Library Spaces and Future Needs

The College of DuPage produced a video entitled “Library Challenges and Opportunities Library Spaces: Future Needs.” Two architects were interviewed who have had experience with designing library spaces. Here are the main points I gathered from the video.

Elizabeth Martin (MDA Designgroup, NYC)
Libraries face a lot of competition from many sources of information providers, such as Borders, whom also seek to become the “hub of information and technology.” This role has traditionally been the library’s role, and there is good reason why libraries should be wary of these new competitors–they are are out performing libraries in many areas. Libraries can learn how these competitors are out performing them when they look at some basic elements.

To begin, envision zones within the library. What are they main areas and services? Take a look at the building from all different angles, even from the outside looking in towards the building. The welcome/entry zone is a major component because this is the first and last thing that people see. It should reveal most major zones within a building, and express the key service points…

Try to focus on information use vs. information SEEKING. Create active spaces and pathways to print and electronic sources; make portals for library users’ information preferences (how they would like to use the info, such as in groups, in private rooms, in areas with plenty of light (not blinding), comfortable environments.

Spaces should foster collaboration among people. For example, study rooms could be enclosed by glass, counters could look like bars for socializing, computer center could be large (a major use in most libraries), or contemplative room could be placed off to the edges of the building.

Reconfigurable furniture is VERY important. Most users want to rearrange their environment to suit their needs and comforts, and this changes from person to person and group to group. Color and form also mark spaces, and can draw people to certain areas within a space. Teens in particular want to personalize; they are young adults trying to explore the world and figure out who they are and where they fit in to society.

Library should be the hub of activity on campus, including social events. Conference rooms should be included within the building, “quiet” reading room, an auditorium, and group work spaces. Instructional spaces should be grouped together so they can create a synergy (build off of each other). Administrative space are now being grouped in office “pods” and placed together for collegiality, easy communication, best use of space and resources, etc.

Use exterior spaces along the outside of the building so that the exterior zones are links to interior space. There should also be a transparency of light (?) throughout the building, there should be a way to showcase activities within library (e.g. big activities board or flat screen with scrolling activities).

When you decide on form, you also decide on function at the same time–do this early on. Stay focused in the beginning on the essential relationships within the site and program, and work on the details later. If there are any future services you see on the horizon, this is the time to work them into the design (not later). People are using library on more than ever, so keep this in mind.

Jeff Hoover (Tappe Associates, Boston, MA)
Keep in mind that “new” services are old services tomorrow. Figure out what the library needs to change in order to keep up with the needs of patrons. The needs of patrons change all the time, and libraries need to change with them or risk becoming stagnant and irrelevant. You need not change the entire library–just a portion of the building. The entrance is one of the best places to begin, so consider transforming the entrance.

Bookstores merchandise their collections. They have mobile bookshelves for moving materials around and to highlight materials. They make good use table top displays and lights to make collections pop from their surroundings. Neighborhood bookstores, for example, offer intimacy and places for people to pause instead of straight rows of books. They successfully bring the “mall ambiance” and functionality together to create an additional draw for spaces. They also bring in small scale retail businesses into their building to create a synergy (coffee & books & places to pause).

The hospitality industry entices people to linger. Grand hotels have historically incorporated relaxing reading rooms similar to classic library arrangements. The lobby is casual with a fireplace and typically has great views, and the lobby has a way of drawing people into building because of their grandness. There are a lot of people together in the same space, but they don’t usually intrude on each other. They have an event space for large groups wedding receptions and performances.

Convenience stores and bookstores also offer something different (the hospitality industry too); they offer a fast in and out of building policy. Orientation is quick and intuitive to help customers locate items fast. Some newer innovations include book vending machines in the park for people to take books and walk away. All they do is slide their library card into the machine to get the book. Vending machines could be placed in other places within the community, such as malls or mechanic shops while they wait for their oil to get changed. The main point is to get books to the people and out into the community.

Some libraries offer concierge service; there is a person there to greet and help you when you first walk into the building–help from the very beginning. Others offer “portable portals” to library service, such as digital collections or virtual reference service in malls (portable librarians). Some furniture designs also put the librarian and patron on the same side of the desk instead of separated by the desk. There are self-checkout circulation desks in which the desk is literally inside-out, and then there are also the two-faced monitors. Others have borrowed from the fast food industry for getting materials on hold through the drive-up window.

