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Architecture for User Needs

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Emmet O'Neal Library Group Study Room


A common subject of discussion in my LIS classes and in the professional LIS world that I listen to is the problem of designing a library space that serves a seemingly infinite range of users. Users are more likely to go to a bookstore like Barnes and Noble or Borders to read periodicals, search for the right book, sit in plush chairs or at the cafe, connect to the internet, etc., than go to a library. Many adults feel that libraries are stuffy, quiet places with limited or outdated resources; indeed, many adults simply don’t read books anymore (though machines like Kindle are helping with that, and women are more likely to read books than men, as they have been for centuries now). Libraries would like to remain serious places to read and study, but with so many people uninterested in quiet study, libraries try to cast a wider net and create multi-use areas. The resulting noise and hubbub turns off the people who go to libraries to work quietly. What’s a library to do?

It seems that libraries have to find a way to split the difference: bring in non-traditional library users by introducing non-traditional materials (non-books) and online options (NYPL is almost as incredible a library for people who don’t live in NYC as it is for people who do) but keep providing quiet study space for traditional users.

One of the best libraries I’ve visited is the recently remodeled public library in my hometown of Mountain Brook, AL. Now, Mountain Brook is a wealthy suburb that focuses intensively on k-12 education, so its needs are somewhat different than the needs of a large urban public library and its resources for renovation were certainly more than most small public libraries.

The Emmet O’Neal Library has three major areas:
1st Floor: Children’s books, self check-out, circulation, information, small glassed-in private tutoring rooms, A/V, new releases
2nd Floor: Open, traditional study carrels; smaller glassed-in group study rooms, periodicals, reference, adult materials, historical/genealogical data
Separate but attached: a large community meeting room

The library seems to have faced a slew of user demands: adults, teens and children needed various kinds of study areas, including private rooms where discussion could occur and quiet space for independent study. The community needed a meeting space. The library is situated on a rather small plot of land in a high-use “village” setting, so it could not grow “out” — it had to grow “up.”

The library added a second floor to its existing structure, which consisted of one floor and a storage basement. As one enters the library through its small and pleasant gardens, the glass-fronted, Arts and Crafts style foyer leads to either the main library building or the community meeting room.

Inside, one first sees the circulation/information desk along with two self checkout kiosks. To the left are high-use materials: A/V, new releases, and computers that seem to be mainly for searching for information (it’s not a “stay-friendly” computer space). This arrangement restricts a lot of the “hubbub” of patrons running in and out of the library and conversing with the librarians to a small area. The center of the main floor features an open staircase that leads to the second floor. Just behind the staircase is the children’s area. This space features toys, books, a carpeted space for group readings, and quiet, glassed-in private tutor areas with chalkboards and kid-sized desks. The bookshelves are arranged such that children don’t run around like banshees. The library offers a lot of programming for children. The children’s play areas and the circulation desk are the furthest things from the central staircase, presumably so that noise doesn’t travel upward.

Ascending the stairs, one finds a more “grown-up” looking library. Along one side are group meeting rooms that fit about 10 people. These glassed-in areas feature white boards and huge windows looking out over the village; they are very inviting spaces. Although they must be reserved, they are usually not reserved unless there are group projects at the end of the semester (although the 5 local high schools, local junior high and high school all have their own libraries, the EO is a major k-12 meeting area after school hours). There is a second-floor reference desk and rows of bookshelves. On the perimeter, away from any noise floating up from the central staircase, are two high-use quiet areas. One features newspapers and periodicals and is set up like a living room. This space has a coffee stand and it is the only area where drinks are provided; the coffee is free and self-serve (the suburb’s general snobbishness allows things like free coffee to be available without messes or “vagrants”) and thus much quieter than a cafe with its commerce and espresso machines. The second area has tables and traditional study carrels and is frequented by students from nearby colleges and law schools who are looking for even quieter spaces to study.

The EO library seems to see its user base as separated by age: children, teens, and adults. I have not been a patron of the library as an adult, having lived in another state, but as a child and teen I was well-served by the library. It is very familiar with its user base. However, I would separate the user base differently for the purposes of this blog post, as I would like to universalize a strategy for dealing with two specific user groups, which I will call “users” and “readers.”

“Users” of a library know what they want and want to get and get out. They might be chattier than “Readers” since they need to partake in specific transactions that may involve information-seeking and checkout. “Readers” want to stay in a library and get work done (reading, studying, researching) with minimal interruption. It is optimal to arrange a library so that Users can get what they need quickly and not feel constrained by the “shushing” that Readers need. The library needs to be a friendly space for Users, but it needs to be a quiet, comfortable, but almost sterile place for Readers.

Patrons of a library might be Users one day and Readers the next and vice-versa. There are also other groups of patrons. But separating high-use, “hubbub” areas from long-use quiet areas seems key in addressing these two sets of needs.

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