the library was so important and popular, and to make connections I never would have considered otherwise. In the first format, I felt that perhaps having a poetic generalized description might have made it somewhat limiting. I had to really examine each small detail and go deeper. Traces of technology can sometimes take away from poetics, so I decided to embrace that part of it. Because I made the description generalized, I left out people as individuals, which helped solidify the library as its own character. For the second format, I wrote short ethnographic portraits of the patrons. Drawing on some class discussions, both formats contain questions of tradition versus modernity, yet with different conclusions. In the first format, I wanted to look at the library in a very positive way and tradition is celebrated more, while technology is discussed but is not the focus. In the second, tradition is more neutral, and technology is questioned. There were many stories of other patrons that seemed to use more traditional methods, which I left out of the second format.

Despite having read several ethnographies over the past few months, I found this exercise quite difficult. Reading the ethnographies in class gave me a sense that the authors really understood the people and situations they were studying, perhaps like they knew what they were doing all along, although I knew it not to be the case. This experiment forced me to really understand how difficult this process is. What to focus on, how to connect points, and what to leave out, were questions that I answered, re-answered, and then questioned again. The biggest point that I learned, is the amount of time it takes. Many ethnographic books take years for the study to be conducted, and conclusions to be written. This was a three-hour observation and one page for each format. With this glimpse of ethnographic writing, I have a better understanding and appreciation for the detail that the authors we studied have applied.