April 19, 2018

Placemaking and the Public Library | ALA Midwinter 2017


Photo credit: Denver Public Library

“People crave community. Community needs space. Space can create community. If you are not creating community, you are probably not creating places,” explained Michelle Jeske, City Librarian at Denver Public Library (DPL) and a 2005 LJ Mover & Shaker, to an eager crowd gathered for Placemaking and the Public Library on Sunday, January 22.

What is placemaking? Jeske defines it as the process of re-imagining and re-envisioning public spaces. There were nods of agreement when she continued, “Look at how people are improvising in a space. You’ve all seen this in your library, where people are, every day, moving the chairs around. They’re telling you something… and we should be paying attention to [it].”

Acknowledging that funding is a primary concern for public libraries, Jeske suggests creating a place, not a design. How can you do this at your library? Start small. Begin with observing, listening, and asking. Here are several of Jeske’s budget-friendly examples of refitting space to meet community needs.


Photo credit: Denver Public Library

  • Rearrange tables or chairs. This is a low-cost way to change how people interact with and within a library.
  • An extra pack of Post-It notes led the DPL staff to develop this idea: Take a Kind Note, Leave a Kind Note. Besides being affordable, it’s been popular among patrons.

Photo credit: Denver Public Library

  • Setting a board game on an under-utilized table can transform a neglected area into a vibrant hub.
  • Creating gardening-related programming draws people to the library while also helping spruce up outdoor areas.
  • Adding magnets to assorted Scrabble tiles makes for a colorful conversation starter for those who walk by.

    Photo credit: Denver Public Library

  • Installing communal seating (pictured at top) can help solve the common problem of parents, siblings, and friends congregating around a single computer. While this isn’t as budget-friendly as the other options, the feedback from the community in Denver was overwhelmingly positive.

“It’s really important to interact with people in the space, not just to talk at them,” Jeske adds. What do people want? What do they like? How do they use the space? How do they interact with it?…. Who doesn’t use the space? How can you find those people and ask them why?”

Placemaking requires flexibility and collaboration; DPL partnered with the city’s Parks and Recreation department, Arts and Venues department, and River North Art District (RiNo) to brainstorm spaces that would attract artists and millennials. She reminded the audience that many millennials in their 20s and 30s are married and have children; focus on creating a family-friendly environment suitable for both work and play.

She also mentioned the library’s efforts to incorporate triangulation, or linking people together to prompt strangers to talk to each other and develop friendships. This was successfully achieved by the Take a Kind Note, Leave a Kind Note display and the additions of a puzzle and Scrabble tiles. Jeske also shared the idea of placing chairs next to a water fountain. In this case, the water fountain was already next to a small ledge. The combined elements “may attract different kinds of people, and because they’re in proximity, they may end up interacting with each other.”

Collaboration is important because creating public spaces isn’t anyone’s job, said Jeske. Public library administrators should think outside-the-box in terms of partnerships, from local government agencies to non-profits or private businesses interested in community engagement. DPL allocates small amounts of funding for each branch to experiment with creating places in their communities, giving people a reason to stay and mingle with each other.

Attending community and neighborhood meetings can help librarians get a better sense of what people are looking for, missing, or wanting from their community. In the end, “We want the library to be a place where people can relax and enjoy fellowship with others.” Visit the Project for Public Spaces for more placemaking resources.

About Stephanie Sendaula

Stephanie Sendaula (ssendaula@mediasourceinc.com) is an Associate Editor at Library Journal.



  1. I’m old enough to remember when we were told by newly-minted “change agents” that “the library as a place is dead”. This was approx 15 years ago. What goes around, comes around.