Contextual Inquiry at Public Library

I decided to visit a nearby public library for my contextual inquiry.

Newspapers/Magazines Area

I was in the library late morning/midday on a weekday, and it was pretty busy. This is the first time I have visited this library. When I entered the library, I first went upstairs to the children’s area to see if my friend (fellow library student) was working. She was there but the children’s area was swamped (a toddler program had just finished and many people were staying to hang out longer. It seemed too crowded to observe (not to mention that I thought an adult without a child observing and taking notes in the children’s area might make people uncomfortable). I greeted my friend but went back downstairs to the main level. This level was busy but not as crowded.

On the plus side, the library has a lot of computers that patrons may use. On the down side, they have so many it was hard for me to find a place to sit that did not have a computer already! There were not many comfy chairs in the “main” area and few tables without computers (there are comfy chairs distributed deeper in the stacks, making them less optimal for observation, but probably good for quiet reading). The teen area had comfy chairs as well as empty tables and chairs (as well as a large sign declaring TEEN AREA FOR AGES 12-17 ONLY). Despite the busyness of the library it was totally empty, causing me to deduce they actually enforce this policy. The only other area with empty tables was in the Newspapers/Magazines section (also labeled “Laptop/Wifi Area” by hanging sign). Most tables had people at them but I found one empty where I could sit and face out viewing most of the main level. I was able to closely observe the Newspapers area and had a more distant view of the reference area, circulation desk, main entrance, and restrooms that were right next to the main entrance.


  • Almost everyone in this area was an adult. I observed one teen and two stroller children who each passed through briefly with a parent.
  • The tables in this area were made to sit 4-6 people. Most only had one or two people; people distributed themselves to empty tables when possible rather than sharing a table. Most patrons on the main level appeared to be there by themselves, the exception was a teen and an older man who appeared to be there together, with the teen playing on his tablet and the older man reading the newspaper.
  • About two thirds of the patrons had electronic devices. About half of the devices had visible library labels and were loaner laptops, the other half appeared to be their own devices. One teen sitting with an older man had a tablet, the other devices were laptops. Those who did not have electronic devices were mostly reading magazines or newspapers.
  • There are several dedicated library computer terminals but very few people used these. One woman with a child in a stroller came in and sat down at one terminal. The child (about 15-16 months old) began to fuss and the mother started talking to her cheerfully while trying to continue her computer task. “We’re just going to do this real quick and then we’ll be on our way.” An older male patron got up to leave and on his way out smiled and waved at the child, who stopped fussing. The mother smiled at him and said “Thank you.” She finished her task within a couple of minutes and left.
  • I observed many different staff members passing through; they tended to walk quickly and purposefully and looked busy and intent on something.
  • One adult male patron was pacing back and forth in the reference area the entire time I was there. He occasionally would shake something in his hand that sounded like a rattle or maraca.
  • Several people came to get newspapers or return them.
  • One man with a cane walked into the area and an older woman rose to greet him and suggest they go somewhere else; presumably this was an appointment of some kind, using the library as a place for meeting. They left the area.
  • The restrooms just inside the main door were in almost constant use. There were two single bathrooms, one labeled for men and one for women. Most of the people using the restroom came in the library, used the restroom and then left immediately. One man entered one of the restrooms and remained there for so long that a staff member from the circulation desk went to check on him as people were waiting. Their conversation was too quiet/far away for me to hear but did not appear disruptive (still can’t be fun to be the staff member who has to go and get the patron out of the bathroom).
  • An elderly woman came in and looked for a newspaper. She was talking out loud, apparently to herself but it was easy to hear her. She began by saying “Well, let’s see if I can find it this time.” She was squinting, shaking her head and saying “Monday, Monday, Monday” (presumably finding the previous day’s papers and not the current day, Tuesday). She then gave an audible, heavy sigh and walked away. She did not approach any library staff for assistance but wandered away through the library, again muttering audibly “They take it and sleep on it, every time.” She wandered back in about ten minutes or so, this time she muttered “Monday, Monday” and then “they take it and sleep on it.” At this point a male patron returned with a paper and offered it to her. She thanked him and set the paper on the table, and stood there to read it for about 5-7 minutes. Then she went to put it back and could not find where that paper went. At this point I noticed that the labels for the newspaper titles were in very small print. I had been trying to observe unobtrusively but at this point I got up to help the woman find the place where it went, “Excuse me, ma’am, the Daily Review is here.” She thanked me and put it back and then stopped to tell me about the newspaper issue (“They take the newspapers and sleep on them, I can never find today’s, it’s the same guy every time.”) I smiled sympathetically.


There seemed to be a large number of staff present, but they were always walking purposefully somewhere. I wonder if the library could be improved by having staff circulate more slowly, possibly making eye contact with people who looked up, smiling at them. Many people won’t “interrupt” busy looking staff but might be willing to ask a question of a staff member who did not look like he/she was charging somewhere much more important. Some of the pain points I observed might be observed simply by encouraging staff to move through the library more slowly and with an open, approachable attitude.

