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Library tensions

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We have our desired seats in the library. Perhaps in the corner, a Herculean desk, a stairway to heaven equidistant from the water cooler and photocopier, 2 symmetrical sockets longing to be plugged in and lighting optimal for a photosynthetic orgasm. When it’s taken, we’re furious. Does this have any rationale?

Places offer security, according to geographer Yi-Fu Tuan. They are marked and defended, have ‘felt value’, and are given an identity (true- the library is final year identity.) But importantly, space is freedom. The book ‘Library Anxiety’ defines personal space as, ‘an area with invisible boundaries surrounding a person’s body, into which intruders may not come.’ Psychologist Sommer continues, ‘it is widest to the front, narrowing at the sides and back… people can sit closer to you, as long as it is not from the front.’

Researching for this article was amusing. Alongside the vomit-inducing, fetishistic results that arose from googling: ‘person, sit, faces’, the literature on spatial idiosyncrasies was plentiful. Lawson’s Language of Space asserts that two principles repeatedly emerge from studies:

1. People seek to maximise their view.

2. They seek to minimise the extent to which they are overlooked. Seats by the window are thus often occupied. This is supported by anthropologist Kate Fox, stating, ‘it’s a primal response to need somewhere to hide.’

Initial studies in seating positions were conducted by psychologist Sommer, who analysed a cross-section of students and children in public and social situations. In the 1960s, he deliberately invaded the personal space of university library users, by sitting next to students alone at a table, making notes very close to them, and even moving the chair to create a 30cm shoulder-to-shoulder distance. Subjects hovered on the farthest edge of their chair, leaning away, 55% of subjects packed up and left within 10 minutes, and after 30 minutes, only 30% remained in the same place, most creating a barrier from books.

Our library etiquette is heavily influenced by who is already there. Students sit as far away as possible from strangers to avoid feelings of discomfort, or ‘questioning eyes’. At tables, we’ll sit ‘diametrically opposite’ the other, displaying non-interaction. However, if it’s crowded, and we’re forced to take the middle seat, our desire for personal space manifests itself in the construction of psychological barriers against intruders, e.g. piles of books, coats, or facing away. (I usually use lean my head permanently against my hand so I can’t see the other person.) We also define our ‘territory’ by sitting in single boxes.

Of course there are exceptions, apparently extroverts enjoy being the center of attention. Moreover, Fisher and Byrne found that males dislike being invaded by someone approaching from opposite, but accepted intruders from the side. Females were vice versa, disliking invasion from those adjacent to them. Males placed their personal belongings in front of them, whilst females next to them. Fundamentally, both abhor space invasion.

The library with chums may be an entirely different agenda. Personal space depends on the precise relationship with another person. The intimate zone, is about 18 inches (close relatives & lovers), personal zone is 18 inches to 4 feet (friends, family), social zone is 4 to 12 feet (colleagues, conversations), and a public zone of 12-25 feet. So most of us won’t mind being squished up like cattle in Edward Boyle if it included a sexy mate.

Oregon University found that where we sit in lectures profoundly affects our learning. By recording where lecturers looked every 30 seconds for 15 minutes, they found that students on their right are almost ignored as lecturers look forward 44% of the time, look left 39%, and right only 17%. Because people can retain up to 3 times more information about things in their right visual field, lecturers often present information from this side (the lecturer’s better side is their left, because it’s in our right visual field.) Surprisingly, students sitting on the left performed better.

Libraries should be designed to reduce our anxiety levels. They should be open, comfortable, inspiring and practical. ‘Interior Design for Libraries’ suggests rectangular tables to allow us to define our territory, and 4 to 5 feet is the minimum distance between the next user. Apparently 2-3 seater sofas should be removed from libraries, because strangers will never sit directly beside one another on a couch.

Unsociable as we are portrayed, our preference in the psychology of space flies out the window in busy libraries. Yet, despite all our spatial norms, we are very unlikely to complain about the invasion of personal space. Hall claimed: ‘we treat space like we treat sex. It’s there but we don’t talk about it.’ Perhaps it’s now time.

Esther Lie

Photo: Becki Bateman

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