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The Identity of the Contemporary Public Library

Margarita Pérez Pulido
Maurizio Vivarelli

4. Work in Progress

Libraries in Tuscany: Some Considerations on the Early Results of a Survey

Maria Pagano et Jennifer Cooke

Texte intégral

1. Fieldwork: observing the space, interpreting the library

  • 1  Also see the interesting studies by Carlotta Margarone, Conoscere per valutare, in Lo spazio della (...)
  • 2  Cf. M. Vivarelli, The Identity of the Contemporary Public Library. Theories for a Holistic Perspec (...)
  • 3  For an accurate description of observation criteria and techniques cf. Aurora Gonzáles-Teruel – Ma (...)
  • 4  Apologising for my self-reference, for those interested in a further analysis showing both the gri (...)

1The shifting documentary, relational, social and cultural dynamics taking place in the physical space of contemporary public libraries prompts researchers to start new paths that could help examine and familiarise with today’s and tomorrow’s public in these places, now undergoing continuous changes when compared to the traditional library paradigm from last century. The author has chosen, within the broader scope of her master’s thesis research, to explore a rather unknown avenue in library studies, but already amply explored in the past years in the museum world with so-called visitor studies, a course that can be ascribed to a specific interpretative framework, which can on the one hand be traced back to social semiotics, and on the other to the analytical perspectives based on ethnographic observations1. With the help of the theoretical grounds illustrated in specialised literature and of the applied ones provided by the main results of this kind of research heretofore published, we have attempted to study and analyse the identity of the library and its users focusing on three cases in Tuscany: the Biblioteca delle Oblate (Florence), the Biblioteca della Ginestra in Montevarchi (Arezzo) and the new institute MMAB. Montelupo Museo Archivio Biblioteca in Montelupo Fiorentino (Florence), within the methodological framework introduced and outlined in this volume2. The aim of this short paper is to introduce, in a non-comprehensive manner, a preliminary part of the results obtained at this early stage of the dissertation, involving fieldwork and quantitative and qualitative data collection, to give a sense of the direction we are taking, leaving all final interpretative considerations to a later stage, and to a broader reflection. The survey method adopted was developed in two separate but contemporary stages, and it is characterised by the use of an ethnographic research technique, i.e. distant or naturalistic observation, and of anonymous questionnaires handed out to both users and operators in the libraries covered3. Based on these premises the survey was carried out in some areas of the three libraries examined and namely: in the Biblioteca delle Oblate, the reference room on the first floor, the reading room on the second floor and the terrace, in a span of a week (from 16/6/2014 to 20/6/2014); in the Biblioteca della Ginestra, the entrance hall and the reading room on the second floor, narrowing down the observation to only three days because of the smaller spaces (from 24/11/2014 to 26/11/2014); and finally, in the MMAB, the entrance hall and the three reading rooms, again over a period of three days (from 27/11/2014 to 29/11/2014). Abiding by the workings typical of this kind of ethnographic approach, I kept aside from the events taking place, pretending to be one of the many students who go to the library every day to study for an upcoming exam, equipped with textbooks and a notebook. I made my remarks, structured ones too, using a grid about the most common typified actions of library-goers that I had devised during my bachelor’s dissertation4, and I kept a sort of “logbook” where I could freely note down what happened in that space-time lapse within my range of vision, following the flow and not interfering in any way with the reality I was in. Letting space-user and user-user interactions and their ensuing behaviours carry on, as if the researcher were absent, would allow to verify the occurrence of such typical phenomena when using a library space and indentify others that would help re-invent and re-interpret the actual role of the institution, in connection with its public and the use it makes of the facility. Each of the three libraries covered obviously has its own characteristics, however, some common elements have emerged from filling out the grids on the typified actions, even though a large and historical library in central Florence, such as the Oblate, and two smaller suburban situations, recently opened and with fewer users, like the Ginestra and the MMAB, were considered. First of all, this survey showed the already amply documented fact that most of their library-goers are young high school and university students, who use the premises to consult library material mainly with their own books and computer, staying in the facility throughout the whole day. Moreover, closely related to this survey, the bibliographic and digital resources of the three institutions are scarcely used by this large part of their public, whereas more elderly users or those aged 10 to 15 are more prone to loan or consult books, documents and magazines that belong to the library book collections. The remarks noted on the logbook partly confirm what the grids show, but they mostly give back the author’s point of view on the facilities and their use: they are traces engraved in the observer’s mind, which seen from an overall perspective convey what quantitative data are not able to tell. Taking into account that, like every experience based on observation and free human interpretation, this too cannot be unbiased nor exempt from inaccuracies, I hereunder report some of these impressions, once more pointing out that only some of the research project results will be here anticipated.

