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Mantras of Library Design

by on October 17, 2013

Designing, re-designing, or updating your library’s space is an exciting (if not at times anxiety-provoking ) opportunity. With so many contributory factors to consider, it can feel overwhelming and at times, difficult to maintain the big picture, especially when working out the little details. Here are some points to keep in mind, to help you keep perspective during a library design project:

  • What is Your Library’s Narrative? Or its Narrative Design – Good, effective, and meaningful design tells a story. What are you saying to your patrons through their progression through the library’s space? What is your library’s story? How do you want it to be told or revealed? What are important accents or points? Furthermore, what part does each area or department play in the “whole library” story – is it thematically in-tune? Each department is like a character – unique in voice, focus, and tone, but an effective and contributive part of a larger arc.
  • People Appreciate Opportunities to Linger – This is influenced by the attitude and tone of the management and the friendliness of the staff as well as other patrons, and is somewhat ancillary to one’s primary task – lingering is what you do after you’ve done what you came to do. We often, and obviously, design purpose-driven space, but designing browsable or lingering space is just as important.
  • Pleasant Ambient Conditions – Seems obvious, but features include cleanliness, adequate lighting, good acoustics, and a noise level that, while not discouraged, is low but still encourages conversation, pleasant or no aroma, natural light, views, and pleasing décor.
  • Seating – Design should include a variety of seating types (of varying degrees of comfort) as well as some seating that can easily be moved to accommodate conversations or groups.* Seating should be purposefully aligned with the objective of the room in a balanced ratio of comfort vs. time you’d like someone to sit in it. Is the room for browsing? (5-15 minute comfortable chair, bench, or stool) or computer work (an “attentively postured” 1-3 hour chair).
  • Feelings of Prospect and Refuge – Judgment-free space. Patrons often prefer seats against walls, half walls, or windows, which provide feelings of being sheltered while still availing view of the space – and invoke perspective.
  • Feelings of Ownership and Territoriality – Patrons may exhibit territorial feelings toward various areas, such as a favorite seat or computer terminal. If this is not desirable (or becomes aggressive), make seating arrangements smaller, more public, and less accommodating of a long stay.
  • Social Beings and Familiar Strangers – A person’s presence in any third place seems to validate or confirm their presence as a social member of a community. For many people, at the library study/collaboration/conversation is the main activity, but for others the third place provides an opportunity to watch the action and see “familiar strangers” who enrich the lives of patrons in indirect ways. Feeling an active participant in society is empowering – successfully and beneficially using resources makes us feel good and accomplished.
  • Climate of Trust and Respect – When a climate of trust and respect is established, people feel welcome and able to relax and be themselves.
  • Support – Part of the social climate of the library (or other third places) is the support provided by the staff to other staff, the staff to the patrons, and the patrons to each other.
  • Place Attachment – A well-designed and managed third place often results in feelings of place attachment, a bonding of people to these special places.

This list was assembled to keep myself (and our design committee) on track as our library undergoes redesign, and as much as it is a gathering of ideas and elements of importance to us, it is also made up of ideals that we didn’t want to forget, or lose sight of through brainstorming and while projects move forward, or more parties enter the conversations. The more moving parts (or cooks get added to the kitchen), the easier it can become to lose grasp of thematic identity revealing components. Some of these are fundamental to all libraries, some are specific to the intentions we have for our spaces. I would encourage similar committees, as one of the first points of order, to openly discuss conceptual or fundamental design objectives, and develop a similar list. It helps as the project moves forward for re-centering, or referral back to – it also helps eliminate assertions that aren’t centric to your library’s vision – and in many ways should elaborate upon your mission statement.  

* A revealing aspect of “designing after design” relevant to seating (i.e. evaluating the effectiveness of design after the implementation of design), is recording where people move chairs, when, and if it is done repeatedly. This may reflect or illuminate how people really use the space (for collaboration/individual study), poor lighting, too strong direct sunlight, etc. amongst other atmospheric factors not initially transparent. Lesson: listen to your patrons – if they won’t tell you, they will show you how they want to use a space.