Ethnographic Design: Creating Community-Centered Libraries

David Vinjamuri
Ditto Press
Published in
15 min readJun 27, 2022

by David Vinjamuri and Joseph Huberty

The landscape of American libraries is littered with relics of old design practices. Gems of innovative and transformational thinking are scattered among cookie-cutter libraries with interiors that could be dropped in from the middle of the last century. If there is a coherent approach to library design, it is limited to a set of peer group comparisons, statistical averages and trendlines around collection size and required seating. Combining these with modern furniture and an on-trend space or two like a maker lab yields an updated library.

Photo by Mario Purisic on Unsplash

The problem with this approach is that it treats Fairbanks, Alaska like Fort Myers, Florida and leads to homogenization of services that library patrons receive across dramatically different communities. This disconnect is rooted in a lack of understanding at the municipal level about actual business that libraries engage in. Non-users see libraries as subsidizing agents — lenders of free books. Young, upper-middle class parents (the exact demographic of town councils around the country) view libraries as enrichment zones for young children. Seniors (the demographic of many library boards) see them as sanctuaries for quiet reading promiscuously co-opted by a variety of noisy and pernicious groups.

These are caricatures to be certain, but the overall truth of this sketch is evident in the interior layout of thousands of libraries — even those renovated in the past few years. Many assume that pre-teens will meekly join kindergartners in a children’s library space. Fewer have adequate space for tutoring, meeting space for small businesses, workspace for freelancers, nutritional education and support for working class families and health services like diabetes and high blood pressure screenings.

These services are relevant precisely because libraries are the last truly public space in our society, the last place that entertains every manner and sort of resident. With over 1.3 billion visits last year, libraries are also an incredibly efficient way to reach and deliver services to a population with a wide variety of physical, educational, civic and emotional ailments.

What is Design?

The root of the disconnect between those who design libraries (space planners, consulting librarians, interior designers and architects), those who fund and authorize their construction (municipal boards, school and university leadership and library boards) and those who administer them (library directors and staff) is a lack of mutual agreement on the optimal design process. Part of this is a lack of shared interest. Librarians want effective spaces that meet the needs of the community, but most don’t have an easy way to express this in terms that designers or funders comprehend. Municipalities want to please patrons (especially voters) but also need to balance budgets. Designers are sometimes paid as a percentage of construction costs or on a fixed fee, giving them distinctly different incentives than either of the other two groups.

And most importantly, the question of divining community needs — an area of specialty learning for over two and a half centuries — doesn’t fall within the expertise of any of these three groups. Librarians get a master’s degree that rarely if ever has a course in consumer research, facilities planning or space management in the curriculum. Municipal leaders and board members are focused on the process of funding, deploying and operating services. Designers are expert in meeting expressed needs but less expert in uncovering them. The art and science of uncovering the needs of individuals in a community is largely practiced in two other completely distinct fields: cultural anthropology and consumer marketing.

Ethnographic Design is the process of designing libraries in synch with the needs of the community, and it is differentiated by techniques of observation and analysis drawn from cultural anthropology through consumer marketing.

What is Ethnography?

Ethnography, attributed to the eighteenth century Siberian-focused anthropologist Gerhard Muller, is the study of cultures from the point of view of participants in that culture. Ethnography has been practiced over the past two-and-a-half centuries in various ways, often involving the co-habitation of the anthropologist with the culture in question. Ever since the development of photography, cameras have served as a proxy for the ethnographer, allowing one more layer of intimacy with the subjects of the ethnography.

In the late twentieth century, marketers began to adopt techniques of cultural anthropology to better understand how consumers did laundry, shopped at grocery stores and arrived at hotels. The techniques used could be as simple as setting up a fully stocked grocery store swarming with hidden cameras on the grounds of a consumer products company and paying volunteers to shop, as broad as shipping out thousands of disposable video cameras to frequent flyers and having them document their own check-in and boarding experiences or as detailed as watching consumers interacting on large monitors with simulated store shelves while tracking the movement of their eyes. In the same way that investment advisors and credit analysts are essentially applied microeconomists, consumer marketers became applied cultural ethnographers.