There seemed to be some tensions here stemming from the library being in a downtown area where poverty and homelessness are issues. The library is a relatively safe place to use a restroom or to spend time without being hassled to “move on.” I did not witness any disruptive behavior but some tensions appeared. As mentioned above, the restrooms were in constant use, mostly from people who enter the library only to use them.  I noticed that when I went upstairs to visit my friend in the children’s area, the bathrooms up there were labeled “Family Restroom” with an accompanying sign that states “These family restrooms are reserved for families using the Children’s Area. Please ask for the key at the Children’s Desk. Adult restrooms are located on the main floor of the library.” When I first saw this I was a little taken aback at the locked restroom, but after sitting downstairs and observing the constant use of the main restrooms, I realized this was probably a way to ensure that restrooms for small children stayed clean and available to them.

The man who was pacing nonstop in the reference area was not disruptive but his behavior was unusual and might make some patrons uncomfortable. Fortunately, people seemed to either accept or ignore it. I’m challenged to think of ways to improve this: on the one hand, people reading and working should have a quiet space for doing this. On the other hand, the man’s behavior was only odd, and he quite possibly faced harassment if he loitered in the downtown areas outside the library. Balancing these issues is probably a major ethical dilemma for public libraries in many areas. Some libraries, including the San Francisco Public Library, have a social worker on staff to help patrons who seem to be in need of it, but Hayward library may not be large enough for this kind of staffing. Pain points like this are difficult to address since they involve societal conditions beyond the library and I acknowledge they may be quite difficult to address. Even without a social worker, however, if library staff could make a point to greet and simply touch base with people, they might have an opportunity to help refer people to local services (which hopefully they are aware of). Getting to know people might also make it less awkward on occasions when behavior becomes disruptive and you need to ask it to stop. For some libraries, the issue of poverty and homelessness is a central problem grappled with by their community.

The newspapers were popular with the seniors at the library and were the other pain point I observed. The woman I observed was very annoyed and yet did not ask for any help. A circulating staff member, as I mentioned above, might have noted her situation (since she wandered around for several minutes), or more generally might be able to ask patrons who seemed to be done with their paper if another patron could have it. Another way to alleviate this pain point is to order more copies of the daily newspaper, or even to place the most popular papers at the information or reference desk to maintain some librarian control over the copies.

Before leaving I went back upstairs to chat with my friend for awhile. I mentioned the newspaper issue to her and she said “Oh yes, that’s always a bone of contention. We only get one copy of each paper and people get them and seem to hoard them.” It seems to me as if a fairly small expense (get more than one copy of the major newspapers!) could alleviate this pain point. I realize multiple newspapers probably don’t have much archival value once they are outdated, but given the popularity of newspaper reading with the senior patrons, it might be worth it (and this pain point is far easier to solve than major social issues).

Another possible improvement might be in the furniture. Very few people used the dedicated library terminals, and almost all the open tables were taken, usually by only one person. Providing some empty desk stations, or tables with carrel-like divisions, where individuals with their own devices could work might be more practical than large tables for many people. Almost all users were individual.


This was very eye-opening. In particular the issue of poor or homeless patrons made me realize that some of the issues public libraries face are very intractable ones. How to improve something over which you have minimal control is difficult to imagine, and yet to be a part of a community means trying to help the community with real community issues.

I also realized how important it is to really observe what goes on in a library. Library staff may not realize the unapproachable aura they give off by charging around looking rushed. They may be willing to help people–and regular patrons probably feel comfortable interrupting them, but new patrons may not.

Wood wrote, “Our mind-set is that people are really just like us, and they’re really not” (Wood, 2013). I saw this reflected in the newspaper issue, which is one I did not at all anticipate. I don’t read newspapers at all, and I confess when I heard the woman muttering about not being able to find today’s paper, the thought ran through my head “So what? Websites are always today’s news.” Newspapers are clearly very important to some community members, however. Quite possibly this is a situation where “something is more than itself” (Wood, 2013). For some the ritual of going to the library and reading the newspaper may well be an important way to connect with others and be part of a community, even in just a small way. For the poor and homeless the library may be more than a library–it is a place where they can meet a basic need for a bathroom or just be safe for awhile without needing a reason to account for their presence. This was an important reminder of how much the library can mean to someone who does not have many “safe spaces” to choose from.


Wood, G. (March 20 2013). Anthropology inc. The Atlantic. Retrieved from




About mollificence

library student, writer, mom, Kindle addict View all posts by mollificence

2 responses to “Contextual Inquiry at Public Library

  • Sarah Liberman

    Molly, I’m impressed with all the stories you observed! It is sad that one of the big themes was staff going through as if with blinders. Why might they feel overwhelmed enough to avoid interacting with patrons? Why do they feel rushed?

    • mollificence

      I am not sure. They may after all genuinely be busy (probably are). The librarians I saw interacting with patrons (at the circulation desk, at the children’s desk) were friendly and helpful and engaging. I don’t think they are purposely avoiding contact–I think it is most likely not realizing how the swift pace appears on the outside–one of the many reasons contextual inquiry is so valuable. Just as we always know what we mean and sometimes miss how we failed to convey that in a sign or instructions, we know our own intentions and don’t always realize how our behavior appears to others. (As an introvert who sometimes appears cold to others, I should be charitable about this!!)

      My guess is that the staff at this library would be surprised at the impression I got. I have a friend who works at that library (children’s librarian) and she is a passionate librarian and loves this library and really believes in its mission. And you can tell at this library that they do care about this community. So, what’s going on? I think they are probably eager to do their jobs. I think that they don’t realize that a slightly slower pace and a smile or two could make a big difference in how approachable they seem while crossing the space. I think it’s a lesson for all of us that it is easy to forget how preoccupied we can look just by the way we move around a space.

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