2The Biblioteca delle Oblate ought to be treated separately because of its peculiar spaces and users, and at least in this case, after wandering around its roomy and usually – for those who venture in them for the first time – labyrinthine spaces, one could state that the library is not merely frequented but “inhabited”, “lived”: its operators and regular goers are likely to see youths sitting on the terrace or cloister parapet repeating aloud what they are studying, maybe barefoot to find some solace from the summer’s heat or consuming food and drinks; these youngsters also often move tables and chairs around to form small study groups or simply to be able to gaze at Brunelleschi’s dome, flanked by tourists sipping a cocktail and taking pictures of the romantic Tuscan sunset. After a week spent at the Oblate, even the author is not surprised by the crowded and fully occupied areas, to the point of having to sit on the floor on the green wall-to-wall carpet covering the reading room on the top floor (the former children’s room), yet absolutely quiet and extremely well run by those who study in this building, and then behind a glass door one may see the crowded and noisy terrace, showing how lively a place of study and culture such as a library can be. These considerations take on an extra meaning if one thinks that in the past this very same building hosted a monastic order like that of the Oblates, where nuns lived in seclusion. The users’ appropriation of the spaces and decor connoting Florence library cannot be seen in the other two facilities, and this is probably because they were recently opened, thus preventing users and citizens from feeling already part of the library, and because smaller spaces allow a closer control on the operators’ part, which inhibits any behaviour different from the traditional and obsequious silence pervading the mind of most people when they think of a library. If, for example, at the Oblate the contrast silence vs noise is striking, at the Ginestra there is a calm vs movement one: in the three days I spent at a desk in the reading room on the second floor, it seemed to me that everything was marked by fixed times and methodical situations. The people frequenting the library were always the same, with small differences, and some of them always sat in the same spot and took coffee/cigarette breaks at fixed times, with a few minutes difference (at around 10:30 am and 4:30 pm). Alongside this calm, typical in the average university student’s routine, one notices on the other hand the movement of those attending the Ginestra to follow seminars, workshops, book clubs organised and run by the library operators, which are very popular in terms of public, also on days like Saturday and Sunday when libraries are usually less or not at all frequented. The last library taken into consideration is the MMAB (Montelupo Museo Archivio e Biblioteca) in Montelupo Fiorentino, for which it is not so easy to find a marked contrast between opposing situations, as is with the Oblate and the Ginestra, probably because its comparatively fewer potential users and smaller spaces make it difficult to pinpoint a clear divide between the different phenomena occurring. However, in this preliminary and cursory approach to results, I believe it is interesting to emphasise the feeling of easiness and somehow freedom one feels when walking and studying in its spaces. Indeed, there are no doors separating a reading room from another, not even to divide children’s rooms from those of adult users, and if this makes the library noisier than usual on the one hand, it does not prevent those who visit it from perusing and moving around it, on the other. Observing users’ behaviours and motions has led me to form a personal opinion on the relationship between architecture-design and users in MMAB specific case: the reading rooms where the library bibliographic collections are on display (from Italian and foreign fiction to art books, nonfiction and children’s books) feature a modern design, walls in pastel colours like blue, green and yellow, and the prevailing type of users is mixed, made up of middle and high school students, adults and elderly people. The reference room on the left of the entrance desk has wall bookshelves, like the rest of the library, containing bibliographic material on local history, the walls are cream white and the lighting is more dimmed than in the other rooms: this space, together with the upper mezzanine area with a dark wood ceiling, is filled almost exclusively with university students and adults, who need more concentration to carry out their study or research work. Now, if one were to compare the library to a house, the noisy and colourful reading rooms would be the children’s bedrooms, whereas the afore-described part would be the living room, and it may be for this more “elegant” design that adults and those accustomed to more academic environments like university students are inclined to occupy this area, which is consequently the most quiet one.