What is Ethnographic Design?

Ethnographic Design gives library designers a research and analytic process along with a set of tools derived from consumer marketing research that can be used in conjunction with library administrators and funders. These tools allow designers and administrators to evaluate the needs of the community that a library serves, and to conform the space to the needs of the community.

The research end of the ethnographic design are consumer research techniques that originated in ethnography. Direct observation and video ethnography are tools that we add into the mix of public forums, focus groups and survey research that are already commonly used in library design.

On the analytic side, we use heat-mapping and circulation efficiency calculations to inform the balance between collection storage and display-oriented merchandising within a library space. We then segment users and uses of the library by dayparts (which comes from retail store marketing), understanding that the library performs different functions for different groups of people at different times of the day and that very few libraries have enough space to allow certain areas to go completely unused for large portions of every day.

Finally, we analyze pathways to understand how zone placement creates problem adjacencies, dead zones and inefficient space use.

Direct Observation

Designers will commonly conduct observations and interview library staff to discern patron behavior in a library. These steps are relevant and important, but they are insufficient for two reasons: 1. Library staff have biases based on their working conditions and needs that are important to understand but may not fully reveal patron needs and 2. Designers are generally very time constrained and may fail to observe the full range of behaviors and uses across dayparts that are common in the library. And lets be honest, they have their own set of biases.

The other missing element in the common practice of observational research in library design is that it primarily takes place inside the library. This makes the process of identifying unmet needs — particularly those that may arise from new communities members or changing external conditions — especially fraught.

One common belief in the design community is that these deficiencies can be overcome by responsive research — asking patrons and community members to define their own needs. This is important, but insufficient. As consumer marketers well understand, some of the most vital needs are unexpressed or even unknown to the user. What consumer before the dawn of the Internet, the smartphone and high speed wireless data would have been able to express the desire to be freed of the physical workplace through a combination of communication, productivity and research tools delivered wirelessly through the air to supercomputers that could be held in a pocket or backpack?

In an idea world, direct observation takes place in the community on a continual basis. We had the privilege of working on a tribal library where university ethnographers had been conducting ethnographic observation over a period of years. A number of hidden community issues emerged from this research — a lack of meal planning skills, gaps in financial literacy, inadequate health education and unhealthy eating practices and a lack of intergenerational cultural and knowledge transfer. These issues would have been difficult or impossible to derive from traditional research methods.

Over-the-Shoulder Observation

Another element of ethnographic design which is less common in the library design world (though it has been used in a number of University Library projects) is over-the-shoulder observation, also commonly called video ethnography.

Instead of handing out disposable video cameras, video ethnography now often uses either head-mounted cameras (such as GoPro cameras) or smartphone apps. The biggest benefit of this research technique is that it yields different results than survey or focus group research. Often, we find things that we weren’t even looking for.

Here’s an example: In a research project in 2017, the library director at the Greenburgh Public Library defined several common tasks, and we sent graduate students unfamiliar with the library in to accomplish them. One task was for a student to find a specific business book, whose title the Library Director provided. We expected this task to yield an understanding of interactions with different library desks and the OPAC. But along the way, we gained a surprising insight:

Maria searching for a call number in the Greenburgh Public Library

Maria fails to see a sign printed on an 8.5” x 11 sheet of paper — the very sign that would have told her the book she was looking for had moved to a different location in the library. Instead, she spends the next five minutes searching in vain for the title before approaching another librarian who locates the book for her. Investigating further, we realized that vision is somewhat task-centric. Because Maria is looking at Dewey numbers on book spines, her brain ignores a sign that is the same size and shape as a book cover. That’s the kind of insight we can glean from video ethnography. This particular study was conducted with a GoPro camera and a researcher continuously interviewing our subject. It’s a labor intensive method, but the advance of smartphone technology has opened up a new kind of video ethnography that can be administered more easily.

The new breed of ethnographic tools are iPhone and Android-based apps that study participants use to record pictures, audio and video as they respond to tasks pushed down to them by the research administrator. All of these images and recordings are uploaded to a cloud server that allows administrators and researchers to view the progress of a study in real-time and even to re-allocate or assign additional tasks. This was unthinkable less than a generation ago.

