February 25, 2018

Get Moving | Library Design

Encouraging activity in today’s libraries

Quality 21st-century library design focuses on human health and well-being. Creating healthy indoor environments that physically connect us to the outdoors, offer access to daylight and views, and motivate us to move our bodies more is critical, since, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, on average, Americans spend 93 percent of their lives indoors. The focus on prioritizing daylight and views and incorporating biophilic tenets (which acknowledge the role of nature in human comfort and productivity) has increased awareness about the critical role the building plays in wellness.

The next frontier in creating buildings that support human health is encouraging more movement. Sitting for hours at a time is hard on our bodies, which are more suited for an active lifestyle. But standing all the time isn’t healthy either. Research supports the need for active learning or working environments; those that keep us changing our postures and get us moving throughout the day support wellness. Sit-to-stand desks are becoming ubiquitous in staff areas and increasingly common in public areas of libraries. Although these desks allow ease of alternating between sitting and standing while working or studying, they don’t address the need simply to move more often.

A few minutes of activity can reap benefits such as increased focus and improved mood, according to the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. For more ideas on how to get your users moving, Lets Move in Libraries shares stories of how libraries across North America are encouraging users to move their bodies. The site includes an interactive map of Canada and the United States that highlights movement-focused programs and services, so one can learn what colleagues at nearby facilities are doing or testing.

A moving target

So how can libraries encourage staff and users to be more active? Awareness is one way. Signage in key locations that reminds users to move around more, and why it’s important, could increase that behavior by as much as 60 percent, according to a study by Preventative Medicine. Mark off a five-minute “trail” through the building and create a challenge to complete it at least once each visit—perhaps with a small prize for each lap fulfilled. Thanks to the booming fitness wearables market, many libraries are loaning pedometers. Library-provided technology devices could offer pop-up reminders such as, “You’ve been working hard for an hour! Studies show that pausing occasionally to stretch or walk dramatically increases productivity.”

ON A HIGH NOTE The Dole Food Company transformed the stairs of a Brussels metro station into a musical staircase with giant piano keyboards. The playful approach encourages Belgians to be more active and use stairs instead of the escalator

Take steps!

Multistory libraries have a built-in way to encourage movement effectively: making stairs attractive, so users without mobility limitations default to taking stairs rather than elevators or escalators. Consider these five factors when building or renovating your space—or simply to add an element of enjoyment to the stairs you have.

CHANGE YOUR OUTLOOK This public stairway in Hong Kong called The Cascade Project provides prospect as well as a different type of seating or gathering space


The first step is to make stairs convenient. Locate them where people see them immediately. Or, if you can’t choose where they are located, arrange collections and seating such that high-use collections or popular collaborative seating groupings are adjacent to the stair terminus.


Humans are intrinsically drawn to natural light. Stairs that feature daylight, either to brighten the stairs or as a decorative feature, help draw users. Using sunlight to accentuate a building feature, such as an unusual construction material, adds drama and interest.

SPACE FOR REFLECTION This nook out of the main stair run at the Carmichael Lynch Office in Minneapolis serves double duty: it’s a place to rest for those who need to catch their breath and an opportunity to linger and survey one’s surroundings


An aspect of fun motivates not just the young but users of all ages. The Science Museum of Minnesota turned one staircase into a musical experience—each tread plays a different note on the musical scale (watch it in action). Some visitors descend and ascend several times just for the fun factor. Volkswagen famously experimented with a “piano stair” to determine if it would encourage people to choose the stair over the adjacent escalator. It worked: 66 percent of people opted for the stairs.


Motivate use by advertising the benefits, such as how many calories are burned or how much energy is saved. This idea translates well into an activity or program as well: national education-focused charitable organization Let’s Talk Science recently posted a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) activity related to stairs on its website.

ADDITIONAL FUN This stair in the Logan Elementary School, Spokane, combines learning and fun in a graphic way


Humans have an innate appreciation of something anthropologists refer to as “prospect”—the mental comfort that comes from being able to see across a vista, survey surroundings, and make decisions based upon an improved understanding of the environment. Building in a perch or place to sit within the stair run, such as sitting stairs or a small alcove, can provide an opportunity for prospect.

BEAM ME UP At the Open Book in Minneapolis, this stair, designed to evoke
the unfurling of the pages in a book, is enhanced by a sunbeam tracing across the wall, which draws attention to it


Turn climbing stairs into a sensory experience. Like the musical stair using sound, engaging with other senses will make taking the stairs a memorable experience—and, it is to be hoped, attract more (and repeated) use. Often handrails in public buildings are metal, but most people don’t like the feel of metal as they climb a stair. Handrails of polished wood or leather can invite touch and make the experience more enjoyable.

The Journal of Environment Science and Technology performed a meta-analysis of ten studies and found that just five minutes of moving our bodies improves disposition and self-esteem. Libraries can play a critical role by encouraging their users to move their bodies more—which is a valuable contribution to communities’ welfare.

LIGHTEN UP The Generate stair at the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design URBN Center, Drexel University, Philadelphia, celebrates science with its play of light

Traci Lesneski (traci@msrltd.com) is Principal and Head of Interiors for MS&R Ltd., a leading national library design firm based in Minneapolis [I copied this from a 2011 article; might need updating]

This article was published in Library Journal's September 15, 2017 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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  1. Marissa G says:

    I think many libraries may find it difficult to invest in fancy stairs when a portion of their population physically cannot use them. Also, the playful aspect of the stairs may lead to safety concerns. It’s all well and good until someone sprains their ankle trying to play chopsticks on the library’s new piano stairs or a kid trips over another kid who is enamored with the STEM stairs. I think the ideas are lovely, but surely there have to be safer, more accessible approaches to promoting health through the library building itself.

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