3All these considerations, resulting from the appraisal grids and the interpretation of what noted day by day, can be further elaborated with the graphs obtained analysing the questionnaire submitted to users and operators (cf. Appendix A), which is articulated into four macro areas. From the questions in the first two areas (for a total of 33 questions) one may analyse from the users’ point of view what are the most important aspects that guarantee the quality of library services and what are the most useful one to assess library staff’s competence, in the broadest sense of contemporary public library; whilst the other two macro areas focus on the specific features of each library examined and they precede the final part of the questionnaire, aimed at collecting information on the compiler (age, educational qualification, nationality, number of books read in the past year and use of social media). In the first macro area of the questionnaire many of the aspects characterising both the traditional concept of public library and reference library are described, in a way easy to understand and quick to fill out, and the modern evolutions and contaminations of those same models, following a structure articulated into four further subsections, featuring questions about:

  • architectural space (question 1, connected to the third macro area on the assessment of the space in each specific library);
  • custom services (questions 2 to 7);
  • extension and social-relational activities (questions 8 to 20);
  • cooperation and shared activities and services (questions 20 to 24).
  • 5  For a description of the method cf. A. Gonzáles-Teruel – M. Barrios Cerrejón, Métodos y técnicas p (...)
  • 6  To further analyse the reflections that have yielded this research hypothesis refer to the study b (...)

4In order to let users voice their opinion we thought of adopting Likert scale technique for the questionnaire structure, where to every question – technically called “item” – there is an answer expressed through a 5-point agree/disagree scale, from “extremely” to “not at all”5. The simple sum of the different opinions collected and their graphic elaboration permit to outline users’ overall point of view on a specific topic analysed in a reasonably accurate manner, however in the following research project we intend to account for the variables of data cross-referencing, thank to a section containing the information on the compiler, thus allowing us to evaluate any possible variations to each answer according to a specific group of respondents (age, educational qualification, etc.). By cross-referencing different information in the questionnaire we can obtain more accurate indicators and create a network of relations underlying the data themselves, which could not otherwise be seen by simply going through the single answers. Taking into consideration users’ overall opinions, comparing and cross-referencing them with some specific points of view related to certain features, all this by starting from the ground up, without any a priori knowledge nor direct interference, are all actions perfectly falling under the theoretical framework at the basis of the research hypothesis here outlined along two key parallel conceptual lines, i.e. holistic observation on the one hand, and phenomena observation on the other. Embracing a “holistic” point of view, considering all the different types of practices and techniques previously applied to the study of library institutions, connecting them to other techniques and methodologies coming from fields seemingly far away from library studies, such as the sociological, ethnographical one, etc., would give an overall picture of the analysed situation, whereas starting from ground up, from phenomena and not ideas, to study what happens in the physical and digital space of a public library would allow us to identify in perspective a more realistic interpretative model6. The goal is not to judge the type of answers against a given model, but to look for the appraisal of the different “phenomena” taking place in the documentary space, both bibliographic and extra-bibliographic ones. Therefore, the questions try to probe into the perception of relevance, both of custom “services” and of emerging activities, not yet fully included in the “model” that is being redefined. Moreover, special attention is given to the perception and appraisal of library staff skills, not only according to traditional standards but also in a more relational sense.

5The questionnaires were handed over both to users going to the loan desk in all three the libraries under examination and to their operators, during the period between 24th and 27th November, through a random sampling that considered the size of each single institution. Given the nature of this article we have decided to show, in the following bar graphs, the data relative to twenty-seven questionnaires filled out by users of the Ginestra library in Montevarchi. We have singled out some of the questions making up the structure of the questionnaires, pertinent to the degree of importance users give to some aspects of the library, which guarantee the quality of the library service provided (architectural space, quality of the online catalogue and loan services, activities to promote reading and information literacy, cooperation with other libraries and with charities, staff’s skills and professionalism). Because of the widespread use of social networks we have tried to analyse also if they were used or not by questionnaire compilers and which amongst the popular ones they used the most (Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Pinterest, LinkedIn).