We partnered with the Winnetka-Northfield Public Library District in Illinois and Field Notes — a mobile ethnography app provider — to test over-the-shoulder observation in Winnetka’s main library and Northfield branch locations. Field Notes provided free use of this software for this test, which we detailed at the ALA Annual Conference in Washington DC on June 27th.

In Winnetka, patrons helped confirm some of our impressions from an audit visit and zone review of the two spaces. Here are three examples.

First, a patron enters the library and finds a single library staff member at the circulation desk faced away from her. This graphically illustrates some of the difficulty with the entrance to this particular building.

Entry Issues at Winnetka Branch

Second, a patron at the Northfield branch is looking for a book to read. After scanning a few spine-in titles, her vision neatly follows the face out titles and she ultimately selects one to check out. This is a great illustration of merchandising basics and confirms what we’ve quantitatively seen with circulation velocity from displays against spine-in shelving.

Browsing for a book at Northfield Branch

Finally, a patron who is a fan of some outdoor patio seating at the main library unwittingly confirms one of the issues with this particular area — it is too close to a road that has considerable truck traffic, frequently drowning out conversations.

Patio along busy road at Winnetka Branch

Over the shoulder observation is a strong adjunct to traditional survey and focus group research, sometimes answering questions that we would not think to ask. It is also a strong persuasion tool. Showing patrons experiencing challenges is more effective than second-hand descriptions of the same problems when we’re trying to persuade those municipal leaders to fund libraries.

Heat Map Analysis

Many public libraries have legacy designs that allocate most of the available floor space to the storage of collection items and much less space to seating and work surfaces or to study, meeting and program rooms for patrons. This practice predates both the Internet and the explosion of titles in the publishing industry. In 1950, an average library serving a population of 100,000 or more could purchase 14,000 new collection items annually. The same year, there were 11,000 books published in the U.S. Today, over 1 million titles are published annually. This means that each library can acquire only a fraction of the available titles published each year. Determining the optimal collection size for any library must start with a definition of the core collection. The core collection should be the group of items that represent the minimum depth in any particular area that the library must have on hand at all times. Remembering that many libraries belong to consortia that allow titles to be shared among members, this is really a balance between the on-hand collection and items which may require a few days for fulfillment.

When this number is determined, additional collection items should be shelved on the basis of circulation efficiency. Because libraries can’t have everything, each item in the collection (beyond the core collection) should be added only on the basis of the ability to circulate. Heat mapping analysis allows us to optimize this process. We normalize the footprint of the library to square feet, and for each display and shelving unit, divide the number of titles circulating during a defined period by the square feet occupied by the shelving. For this to be effective, it’s important to be able to determine which items circulated from displays rather than from stacks.

A heat map of collection and display circulation in Bettendorf, Iowa

By this method, we see that displays are between 10 and 100 times more effective than spine-in shelving at circulating collection items. This allows us to define a collections strategy that uses dense shelving for storage and displays for circulation.

Daypart Analysis

Another analytic technique imported from the consumer world — specifically retail — helps us understand how library usage may change during the course of a day or between weekday and weekends or school times and summer. This analysis visually illustrates who is using each part of the library at a particular day and time and for what task. This allows us to visually identify zone conflict (when two incompatible uses of a particular space are happening at the same time — for example noisy middle-schoolers and seniors reading newspapers). It also shows areas that are dead zones at specific hours, and could be repurposed.

Here is an example from the Carrier Library at George Mason University (we’re pretending it’s a public library in this case). In the morning daypart, there are no particular zone conflicts. Though we have more than one group sharing zones in some places, all of the uses are compatible.

A hypothetical daypart map using the Carrier Library’s floorplan

In the after-school daypart, however, problems emerge. The principle issue here is the zone conflict near the front of the library between latchkeys (kids in the library while waiting for afterschool pickup who generate lots of noise) and freelancers (who are trying to work in the same space). In real life, the Carrier library does experience some of this issue, but it’s caused by college students entering the library in the time between classes, and disrupting the studies of other students who are working.

The same hypothetical usage map, at a different time of day.

