Guest post: Ethnography and UX in libraries: What I learnt in Russia

Today’s guest post comes from ILN participant, Anne Reddacliffe.

My interest in ethnography and user experience (UX) in libraries comes from a trip I took to Eastern Europe. I visited six libraries in Russia, Belarus, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. During my library tour I kept a record of my observations on how library space was being used. For example, I watched a photo shoot taking place on the steps of the Russian State Library and a skateboarder using the grounds outside the National Library of Latvia. At Russian libraries I observed library steps as meeting places. Like the Spanish Steps in Rome, people gather here to sit and talk in the sun. All around the world libraries are being used for recreation and for the aesthetic of their buildings not just for research and study. Through my observations I came to see that UX in the space outside the library is just as varied and intriguing as UX within the library.

The steps of the Russian State Library

The steps of the Russian State Library

Ethnography is the study of people, their cultures and customs while UX is the process by which we understand how users interact with a product, service or space in psychical, social and emotional ways. In order to understand UX at different libraries in Eastern Europe I used techniques from ethnography. I photographed library spaces and kept a field journal of my observations, as anthropologists do. Research in the library world is often cemented in statistics and surveys but I prefer a qualitative approach like ethnography. It encourages researchers to make observations and to have empathy with the people they study. Ethnography is a more in depth approach to studying how users are engaging with the library space.

Skateboarder outside the National Library of Latvia

Skateboarder outside the National Library of Latvia

I think ethnography is an important tool for researching UX as it allows us, as librarians, to walk in the shoes of our library users. My experience at libraries in Eastern Europe gave me the opportunity to observe and reflect on how library space is being used and how visitors appropriate the library’s space according to their physical, geographical and emotional needs. This insight and empathy was only possible through ethnography. I hope to see ethnography gain more popularity as a methodology for library research.

Have you used ethnography in your library? What did you learn?

Posted in Guest post and tagged , , , , , .


  1. Thanks for sharing the pictures, Anne. It was very interesting to read about ethnography as a research approach. I work at the Russian State Library and would like to say that we plan to open a new library building just in ten days. It will be Ivanovsky Hall – a library building which will present some completely new concepts for visitors. Firstly, it will be an exhibition hall where every digital installation is connected with book, its history, and design. Secondly, Ivanovsky Hall will have educational meaning with focus on bookwork. And, finally, it will be a space for reading where everyone can come up to the shelves and read a book of his interest.

  2. I like your concept of blending ethnography and UX and explaining it as a way to walk in library users’ shoes. I am a user experience librarian at a US university, and ethnography and UX is part of my daily learning activities as well. It’s very important for me to sit among the students in the library. I often come out of my office, check out a laptop, and find a study table to write, or watch (ethnography that is). Sitting with the students is very important so that we understand their needs and expectations of the library. I learned that these needs and expectations don’t always have to be said: You can see it in the way students move the furniture, that we need more outlets and have them in logical places. You can see it in the way students collaborate that we need bigger tables for large groups or more chairs in a specific area. Students will rearrange a space to meet their needs. You can observe students looking around trying to find a resource and this tells us we may need better signage. These are some of the things I learned through ethnographic studies using a UX lens.

  3. Hello Anne. What has been your experience in publishing ethnographic research in peer-reviewed journals? This year I wrote an article using an autoethnographic approach, a methodology developed in the arts which uses the researcher’s experience and reflection as the data source. I think it’s an approach suitable for practitioners who for a range of reasons aren’t able to implement quantitative approaches but who want to explore questions arising from their experience. I’ve certainly found it useful for thinking about key features of my ten years in libraries. Three peer reviewers all suggested that I remove the personal pronouns, although the autobiographical nature of the process was explained in the methodology section of the article. This would have entailed a major rewrite (not necessarily a problem) but would have obscured the autobiographical element, the fundamental characteristic of the method, and lead other readers to ask, “Well where does the data come from?” I haven’t yet heard whether it will be published but half expect that it won’t be, a decision which seems to be based on unfamiliarity with the method. Autoethnography is different from ethnography but I think ethnography is also fairly new to library and information management research – how have you fared with publishing?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *