vol. 25 no. 4, December, 2020

Proceedings of ISIC: the information behaviour conference, Pretoria, South Africa, 28th September to 1st October, 2020.

Short paper

The influence of spatial attributes on users’ information behaviour in academic libraries: a case study

Caroline Ilako

Introduction. Information practices manifest differently among diverse library users, because space influences the different activities that library users engage in. Lefebvre’s spatial triad theory was used to illustrate how library spaces influence spatial activities and hence affect information behaviour of users.
Method. A qualitative, ethnographic study method was applied. Participant observations and interviews with library users were conducted from May to December 2019 within Makerere University.
Analysis. The data were analysed using thematic analysis.
Results. Information behaviour appears as the central activity within the library spaces, within those spaces and academic and non-academic behaviour manifest as a result of user engagement within the different spaces. It was thus revealed that different attributes support users’ activities such as reading, discussionsamong users and therefore sharping their space preference.
Conclusion. Space is both a physical and social object that has a direct influence on its inhabitants’ spatial activities, perceptions and experiences. The concept that space is socially constructed is empirically supported through the social relations that users create as they engage in different activities. The availability of space attributes such as enclosed spaces, noise levels, lighting and space attachment influence the spatial activities and experience of users in a positive or negative way.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.47989/irisic2029


This paper explores the space attributes which support users’ activities in academic library spaces. It uses a case study of Makerere university library; it draws on the concept that space is socially constructed and argues that different space attributes shape the behaviour of users as they respond to their immediate need suggesting that the behaviour may change subject to both the nature of space and the needs of the users. The recognition of the most appropriate space for a particular task means that university community members have specific attributes that they look for in spaces and these attributes influence how space is utilised (Cha and Kim, 2015). Information behaviour is used to mean the process of seeking and using information by an individual (Wilson, 1999) and academic libraries facilitate the information seeking process through the provision of multifaceted services and facilities that are responsive to the information needs of the users. An analytical framework based on a French philosopher Henri Lefebvre’s spatial triad of interconnected moments in the production of space (1991) was applied to investigate information behaviour of users in library spaces.

Being a Marxist, Lefebvre conceptualised urban spaces not as physical but as embodying power relations and constructed through meaning attributed to them and behaviour enacted in them, thus a product of interactions of social powers.

Against this background, Lefebvre (1991) developed a spatial triad framework based on three elements i.e., spatial practice (perceived space), representations of space (conceived space) and representational spaces (lived space). In the triad, he conceptualises space as a social product stating ‘that humans not only produce social relations and use-values, but in doing so also produce social space’. In more general terms, extending beyond social space to all physical spaces, one can say that ‘each living body is space and has its space: it produces itself in space and it also produces that space’ (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 170), indicating a relationship between people, space and spatial practices. He defines the triad as:

The spatial practice of a society secretes that; it propounds and presupposes it, in a dialectical interaction; it produces it slowly and surely as it masters and appropriates it. From the analytic standpoint, the spatial practice of a society is revealed through the deciphering of its space (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 35).

Thus, spatial practice is evident in the daily routines of the occupants in the physical space and their perception.

(2) Representations of space (conceived space): ‘conceptualized spaces which are tied to the relations of production and to the 'order' which those relations impose, and hence to knowledge, to signs, to codes, and to 'frontal' relations’ (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 37). These are different spaces as conceived by scientists, architects, planners, engineers and artists who design the spaces according to what is lived, perceived and what is conceived. Lefebvre (1991) argues that this is the principal space that influences all the other spaces.

(3) Representational spaces (lived): ‘space as directly lived through its associated images and symbols, and hence the space of 'inhabitants' and 'users’ (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 39), it can be symbolic or physical spaces or both. This is dominated and experienced space that connects physical space, representations of space and perceived spaces.

Lefebvre (1991) further explains that these three elements (perceived-conceived-lived) have a dialectical relationship with one another. Conceived spaces are the core spaces where planners, architects, engineers and artists have an impression of what spaces should be and then develop those physical spaces which are used by the users. How the spaces are built influence how users perceive them, their behaviour and the activities as well as users’ experiences (lived). According to Lefebvre (1991), the three elements are not static and thus change with time and purpose implying that the purpose of space may change as influenced by the user behaviour or behaviour may change as influenced by the nature and design of space.

Although Lefebvre’s work is abstract on the conceptual level, it has the potential to provide a rich and insightful exploration of academic library spaces considering that the spaces are socially constructed. Lefebvre (1991) only provides a preliminary sketch of the spatial triad which leaves a lot of room for authors to adapt and interpret the triad to suit their research needs. For this paper, spatial practices (perceived) and representational spaces (lived) were explored to report on the partial findings of an ethnographic study in four universities in Uganda with the aim of understanding the relationship between library spaces and library user information behaviour by addressing the research question:

What space attributes support users’ activities in Makerere university library (Maklib)?

