Thinking about library design

You can observe a lot by watching.

The only important thing about design is how it relates to people.

One of the interesting things about planning a new library is thinking about design. This is another area where we have to begin with the end in mind and to know what our goals are, so that we aren’t just following a pre-set template of what a library “looks like.”

hightech.jpg After visiting High Tech High in San Diego last year, and thinking about how our library could apply “web 2.0” principles to our physical space, I envisioned the metaphor of a transparent library–where you could see collaboration and learning going on in the space. The book Language of School Design: Design Patterns for 21st Century Schools by Prakash Nair and Randall Fielding, as well as their website, DesignShare, (which I have to thank Christian Long’s blog for leading me to) helped me think about how the different areas of the library could be designed.

In her article, “Power Users” in Library Journal (Dec. 2005), Beth Dempsey led me to think about obstacles users face because of library design. She chronicles Carnegie Library’s use of focus groups that determined how confusing and jargony libraries can be, which led them to try to design a library whose “focus was to remove barriers, ease access to resources, and encourage the development of self-reliant users,” according to Mike McConnell, their coordinating librarian.

I knew that I wanted the library to be a campfire space where students could gather, a collaborative space where they could work together in small groups, a transparent space, where learning in the school could be “seen” through the windows, a more barrier free space in terms of student use, and an innovative space, where the design would reflect the innovations that are going on inside our campus.

So how to get there? For one thing–as Yogi Berra said, you learn a lot by watching.

Watch how students are using your current space. Watch what is giving them problems or causing confusion. Watch what their preferences are. Try to identify those key things about the space that do or do not work for your customers.

ipod.jpg Secondly, observe other places. Carry some sort of camera with you everywhere–a cell phone or digital camera or iPhone, and snap photos of places that work, designs you like, color combinations that appeal to you, furniture that looks comfortable. (Use a site like I used my flickr site to collect sets of design photos that I’ve shared with the architects). Browse Google images for photos of new libraries. Tear out photos out of design magazines and create an idea collection.

Begin observing how places that are attractive are designed. Look everywhere–at the ceiling and how it looks–at the lighting fixtures–at the seating–at the colors used–at details small and large. For example, we ended up with a somewhat different circulation desk than is typical because I found a reception desk I liked at our architect’s warehouse-style offices.

Be willing to use all of these observations to think outside of the traditional box. Why not use bookstore signage to help students navigate dewey better? Does the circ desk have to be a large immobile behemoth that separates you from students and has no flexibility of use? Can bookcases be more mobile for rearrangement so the library can be used for different gatherings?

How will the space be used ten years from now? If you don’t know, and you probably don’t, plan for some flexibility of space. Can walls be moveable? Should you put wiring scattered about, so when you rearrange, you aren’t without any wiring in some areas?

I was influenced in some design features by Prakash Nair and Randall Fielding’s concepts. They envision a learning studio type of space for classrooms, but that can be related to modern library spaces as well, where you have students creating projects using computers, books, and many other materials that you might have available. How can you design some spaces that are flexible and can be merged or separated, depending on the collaboration needs of various projects/groups? Is your physical system reflecting the way you envision the space being used by real students?

librarygatherings06-012.jpgAnother area that is important to observe is how teachers use the space, and to think about what spaces teachers have in a building to gather or work together(usually not many). Nair and Fielding refer to these gathering areas as watering holes. The library is really a natural watering hole, where both students and teachers gather to relax, read, work, and collaborate, so the space needs to be designed with that in mind. Creating a comfortable teacher area that is near students but away from them invites them into the library, but also gives them an area to come collaborate with library staff or with one another.

poway.jpgAnother area to consider is how do the outdoor spaces(if there are any) outside the library blend in with the space? Can they be utilized to take the library outdoors? Can they be upgraded to be a part of the library’s “space” to create some comfortable gathering area for a class to engage with books? After visiting schools like Poway(pictured) and seeing their courtyards, or John Jay library in San Antonio, and seeing how they used an outdoor enclosed courtyard as a learning area and extension of the library, we were inspired to find a way to incorporate the outdoor areas around our library as well.

The designing of a space can also be a learning experience for students. Share what you are doing along the way. We conducted a survey to see what features students most valued in a library remodel. Display architectural drawings for students as you go through the process.   We are trying to use green materials and will create a learning display of the green materials used once the new library opens so that it can be a learning tool for students as well.

We have brought in some sample furniture and let students try out some new chair options. And when planning our courtyard, we’ve been calling on the services of one of our seniors who won a national architecture contest for school redesign, and having him actually help do the sketches for the courtyard so that it is student friendly and student driven.

Having a defined sense of what you want the library to become is helpful when faced with the actual planning process with architects and in construction process, because it allows you to be better able to stand up for design features of the library and to explain the purpose of the space overall.  ( And finding a like minded architect is of course very key to the project!)

Think about how to recreate your space so that it is an inviting and comfortable space for your students and staff, whether you can be completely renovated or not.  What can you do to incorporate better design into your space, into flyers you put out, and into the workflow?   Because ultimately it is about creating a positive and inspiring space for people to learn.   As Victor Papanek so aptly writes, “The only important thing about design is how it relates to people.”

quotes courtesy of:

5 thoughts on “Thinking about library design

  1. Carolyn–great post–love how you chronicled the journey and can’t wait to share. I will also be stealing your design quote–works for designing engaging work for students, as well as designing spaces. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Thanks for the great post. We are in the process of reviewing our three libraries (LS, MS, and US) in terms of form and function and it’s a complicated but worthwhile process…thanks for sharing your insight!

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  4. Hi,

    We may build a new library.Do you have any pictures of your new library posted?


  5. We do on our flickr site, which is in the sidebar of this blog. Click there and I believe we have some “sets” of our construction too.

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