With school back in session and students returning to the library—sometimes of their own free will, sometimes grudgingly—the library can seem quite full again after the late summer lull. This is a great time to think about the different demands that are placed on library spaces and how to manage these demands to ensure that everyone can use the library to do what they want to do.
Libraries offer patrons two types of space-related experiences that they can’t get on the web: space for quiet contemplation and space for in-person collaboration. Creating different zones within a library for these varying and incompatible behaviors is an effective way to guarantee user satisfaction.
To some extent, such zones develop organically in our buildings. Spaces for children and teens are often a bit more boisterous than other parts of the library, for example. Being more explicit about what sorts of activities can happen in dissimilar parts of the library helps to make certain that there are indeed spaces for everything from quiet contemplation to rambunctious Wii tournaments. Yet making rules and creating zones can be an uphill battle if librarians disregard the way these zones develop inherently. Let patron behavior guide the design process.
Environmental cues in your library affect how people behave. Spaces with big, comfortable chairs spaced widely apart invite individuals to sit and read. Tables with outlets attract people with devices. Computers at a boomerang-shaped desk with a few chairs will be a draw for kids. Walk through your library to assess the message that your spaces send. Is it clear what sort of behavior the space is meant to facilitate? Are the spaces logically placed throughout the building? Do you have spaces for all the activities your library wants to support? Answers to these questions can help steer you to develop spaces for great experiences.
If you find that the spaces in your library aren’t being used as you intended, ask yourself why. Consider carrying out a “5 Whys” exercise to get to the root of the problem. (See “Stepping Out of the Library” for more details.) If furniture is often moved from where it was designed to live, it might be an indication that the arrangement isn’t meeting member needs. Consider rearranging.
Ideally, your spaces will be so masterfully imagined that they’ll elicit proper behavior, everyone will have their space, and lions will coexist with lambs. But perhaps you’ll need to augment the design of your spaces with some stronger cues: signage.
Consider signs a last resort. Not only are they difficult to execute well, their efficacy isn’t proven. To shape member behavior, libraries often slap up regulatory placards, attempting to tell people how to act. No one likes to be lectured to, and this punitive approach just creates painpoints in the library. Instead, create signs that are informative, directing people to where they can accomplish what they want to accomplish. These signs [pictured] from Minnesota’s Carleton College’s Gould Library are a great example. Not only do they let people know what sorts of activities disparate spaces are designed to accommodate, they do it in a light, humorous way.
Adjusting to different types of behavior does not require a large building. Consider the rhythm of the day and shape accordingly. The morning and early afternoons might prioritize book groups and reading, while the late afternoon might give preference to students studying and having fun.
As always, taking the time to consider the needs of library members—and establishing the library suitably—will yield great results. Making the library useful and usable is a great start. Combine that with friendly library workers delivering excellent customer service, and, soon enough, your library will seem even more full!
Aaron Schmidt (email@example.com) is a principal at the library user experience consultancy Influx (influx.us). He is a 2005 LJ Mover & Shaker. He writes at walkingpaper.org