“Speak, friend, and enter” – Labyrinths, symbolic spaces, and gated communities in university libraries

Paper accepted for the conference „UX in Libraries II“, 2016 in Manchester!!!

“‘What does it mean by speak, friend, and enter?’ asked Merry. ‘That is plain enough’, said Gimli. ‘If you are a friend speak the password, and the doors will open, and you can enter.’”[1]

Gate to Marsh’s Library, Dublin, 2013

Library spaces can work as gated communities and labyrinths. They can hinder users in navigating through the information architecture built of rooms, shelves and books. The spaces even work as access deniers: If a user or visitor hasn’t enough library experience, he/she will get lost within the library building. Even PhD students and fellows mention that they avoid going into some libraries because they feel getting lost. But for those who succeed, library spaces often are symbolic spaces. People appropriate spaces, that means they understand and modify the social and material environment by for instance choosing a favourite (work)place, (re-)arranging the furniture, and switching on/off the light. They develop a feeling of belonging and ownership over ‘their spaces’ – so a desk and a chair can become a professional workplace for them. To support this a library has to provide what I like to call “human centred spaces”: spaces that take into account that there are different characters of library users (like personas), different aims of library visits, and different contexts.[2]

Using a mix of methods of user experience research and ethnography (which are often very similar) like participant observation, walkthroughs, interviews, and mental maps, I conducted a comparative case study among university libraries in England, Norway, Germany, and Switzerland in a seven years lasting research project. My presentation will illustrate some of the results and trace the used methods along examples from the data material. The aim is to give an insight in possibilities to investigate and improve library spaces.

Anna Amalia Library Weimar

Former entrance of Anna Amalia Library, Weimar, 2012

[1] Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel, 2007 [Orig.: 1954]: The Fellowship of the Ring. London: HarperCollinsPublishers. P. 367.

[2] According to Shackel, Brian, 1991: Context, Framework, Definition, Design and Evaluation. Cambridge: University Press. P. 23.

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