Books have traditionally been located in the center of library, but this design is not people centered. It has shifted rightly so to the resources towards the edges of the building. The edge are still where windows and the best views are available, so keep in mind that the resources are not pushed entirely to the edge of the building. Exciting thing happen where different areas overlap; they create areas of synergy, such as individual work spaces, group work spaces, and relaxation spaces. What happens when these all overlap?

You can rearrange spaces (e.g. specifically for popular material) so that they create niches for people to pause, opposed to the straight walkways of shelves which provide no option to stop, especially if someone wants through. Shelves can be arranges in the same space with different arrangements. like 2 “L” shaped shelves. They use the same amount of space, as well as create areas of pause, opposed to the straight rows of shelves. You can reconfigure collections over time to meet the changing interests and needs of library users. Put access to computers in public areas for after hours (when the building is closed).

Try to make transparent reference transactions, or in other words make the environment more approachable and interactive. Don’t forget to accommodate for virtual library too. Think of furniture as part of the collaborative space. Consider elongated tables, versus round tables that take up more space and make things less intimate. Get back to the collections and make spaces for people. Aim for compaction and off-site storage that offers fast retrieval. Consider print-on-demand in which the patron can print books walk away (technology is forthcoming). Consider furniture that offer different levels of connection and separation, such as a desk that can be either open or closed.

Arizona Desert Broom library is a good example of clear use zones. The outside blends into physical interior of the building. The barriers are dissolved, but people still intuitively know where to go. The ceiling also marks areas (it is a two story area), and spaces are highlighted. The color, shape, and character of the space mark zones. Make people want to come back to look at the library (aesthetically pleasing). Create and define people spaces. Close in program room and use foggy glass to take advantage of both separated space and light. Keep in mind that libraries are places of interaction! Auditoriums don’t need raised floors, and may use retractable seating and tables.

Promote efficiency within the library; as patrons checkout books, staffers can act as readers advisory for patrons (this is assuming that people would like to know this info, and that it is okay to notice what they checkout). Most people are looking for something specific instead of serendipity, which usually happens when they go into the stacks for a specific book. Orange County mails books to patrons.

Libraries need to be good PEOPLE spaces, instead of good storage facilities (they should be good at this too). The bottom line is to make places for people, and to make the library a destination place. Patrons need reason to go to the library, so give them plenty of reasons to go.

Alan Gray discussion leader (Darien Library, Darien, CT)
Many institutions team up for regional storage to save money. It is a hefty cost for one or two institutions to foot alone, but much more doable if resources are shared. A lot of book are out of date and out of print in academic library collections. Why not move them to off site storage to free up valuable space, or digitize them to make collections available online, or possibly do print-on-demand?

How does creating zone change staffing patterns? It reduces the number of service points (consolidates resources and locations. When you open sight lines, it should make zones and services more intuitive to patrons. For example, reference desks and circulation desk play a large role in the library, so they might be in the same info commons zone or entry zone.

In consideration to user privacy with computers in open spaces, librarians are more concerned with patrons privacy than patrons are. Maybe there should be less emphasis on privacy and more focus on reducing distractions within this zone.

One big problem libraries face is the limited electrical outlets available for use. How about furniture that includes electrical outlets that are also designed to move. You can also increase the number of outlets by converting the data jacks that people no longer needed into electrical outlets. It is a fairly simple fix to reconfigure them. Consider offering this service through the circulation desk.

Places where electricity is a major problem are auditoriums where attendees sit around the periphery; this is where the electricity outlets are located. How about putting outlets in between or under seats or on the floor. Keep in mind that people naturally gravitate to edges.

It would be a mistake to design an entire library to look and function just like a commercial business (e.g. Borders). Books are still the most portable, durable, and longest lasting technology. Get the books that don’t circulate off of the shelves and move those to off site storage or print-on-demand. Access would still there.
If you’re considering exhibit space (museum space) for permanent spaces within the building, it must still flexible to change with future needs. Now is the time when the role of libraries are in question, and now is the time to meet those changes and prepare for the future instead of playing catchup. Otherwise, libraries may find themselves irrelevant and no longer needed.

The PowerPoint slides of the speakers are also available online (


About repplinger

John has served as a Reference Librarian at Willamette University since 2002. He is the liaison to the Science Departments, and is responsible for maintaining the collections related to the life & physical sciences. His research interests range over the entire spectrum of libraries and information sciences, but includes: - Google and its influence on information & society - The Internet's influence on information seeking & sharing behaviors - Trends of scholarly communication - Electronic learning environments - Traditional pedagogy - GIS use in academic libraries

Posted on April 12, 2009, in Libraries, Library Architecture and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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