1. Architectural space quality

1. Architectural space quality

2. Online catalogue quality

2. Online catalogue quality

3. Loan services quality

3. Loan services quality

4. Promotion of adult reading

4. Promotion of adult reading

5. Information literacy

5. Information literacy

6. Cooperation with other libraries

6. Cooperation with other libraries

7. Cooperation with charities

7. Cooperation with charities

8. Library staff professionalism

8. Library staff professionalism

9. Library staff professionalism. Social web users

9. Library staff professionalism. Social web users

10. Library staff professionalism. Social web non users

10. Library staff professionalism. Social web non users

2. Preliminary remarks

6These first excerpted charts show the answers in percentage, graduated according to response modulation provided for by Likert scale, while the last two charts account for the answers about library staff professionalism by so-called social users, i.e. those who declared they use social networks, and by non-social ones, those who do not use them. What emerges from a preliminary assessment of these early and partial results obtained can be summed up in few concise points:

  • the architectural space is not perceived as a key factor in the library overall appraisal (only 30% out of the total interviewees answered “extremely”), like what happens when judging collaboration and cooperation projects with other libraries or charities;
  • unlike what we may be led to believe by the time we live in and by the idea that the staff’s skills are nowadays unnecessary and little used, it clearly emerges that most of the Ginestra users (63%) think the presence of qualified and skilled staff is paramount in guaranteeing the quality of library services. This fact is confirmed by the large number of users (26% indicate “extremely” while 26% indicate “very”, thus confirming this is a sensitive topic) giving importance to information literacy activities, which obviously would not be able to take place without a qualified library staff. Therefore, it seems that in spite of the strong drive to modernisation, users still feel the need and are willing to rely on someone they trust like a librarian to expand their knowledge or simply untangle that confused bundle of information they deal with every day and that they cannot turn into knowledge on their own.
  • Cross-referencing the data appraising “library staff professionalism” item and “social user” and “non-social user” profiles shows that for the latter category (formed by 8 interviewees) library staff professionalism is paramount (88% of them chose the option “extremely”), while the percentage of social users deeming qualified and skilled professionals to be of key importance is not so outstanding (out of 19 interviewees only 53% chose the option extremely). This diversity could indicate, if compared to other parameters, that those who are more versed in using new technologies feel less the need to have someone with specific informational skills, since they are able to find what they need on their own, perhaps a little bit presumptuously.

7Through this multidirectional approach, given the complementarity and integration of the tools used, we believe it is possible to gain a more comprehensive knowledge of the library studied, and by so doing acquire a wider and more articulated view on its phenomena, assessing the different perspectives from which the complex reality of a library can be analysed.


8Questionnaire (each item is related to the values of Likert scale)

A)Which aspects do you believe are the most important to guarantee quality library services?

91) Quality of the architectural space (design, climate factors, “atmosphere”, informal sitting area)

102) Quality of collections (paper and electronic ones)

113)Quality of the online catalogue

124) Quality of services (loan, interlibrary loan, document delivery)

135) Quality of the reference service

146) Quality of digital services (Internet access, wi-fi)

157) Quality of services addressed to local culture

168) Quality of the use of social media (Facebook, Twitter etc.)

179)Services promoting children and youth reading

1810) Activities promoting adult reading

1911) Reading groups

2012) Quality of cross-cultural services

2113) Information literacy activities (learning to use digital technologies)

2214) Educational activities

2315) Classes, seminars

2416) Theatre/music performances and artistic events

2517) Library staff competence and skills

2618) Refreshment services (cafeteria etc.)

2719) Chances to establish meaningful human relationships

2820) Cooperation with other libraries

2921) Cooperation with archives and museums

3022) Cooperation with cultural associations

3123) Cooperation with schools

3224) Collaboration with charities to run some services (surveillance etc.)

B) Which aspects do you believe are the most important to judge the library staff’s professionalism?

331) Cataloguing skills

342) Reference services skills

353) Skills for reading promotion activities

364) Skills to manage digital services

375) Skills for information literacy activities

386) Skills for educational activities

397) Skills to organise classes, seminars, events

408) Kindness, congieniality, relational skills

419) Managerial skills (marketing, fundraising etc.)

