The Inter-Faith Council (IFC) in Chapel Hill, NC, in fall 2015 opened the doors to its new residential men’s shelter, the Community House. Included in the new building was a room designated as the shelter’s library. Seemingly within minutes of its existence, generous book donations had filled the small space, but the residents didn’t use it. When Stephani Kilpatrick, residential director of IFC, asked if the Chapel Hill Public Library (CHPL) would help turn this space into something more useful, we jumped at the chance.
At CHPL, we believe a library is more than just the place with the books. Our bustling library is nearly always full of people meeting friends, working, relaxing, checking email, escaping the weather, playing games, reading, even getting married!
Over the past year, our entire staff has been involved with a major User Experience (UX) project, aiming to reconsider how people interact with the library in order to create a place more welcoming and useful to our community. (Regular UX columnist Aaron Schmidt consulted with CHPL on the project.) We’ve learned a new way to think about our work and the people we serve. We now reflexively ask ourselves questions: Why do we do it this way? Is there a better way for our users? What can I do to make everyone feel more welcome and delighted with the library?
We were excited to bring this playful, experimental, and user-centered approach to the IFC Library in partnership with the residents. In March, CHPL director Susan Brown and I attended one of the Community House meetings, which are mandatory for all residents. We chatted with some 40 men living in the shelter both about our library and about what they wanted from their own library. Ten residents signed up for CHPL library cards that evening, and we were delighted that many others were already cardholders.
We also asked for their assistance with improving the shelter library. They were enthusiastic, and their ideas were similar to our own first thoughts: fewer books, more organization, more fun. They wanted a space to sit and read the newspaper comfortably. They wanted to be able to find books they were interested in easily. And they wanted better books.
I found a great partner in this project in resident Earl Canty. Unfailingly polite, thoughtful, and enormously helpful, Canty guided our work. He provided ideas for improvements, weeded books, did nearly all of the heavy lifting, played reggae music, and steered me away from potential pitfalls, working with other residents to ensure consensus on our changes. Together we moved out over 30 boxes of books while bringing in donations from the Friends of the Chapel Hill Public Library based on requests from the residents. In the end, we had gone from eight large bookshelves stuffed with a random assortment of works to a trim, targeted collection.
Feeling like home
Once we had some space to move around, we started to consider design and space layout. I thought about one of the recommendations for CHPL during our initial UX assessment: “get emotional.” Our library, while beautiful, could feel sterile and cold. We’ve been working to redesign CHPL with that critique in mind, and the same lesson could be applied to the blank white walls and fluorescent lighting at Community House. While temporary, this is still a home. We wanted to make it feel more like one.
We received generous contributions from the CHPL community in the form of furniture, wall art, puzzles, plants, and a gift subscription to the News & Observer. We have tried various furniture arrangements—the room is less than 200 square feet—and one lesson we’ve all learned: no project is ever finished.
CHPL has a new mission statement: “Sparking Curiosity. Inspiring Learning. Creating Connections.” What I most loved about this project was not the physical transformation of the IFC Community House Library, though it does look pretty great. Instead, it was living our library mission: connecting with Earl Canty as we weeded books and chatted about our kids, talking with James about getting his GED and starting a podcast, learning from Brent about George Washington Carver. It was watching the residents feel empowered by simple changes as they began asking those same questions we’ve been asking at CHPL: What would work here? Why don’t we try this? How can I make this better?
When I first began visiting Community House, the room crowded with books was often empty and dark. Recently, Canty told me that his library is full of people.
Thanks to the Chapel Hill community for their gifts of furniture to this project and the Friends of CHPL for their book donations. Many thanks to the CHPL staff who helped in large and small ways: Susan Brown, Daniel Siler, Shannon Bailey, and Tim Logue. And at IFC, Megan Raymond and Stephani Kilpatrick.