In the public eye: A mass observation of the public library

Alistair Black, Melvyn Crann

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Reports results of a study which aimed to apply the technique used to gather data for the Mass Observation Archive (MOA) to the study of user behaviour in the public library. The study was designed to provide an open access public commentary on the public library and reveal what the public library does well, what it does badly and what it means to both its users and non-users. The research also sought to demonstrate the validity of the mass observation (MO) method and its possible adaptation by library authorities for use at the local level. The data for the study was obtained from the written testimony of 231 contributions (64 men and 167 women) gathered from volunteers in response to the request for observations on public libraries and was gathered by the 'autobiographical diary' method, as employed by the MOA. The project was conceived in purely academic terms as a study of an 'everyday' social institution, the results of which could prove to be of interest in their own right and which could be said to reinforce the proposition that investigating the sociology of libraries tells us as much about society as it does about libraries. The discourse analysis which was applied to the data was used to reveal specific aspects of library use, including: general impressions; cuts in services; social exclusion; commercialization; use of computers; public place/private space issues; library staff; and buildings, design and ambience. The project was judged to be a success and it is concluded that the MO approach to studying library use is a practical and useful one. Although there are methodological deficiencies inherent in the MO method (subjectivity of views, temptation to embellish observations, unrepresentative nature of the volunteer panel), these can be allowed for in the final data evaluation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)145-157
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Librarianship and Information Science
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2002

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Library and Information Sciences


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