Designing Library Spaces

Image of a modern white library. Text reads: designing library spaces.

The “library as space” is a pervasive and attractive theme in the sphere of library and information studies (LIS). In an article (User-Experience Design and Library Spaces: A Pathway to Innovation?) in the Journal of Library Innovation, MacArthur and Graham1 argue for the role of design theory in library planning. Drawing on the work of Donald A. Norman, co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group, the authors map his user-experience design framework2 onto physical spaces rather than physical objects or products. Norman’s theory is explained very clearly and case studies are presented to illustrate each point.

Norman’s theory is hinged upon the emotional response to objects, or as the authors argue, physical spaces. The visceral level is the immediate response to sensory input and this immediacy is said to be “innate for humans” (McArthur & Graham, 2015, p. 3). The authors discuss successful uses of visceral design in the Queens Library in Far Rockaway New York where a dedicated Teen Library was set up separate to the main library. This space was designed specifically for the target users with services to match, including a $70,000 recording studio and editing suite, forty computers and magazine subscriptions. The teen library pushes the boundary of what is traditionally considered a library as it does not circulate books and has no librarian. It is run by director Kim McNeil Capers, a mental health counselor and the rest of the staff is made up of youth counselors. You can read more about the teen library here3

Image of woman (Kim McNeil Capers) standing smiling in teen library in Far Rockaway New York. Text of quote from Kim: When they come in here, we're going to get them the help they need.

The authors succeed in suggesting a number of jumping off points for exploring visceral designs in libraries. These include considering bringing “the outside in” and “creating visually stunning entry points” as well as more unorthodox design elements, such as different audio environments for various sections of the library and the tactile and olfactory aspects of design (McArthur & Graham, 2015, p. 4).

The emphasis on usability and universal design is welcome and important. As public spaces libraries and librarians have duty to provide accessible services to all patrons beyond what is legally mandated. We have an opportunity when designing these spaces and services to push the boundaries of what accessibility and usability look like for the 21st century. If you want to learn more about accessible design for libraries have a look at the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) Access to Libraries for Persons with Disabilities Checklist or Emily Singley’s site, which showcases public and academic libraries that demonstrate exceptional usability. 

While this article does a solid job in introducing the topic of design in libraries, there are certain aspects that are somewhat problematic. Most of the libraries featured are public libraries and little mention is given to other types of libraries. Discussion of how to fund these expensive designs is neglected, which leaves less privileged libraries to the wayside. The authors also seem to support a project run by the Sno-Isle Libraries in Washington State that recruited “Community Ambassadors” to advocate for the library by discussing their positive experiences with the library. The use of unpaid labour is exploitative and the idea of recruiting well-meaning individuals to proselytise in their communities should strike librarians, at the very least, as inappropriate. Cheryl Telford of Sno-isle Libraries said of the ambassadors:

“This is a much warmer, softer role than being perceived as someone who is an agenda-pusher and who overwhelms others using philosophical debate, facts and figures.”  (Telford, 2012)4

The fact is libraries are under-funded and under-supported and it is our duty as librarians to advocate for our libraries. And I don’t think it’s that radical an idea to use evidence to back up our claims.

The article ends with more suggestions on how to engage in reflective practice, including a nice idea to record the oral history of the library. The authors suggest capitalising on emerging social media trends as a way to target specific user groups, which is advice I would take with a very large pinch of salt. Social media for brands is very difficult. When done right it looks very easy but finding the right tone and platforms can be very challenging. Adam Koszary runs the social media for Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries and wrote an incredible piece in Medium about his experience5. If you have one library as your Twitter idol, make it the Bodleian. 

Brands using memes can fail spectacularly, here are a few examples (warning NSFW!). So consider making a robust marketing plan incorporating social media that is relevant to your target user group before pulling out all the stops to make a Harlem Shake video.  

Overall, this article is a good introduction to the concept of “library as space” with lots of scope for further research within the examples given. While the article suffers from a narrow focus on public libraries, readers can gain enough of an understanding of the underlying design principles to apply them to other types of library environments. A similar article discussing academic or special libraries would be a welcome follow-up. This article is relevant to students and those who want to learn more about library design. It is freely available in the open access Journal of Library Innovation here

Written by Clare Murnane. When Clare isn’t tweeting for SLIP @SLIPIreland she spends too much time on her other account @Clarebrarian.

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  1. McArthur, J.A. & Graham, V.J. (2015).  User-Experience Design and Library Spaces: A Pathway to Innovation? Journal of Library Innovation 6(2), 1-14. 
  2. Norman, D. A. (2004). Emotional design: Why we love (or hate) everyday things. New York, NY: Basic Books.
  3. Gilbert, K. (2014). What is a library? Retrieved from Narratively: 
  4. Telford, C. (2012). Community ambassador: Sno-Isle Libraries. Retrieved from Urban Libraries Council website:
  5. Koszary, A. (2016). Social media is stupid and museums should be too. Retrieved from Medium: 

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Philosophically inclined librarian.

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