C) The library space is:

421) Welcoming, pleasant

432) Well organised, functional

443) Too busy and noisy

454) Well equipped with paper documentary sources

465) Well equipped with documentary sources and digital services

476) Suitable for studying

487) Suitable to meet people

498) Effectively run

D) The library space I prefer is (Example taken from the questionnaire used for the Biblioteca delle Oblate):


51Reading room

52Internet services area

53Periodicals reading room

54Children’s area



Remarks, complaints, suggestions:

Information on the questionnaire compiler


58Educational qualification


60Number of books read in the past year

61Use of social media



1  Also see the interesting studies by Carlotta Margarone, Conoscere per valutare, in Lo spazio della biblioteca. Culture e pratiche del progetto tra architettura e biblioteconomia, a cura di Maurizio Vivarelli; collaborazione di Raffaella Magnano; prefazione di Giovanni Solimine; postfazione di Giovanni Di Domenico, Milano, Editrice Bibliografica, 2013, p. 434-438 and by Anna La Ferla, Dall’analisi del pubblico alla possibilità di nuovi modelli organizzativi. L’esperienza di Palazzo Madama (2006-2012), ivi, p. 438-441.

2  Cf. M. Vivarelli, The Identity of the Contemporary Public Library. Theories for a Holistic Perspective of Interpretation.

3  For an accurate description of observation criteria and techniques cf. Aurora Gonzáles-Teruel – Maite Barrios Cerrejón, Métodos y técnicas para la investigación del comportamento informacional. Fundamentos y nuevos desarrolos, Gijón, Trea, 2012, p. 159 – 182. The criterion for sampling is random and characterised by the fact that it «selecciona a los individuos en función de la posibilidad de acceder a ellos y de su voluntad de participar en el estudio y no por el echo de que sean representativos de la población» (ivi, p. 68-69). Distant or naturalistic observation intends to «osservare la realtà sociale e i modi di vita da una prospettiva “esterna”: il ricercatore osserva i fenomeni così come si manifestano spontaneamente, nel modo il più possibile neutro, senza intervenire a modificare il naturale svolgimento degli eventi e dei comportamenti delle persone» (Francesco Ronzon, Sul campo. Breve guida alla ricerca etnografica, Roma, Meltemi Editore, 2008, p. 63).

4  Apologising for my self-reference, for those interested in a further analysis showing both the grids structure that cannot be reported here, and the methodology underlying their creation, refer to M. Pagano, La biblioteca Archimede di Settimo Torinese. Un approccio sociosemiotico all’uso dello spazio, Dissertation in Library Studies, Università degli Studi di Torino. Corso di laurea in Beni culturali archivistici e librari, advisor prof. Maurizio Vivarelli, a.y. 2012-2013.

5  For a description of the method cf. A. Gonzáles-Teruel – M. Barrios Cerrejón, Métodos y técnicas para la investigación del comportamento informacional, p. 91, 17, 221.

6  To further analyse the reflections that have yielded this research hypothesis refer to the study by M. Vivarelli, Specie di spazi. Alcune riflessioni su osservazione e interpretazione della biblioteca pubblica contemporanea, «AIB studi», 54, 2014, 2/3, p. 181-199. DOI

Table des illustrations

Titre 1. Architectural space quality
Fichier image/jpeg, 76k
Titre 2. Online catalogue quality
Fichier image/jpeg, 67k
Titre 3. Loan services quality
Fichier image/jpeg, 63k
Titre 4. Promotion of adult reading
Fichier image/jpeg, 66k
Titre 5. Information literacy
Fichier image/jpeg, 73k
Titre 6. Cooperation with other libraries
Fichier image/jpeg, 77k
Titre 7. Cooperation with charities
Fichier image/jpeg, 70k
Titre 8. Library staff professionalism
Fichier image/jpeg, 64k
Titre 9. Library staff professionalism. Social web users
Fichier image/jpeg, 63k
Titre 10. Library staff professionalism. Social web non users
Fichier image/jpeg, 60k


Student at the master’s course in Historical Sciences, University of Turin. Email address maria.pagano[at]