Seeing Through the Eyes of Students: Participant Observation in an Academic Library

Linda Bedwell, Caitlin S. Banks


Participant observation of study spaces in the Killam Memorial Library at Dalhousie University revealed significant insight into the study behaviours of individual students and groups, the impact of building design on these behaviours, and the research methodology itself. The effect of unintentional panoptical design (on adherence to quiet study rules) and ambient noise (on productivity and popularity of spaces) were both observed, as were the blending of social and academic activities, and the choices of students to work individually and collaboratively within a community environment rather than solitude.

As an ethnographic methodology, participant observation is rarely conducted in library spaces. This study proves the value of this methodology when students observe fellow students. Their complete membership in the culture under observation permits unobtrusive access and a richness of collected data that is enhanced by observer insight into student life.


ethnography; observation; student study; user-behaviour; library space; anthropology; study-behaviour

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Partnership: the Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research (ISSN: 1911-9593)