Pathway Analysis

The next issue is understanding how patrons move through library space, and how effectively the pathways allocate the available space in the library. Library designers have always looked at pathways when designing space, but our analysis adds additional components. We are interested in lengthening some pathways (such as the route to holds, or to new fiction) to create a more even usage of library space as well as to provide the opportunity for curated discovery. In the example below, we look at the space in Bettendorf Public Library (in Iowa) and how we can extend pathways as well as separating the pathways for adults and children moving through the library.

Defining new pathways for the Bettendorf Public Library in Iowa

Designing for Insights

With the benefit of these research and analytic tools, we can design spaces to meet the observed needs of library patrons. Sometimes these observations combined with a careful analysis of the available space can yield surprising results. Here are two examples:

  1. Community College Library: At this New Jersey community college library, observational feedback from librarians was that many students were in their twenties and thirties and parents of small children, and that these students often had childcare responsibility while still needing to study at the library. They suggested adding a children’s room — which would have been a groundbreaking step for their institution. Further observation of these parent/students suggested an additional dynamic at play — a guilt response that made the parents reluctant to ‘stash away’ the children, even in a secure zone within the library. In zone analysis of the library [below], we identified a spot where parents might work while in sight of their children within the library.
A 3-D rendering for a NJ Community College adds a zone to meet the needs of parent-students

This plan allowed the architectural design to pick up and extend on this theme, designing a secure but transparent child interactive zone surrounded by a laptop bar and meeting pods. This allowed student parents the flexibility of working while still observing their children.

The new zone combines interactive play and family seating with a laptop bar and meeting pods.

2. Tribal Library — We were fortunate to work with professional ethnographers from a state university on this project. Their multi-year project revealed a number of important community needs that we may not have been able to discern by interviewing tribal leadership and members. Chief among these were the needs of patrons for education related to healthy food preparation and meal practices. In addition, one of the challenges of this non-reservation tribe was created by several generations of intermarriage with non-tribal locals. This meant that a dwindling number of families preserved tribal knowledge and practices, and intergenerational knowledge transfers would be key to the preservation of tribal culture. Given this issue, our zone plan featured a children’s area in close proximity to adult areas.

Zone plan for a tribal library

The architectural design evolved the ‘living room’ space into a children’s interactive area with adult seating on the periphery. Unlike the community college library, this space is designed for more intermingling between tribal elders and children, all located immediately next to the circulation desk for easy monitoring.

Three Final Thoughts

Ethnographic Design is a framework to allow library administrators, funders and designers to collaborate more effectively, and to fully understand the needs of a community when allocating and designing library spaces. Not every library project allows for each form of research to be completed. Some communities may be very sensitive to the presence of cameras in the library or even more so inside the homes of the most vulnerable residents. In the real world, the perfect cannot be the enemy of the good.

Here are three final things to consider when embarking on a library design project:

  1. Observation is better than opinion — The quote attributed to Margaret Meade “What people say, what people do, and what they say they do are entirely different things” is revealing. Observing community members rather than just asking them to express needs will often yield different insights.
  2. Dayparts Matter — Your library is a different place at different times. Designing space so that it can flex between dayparts and serve different needs at different times is the best way to ensure that each space sees optimal use.
  3. Your most important patrons may not be in the library — As libraries struggle to meet the needs of patrons, they must also recognize that some of the patrons with the greatest needs may not be in the library. Understanding the needs of the community outside of the library with particular sensitivity to transportation gaps, nutritional needs, work schedules, etc. is critical if the library wants to find the most pressing community needs and address them.

David Vinjamuri is adjunct Associate Professor of Marketing at New York University and runs ThirdWay Brand Trainers. He is author of Library Space Planning: A PLA Guide (ALA, 2019). Contact: david@brandtrainers.com

Joe Huberty is Principal Architect with Engberg Anderson Architects. He has spent over thirty years designing and building libraries and other public buildings and has a passion for creating great spaces for people. Contact: joeh@engberganderson.com

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David Vinjamuri
Ditto Press

Associate Professor (adj.) at New York University. Principal at ThirdWay Space. Author of "Space Planning: A PLA Guide" (American Library Association, 2019)