These days, collecting deep public input before the design phase of a new construction or renovation of a library is de rigueur, with methods ranging from focus groups to community outreach to social media. But a few libraries are taking it to the next level, not just finding out what patrons need or value and filtering that through the lens of librarian and architect expertise but also letting users directly drive design decisions in collaboration with the professionals.
Architecture and design firm Gyroscope adopted this approach when developing TeenHQ, a teen space that opened in August at the Dr. Martin Luther King Library, a collaborative library operated by partners from the San José Public Library (SJPL) and San José State University.
The teens who will be putting the space to good use were in on the TeenHQ design process from the ground floor, said Gyroscope exhibit designer Louise Mackie. In a series of workshops and meetings that lasted approximately a year, Gyroscope designers worked with a team of about ten young library users to understand what role the space needed to play, what resources it should offer, and how the space should look and feel.
“The blurring of lines among the teens as designers, clients, users, and advocates for the space was really fun and generated a lot of positive energy,” Mackie told LJ. “It felt like a really healthy collaboration.”
After brainstorming the sort of activities and resources they wanted to make available in TeenHQ, teens, designers, and librarians alike worked with masking tape and boxes to mock up various possible layouts. Designers later translated these drafts into 3-D models and refined them until the teens settled on a final design—one they then presented to the library board. The result was a much different space than library staff initially expected.
“The recording studio in this space, for instance, became a much bigger deal than we anticipated,” said Erik Berman, King Library’s teen librarian. “We as librarians know what we want and what we can offer. But when we go into the community to find out what they want, we end up with a much better space.” The connection between users and designers paved the way for a more straightforward process.
“I did not miss the multiple layers of bureaucracy,” said Mackie. “The direct relationship with both the users and the client was spontaneous, refreshing, and efficient.”
At the SJPL TeenHQ, the young designers surprised their professional counterparts with creative suggestions such as using sample squares to carpet the new space, giving the floor a quirky “pixelated” look, and saving money in the bargain.
On a smaller scale (and budget), Stone Bridge High School in Ashburn, VA, undertook a similar user-driven design process. The library got a makeover driven by student input—and put into action by elbow grease from those same students and their friends.
“Students did ask for things like charging stations and quiet areas,” librarians Karen Farzin and Cassandra Donahue told LJ.
Staff tried to meet these needs by rearranging existing shelving and investing in movable furniture that gives the new design more flexibility to suit student needs on the fly. The response has been ideal, they said.
“The new seating areas and portable components are heavily used, just as we hoped.”