What features make the best academic library buildings? Public libraries can offer design ideas, but some academic librarians will write them off thinking they have nothing to offer.
When academic librarians think of great, modern library buildings, some of the first ones that come to mind are public libraries, such as those in Seattle or Salt Lake City. I know I’ve been impressed by the design and community feel of many public libraries. It’s always a pleasure to visit the well-designed Princeton Public Library. Even my own community library, the Abington Public Library, did a great job re-inventing itself as an up-to-date community information center. Its “quiet room” could be a good model for any academic librarians planning a no-distraction space for students.
Unfortunately, when seeking inspiration for their own new buildings or extensive renovations, some academic librarians will simply ignore what public library buildings have to offer. I would encourage those same academic librarians to spend some time with Library Journal’s list of 2011 New Landmark Libraries (NLL) which they describe as “the most inspiring and innovative public libraries.”
What’s the objection?
What would an academic librarian have against using a public library building as inspiration? He or she might offer that the academic libraries have no need for finger puppet storage. Sarcasm aside, there are some serious differences between the two sectors and their buildings. For one thing, academic libraries typically have larger collections that require more space. Owing to their research and long-term preservation missions, many academic library structures need extensive storage and retrieval systems that are supplemented by off-site shelving. Some might insist that their core education mission requires great learning spaces. One could point to special collection space; academic libraries typically dedicate a sizeable area to their rare book and unique collections.
Public librarians may argue that they need all these things as well, and many of the major, urban systems do. Both increasingly dedicate space for collaborative work and designs that facilitate community members’ creative work. Despite whatever differences might always exist between the two, good examples of inspiration in the public sphere should stimulate building design ideas and spaces that support the needs of 21st century academic libraries and their community members.
Qualities of a Landmark Library
What makes a library worthy of the “landmark” designation? This is a competition so there are criteria for buildings that achieve this special honor. Here’s how Louise Schaper, retired Executive Director of Fayetteville Public Library, AR, and NLL coordinator describes a landmark library:
We define a new landmark as a professional exemplar for someone setting out on a new building project—a library to mine that isn’t as well known as the biggies. There’s plenty to learn from those, of course, but the New Landmark Libraries project is a quest to find and highlight less-well-known library buildings that offer exciting and sometimes paradigm-breaking design in response to community needs and changing times.
Sounds exactly like what I’d want to see if I was on the hunt for new ideas for an academic library. Now that we’re all doing the obvious things, like learning commons, self-service, automated materials handling, wireless, cafés, media/tech gadget centers and sustainability features – what’s next? The NLL libraries take these features to the next level in striving for a great building experience. They are unique, and they set a new standard for design. Academic libraries would be wise to learn all they can from these buildings. One way to do that is to study what makes the NLL special.
Here are some of their features:
- Greener: More than half of these public libraries are LEED certified. This goes beyond offering water bottle refilling stations. The design of the buildings and the materials used are helping these libraries save up to 25 percent on energy costs, and that can buy more service for community members.
Flexibility: This seems to be the mantra for new library buildings. According to Schaper, a flexible library features all or most of the following: Key components are an open floor plan, expansive sight lines, lower shelving and freestanding and adjustable service desks, and, instead of walls, demarcation of zones via shelving units and strategic placement of furniture. This makes perfect sense for academic library buildings that will be subject to change as each new technology wave and new generations bring needs requiring rapid adaptation.
Fewer, Smaller Service Points: Fewer service points reduces the number of staff needed for those areas, but more importantly it improves the library experience for the community members by eliminating potential confusion. With more departments and building space, this one may be a challenge for academic libraries, but the lesson learned from publics is that single service points lead to better service operations.
Self-Service: Many academic libraries already have self-checkout stations and some have RFID in place, but the NLL are going further and pushing their self-check rates into the 90 percent zone. Academic librarians may want to learn more about how the publics locate their equipment, and how it help staff move out from behind desks and onto the floor where they provide more help to community members.
Borrow Ideas: NLL aggressively look for new ideas beyond libraries. Two popular targets are museums and retail stores. The former offer great ideas about interactive exhibits and marketing know-how, while the latter offer inspiration for making what’s in the library transparent to those outside it. It’s all about getting people to come in, and then delivering a great experience once they’re there. Academic libraries can learn from public libraries using museums and retail to stimulate design inspiration.
Minimalist Design: When it comes to materials, colors, fabrics and furniture, NLL are demonstrating how less can be more by keeping to simple design elements. It may be worthwhile to see how these newer style public libraries are giving themselves warmer, more inviting interiors.
Looking for inspiration
Quite a few academic libraries are also fine examples of design and service innovation. Library Journal knows it too. That’s why, for 2012, the New Landmark Libraries competition will focus on academic libraries. Because my own institution is planning a new library building, I will eagerly look forward to the next group of NLLs. I’m sure there will be much to inspire the design of a new academic library. If we are fortunate enough to get the green light for the project, I hope those involved in the design process take time for a closer look at those public sector NLLs.
Many public libraries operate in a highly fragile funding environment so they need to market smartly and be community driven. With their tight budgets they must make the most of their space, and the 2011 NLLs show how it’s done right. As I’ve written before, there is much we can learn from each other, but academic librarians must start by opening up their minds to the possibility that they can take a lesson or two from the publics.
If your academic library was completed anytime between 2007 and 2011, consider submitting an application for the 2012 NLL awards. The deadline to enter is March 20, so act quickly. Share what your library has to offer with a larger audience, and perhaps you will inspire the next great landmark academic – or public – library.