Literature review

Lefebvre’s (1991) spatial triad was adapted to study library spaces in different ways. Griffins (2010) examined how library space is influenced by the changes in time. He compares the different aspects of space in the present and past in order to develop the new meaning of space in the Owen Sound Carnegie library. His findings reflect that the library has changed over time and has become a place the community associated with. Wakaruk (2009) applied the triad to understand the expectations and experiences of library users in order to interpret the meaning of spaces. In the article, she highlights the need for creating democratic and responsive spaces. Similarly, Given and Virginia (2004) conducted a qualitative study to illustrate the lived experiences of the library by undergraduate students. The disparity between demand and supply of space mainly occurs because architects and librarians assume the roles of users and design services according to their assumptions about how users should fit within library workflows (Connaway and Faniel, 2014). In Wilson’s model of information behaviour (1996) he illustrates environmental factors as intervening variables or information seeking barriers. Although he doesn’t mention exactly what these factors are, space attributes can be factors that may stimulate the users to conduct either passive or active information seeking. Understanding what information behaviours manifest within different spaces is the first step towards designing user-centred spaces (Beagle, 1999; Bennet, 2009; Choy and Goh, 2016; Deng et al., 2017; Hunter and Cox, 2014; Sinclair, 2007).

According to Kent and Myrick (2003) people will visit a library space if they perceive it as a desirable place where they can undertake different information practices and achieve their goals. They attributed access and linkage, use and activities, sociality and comfort and image as features that motivate users to engage in different behaviour. Due to the exponential increase in spatial innovations as well as library designs, there have been complexities in the way library users, access and use information while they are engaged within different spaces. Because the library serves diverse users, not all spaces are suitable for all groups of users. As a result, their information practices and satisfaction are compromised. While there seems to be studies to better understand the use of academic spaces, there seems to be little interest in incorporating Lefebvre’s triad to illustrate how academic library spaces have a connection with users’ information behaviour. Also, those studies seem to focus on libraries in the developed world making this study in a developing country timely considering the difference in literacy levels, cultures and library space designs.


This study is part of a larger study on physical space utilisation in four academic libraries. It uses qualitative data collection methods particularly participant observations and in-depth interviews among university community members. This study presents findings from one site i.e., Makerere University that was conducted between the periods May to December 2019. In-depth interviews were scheduled with users who were conveniently selected. Eleven in-depth interviews were conducted to understand users’ experiences within spaces. Credibility in this study was ensured by prolonged engagement with university community members. Methodological triangulation using observations was applied to examine the spatial practices and behaviour. Data were analysed thematically using Atlas-ti software, generating themes related to the research. The researcher obtained both the ethical clearances from College of Humanities and Social Science at Makerere University and Uganda National Council of Science and Technology.


The academic library stands out as a study place, in the sense that it provides resources and facilities that support teaching, learning and research. Users visit the library with individual needs related to academic, work or personal needs. The results revealed that the majority of users were regular library users who accessed the library on average of three to four days a week. Themes identified were individual spaces, noise levels, space attachment and lighting. When participants think of visiting the library, they did so because they wanted to

access the hard copies’ (P4);
use online resources when searching for journal articles and other publications…most of the resources cannot be accessed when outside the University (P5) and
also meet for discussion with student friends who can’t come to my place but here is a space where we can all gather and meet up. (P3).

Regardless of their activities, they identified spaces that facilitated their activities. Participants indicated several attributes that support their activities; the decision to use a particular space depended on the activity and the space attributes that attracted the users as mentioned above.

Individual spaces: a prominent reason for a preferred space that mostly graduate students gave was access to enclosed individual spaces. They talked about how open spaces distract their attention and thus they preferred spaces that are enclosed for academic activities:

I come to use the resources, online journals… I usually use the research commons because they are the designated spaces for postgraduate students… I like closed space, the research commons have individual carrels that are enclosed…(P3).

However, participant 11 differed in his preference when he stated that,

I used to read from research commons but it became lonely, you know sitting in an enclosed place for about 5hrs affects you negatively. So I decided to look for open quiet space where I can get a little relaxed whenever I am exhausted.

The findings illustrate that the space setting shapes and affects the spatial practices of the users. May and Swabey (2015) agree with these findings when they indicated that the designs of spaces influence how users perceive the ability of the space to support their activities.

Noise levels: participants indicated that their choice of space was dependent on noise levels in a particular space; they normally preferred quiet spaces because ‘I require quiet environment …where I can think right and write my scripts well…’ (P2). Similarly, findings indicated that the heaviest noisy spaces were those with open layouts and transitional walkways with high traffic from staff and users, therefore, users avoided such space as indicated by participant 5:

I would avoid spaces with a lot of activities. …. Then spaces where there is noise, I will avoid noise …I will not concentrate, so I will avoid such spaces.

In different spaces, multiple activities were on-going. Users were engaged in reading personal class notes, textbooks, using technology as well as social activities depending on the space they used. Examples illustrate this: Africana special collection space is located on the fourth floor of the old library building. This section houses books and periodicals about Africa, archives, international bodies’ documents and theses. A substantial number of users in this space are engaged in individual reading of personal notes, textbooks and photocopying of textbooks. On a particular day, at 12:30 p.m. a female user was observed borrowing a textbook, which she took for photocopying and later returned to the library staff at the counter. Then she exited the space. In exploring the reason behind this behaviour, a participant indicated:

I have used this space two times this semester because I am trying to get information on introduction to research… I used to use Africana but I changed due to the noise from the road… Today I am here because I have a course work and thought probably I will need to borrow some text books from this section. (P11)

The findings indicate a shared reason based on access to resources. spatial preferences, however, change after the need is met, leading users to other spaces with the preferred attributes that support their activities.

Similarly, the seating arrangement in most spaces in all the library spaces have a hollow square seating style with all users facing each other, which enhances interaction. Most of the users consult with each other while in such seats and some even arrange discussions in spaces that are meant to be quiet spaces.

In addition, observation further revealed that the academic spaces with librarians or security personnel present are regarded as quiet spaces. As may be expected, users within these spaces usually engage in individual and silent activities such as reading class notes, use of technology and textbooks, partly because of the presence of librarians within the spaces who closely monitor users’ activities. Although discussions may happen, these are not so loud as to disrupt other users. Occasionally the library staff is seen policing the spaces to ensure noise levels are maintained.

Space attachment: in addition to noise levels, users were observed in the research commons (a quiet space designated for postgraduate students). This space has individual carrels for individual use where users are often seen engaged in individual activities using laptops and desktops. The majority of the graduate students were observed using this space compared to the open spaces. The theme is exemplified by Participant 3’s comment: ‘…Actually when I get the research commons full and I use any other space I find that I am not productive…’. The findings suggest that users are attached to spaces where they feel a sense of belonging; thus their learning experiences are distorted once there is a space change. Broughton (2019) agrees with this finding as he indicated that students attributed their success to the sense of belonging that they attained in study spaces. This reveals that a library space is an object that is socially constructed through social relations with other users. When users are not able to socially relate to the space, they are likely to feel alone which affects their library experience.


The aim of this study was to investigate the space attributes which support users’ activities. A thematic analysis suggests that individual spaces with limited noise levels and adequate lighting were preferred because users wanted optimal spaces that offer a conducive study environment. Although the spatial practice of each user conceals depending on the different spaces used and the desired information seeking behaviour it focuses and assumes a dialectical relationship between perception and behaviour in spaces which transforms users’ spatial expectations and experiences. Wakaruk (2009) acknowledges the need for democratic and responsive spaces that support multiple spatial activities in academic library buildings. In addition, a study by May and Swabey (2015) revealed that users perceived the ‘library as a place to study alone’ and therefore require enclosed spaces in the form of carrels as compared to the open spaces. At the same time open spaces provide the advantage of studying along with others that some users prefer. Space planning implications for academic libraries disagree with the one size fits all concept, because the library serves diverse users and therefore no single design meets the needs of all university community members.

Furthermore, space attachment manifests as a result of social relations among peers using the same spaces. This relationship creates a sense of belonging that results in discomfort when such users are placed among a different category of users. A study by Broughton (2019), indicated that people attributed their success to the sense of belonging that they attained in study spaces.


In conclusion, space is both a physical and social object that has a direct influence on its inhabitants’ spatial activities, perceptions and experiences implying a dialectical relationship. The concept that space is socially constructed is empirically supported through the social relations that users create as they engage in different activities. The availability of space attributes such as enclosed spaces, noise levels, lighting and space attachment influence the spatial activities and experience of users in a positive or negative way. Physical spaces are in a competitive environment with virtual spaces which don’t require physical access, thus, the need to reconsider Ranganathan’s (1931) laws to reflect on the shifting of users’ behaviour and priorities within physical spaces.

About the author

Caroline Ilako is a reference and circulation librarian at Makerere University in Uganda. She started working for Makerere University library in 2007. Her professional experience include services in law libraries, designing and conducting training in information literacy programmes that equip users with skills to effectively and efficiently utilise library resources both online and in print as well as conduct research directed to user needs assessment. Ms. Ilako is pursuing a PhD in Information Science at Makerere University and her research focus is on user studies in relation to physical spaces and the influence of digital resources on utilisation of physical spaces in academic libraries. She can be contacted at carolineilako0@gmail.com /cilako@mulib.mak.ac.ug


How to cite this paper

Ilako, C. (2020). The influence of spatial attributes on users’ information behaviour in academic libraries: a case study. In Proceedings of ISIC, the Information Behaviour Conference, Pretoria, South Africa, 28 September - 1 October 2020. Information Research, 25(4), paper isic2029. Retrieved from http://InformationR.net/ir/25-4/isic2020/isic2029.html (Archived by the Internet Archive at https://bit.ly/3gJ0HKU) https://doi.org/10.47989/irisic2029

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