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Planning the library space

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Design principles

The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE, 2002: p. 17) reiterates Henry Wootton’s three principles for building design, namely:

  1. Commodity – buildings must work, and should be fit for the purpose for which they were designed.
  2. Firmness – buildings should be sound, and built to last.
  3. Delight – buildings should look good.

Alan Clark would expand firmness or durability to include flexibility and adaptability of the design. Blume and Kempf (2003) comment that the rapid advance of technology makes it impossible to speculate how libraries will look in the future.

Here it is only possible to give a brief summary of some of the main principles of good design for libraries. Readers who want a fuller account should look at the resources suggested at the end of this article.

A social space

In the late 1960s, informal advice to new students at the University of Saint Andrews, Scotland, was that the place to see good legs was the top floor of a particular library. Here, nubile female students would walk along the central aisle in very short skirts; it was a great place to see and be seen. Although their 60s counterparts would have been more interested in the library's collections, librarians today are keen to promote the library as a social meeting space.

There has been much debate in both the trade and academic press about the role of the coffee shop in the contemporary academic library. Here, we see bookshops leading the way: Lefebvre (2002) found that her students preferred to do their reading in bookshops because they could sit in comfortable chairs, and her experience is hardly unique.

Waxman et al. (2007) discuss the importance of social "third spaces" – spaces which are neither home nor work, but ones where people can relax, have fun, see and be seen, and "find rejuvenation for the mind and the spirit". They also provide guidelines for designing a library coffee shop, some of which can be applied to the library as a whole:

  • Layout: people like seating to be anchored to an architectural feature, such as a wall, which gives them a feeling of security; avoid having seats near queues for food or that would impede access to the main library.
  • Flooring: should be easy to clean, non-slip, with colours and patterns chosen for their ability to not show up soiling, and of a material that is warm but muffles sound (wood does not have this acoustic quality).
  • Seating and tables: cater for all types of users, with tables of different sizes, for those who come in groups, those who prefer to sit alone, and those who like to spread out their books and use their laptop.
  • Lighting: it's particularly important that this be right in a place where people will be reading, and should be either directly above or near the tables. Dimmer switches are a useful way of varying the light, and natural light (controlled in the event of glare) is also important.
  • Aroma: coffee and baking emanate desirable smells, and can be enhanced by venting.
  • Acoustics: discreet music (which should obviously not interfere with quiet areas of the library) often works well, providing an atmosphere of privacy.
  • Views: people like to be able to see outside, also to "people watch".
  • Ambience: use soft and cosy colours and textiles (the latter also absorb sound) to generate a warm atmosphere (one of the qualities that people prize about third spaces). Art can liven up the space, and provide an opportunity for students to showcase their work. An example of artwork is shown in Figure 1.

Photo: Figure 1. The mural in the Folio café, Saint Mary's University, Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Figure 1. The mural in the Folio café, Saint Mary's University, Halifax, Nova Scotia

The serious idea behind the introduction of the café is to tempt people inside the building to look at the resources it houses. There is some anecdotal evidence that the presence of a café increases library use: according to one example traffic increased by as much as 42 per cent when a Starbucks was added (Stephan, quoted in Waxman et al., 2007).

Milton Keynes Central Library has redesigned its foyer to include a café area, with bistro style tables and chairs as well as brightly coloured sofas and pebble chairs, and also "quick IT" areas; Burton Library (Staffordshire) now has an Internet café in its entrance foyer (see Figure 2).

Photo: Figure 2. Burton's Internet café area.

Figure 2. Burton's Internet café area

Learning and knowledge spaces

The consultant Scott Thomas, Yale University Librarian Emeritus, has considerable experience in planning and refurbishing libraries, and believes that the design of academic libraries should begin with the educational experience.

When Graham Wilson was given the job of designing the new Middlesex University Sheppard Library, part of his brief was a description of a typical day in the life of a student and how he or she would use the ideal library facility (Wilson, 2008).

Whereas up to a couple of decades ago, knowledge work might have generally involved individuals poring over books, now it can equally be propelled by group discussion, or looking at resources over the Internet.

Hence libraries need to accommodate a wide variety of types of learning, and a good library is one that includes a range of different learning spaces:

  • individual
  • group
  • formal
  • informal
  • with or without computers
  • with or without wireless
  • private
  • semi-private
  • stand up
  • sit down
  • in stacks
  • in computer areas.

Many libraries have also relaxed the "no food and drink" policy and there are areas where eating and drinking is allowed.

Newcastle University Library has created a number of different types of space for different types of learning – "social spaces where students can work together on a project if they have a group assignment or if they have a presentation to plan … There are quiet zones where you can work in silence, there are other zones where you can work with your laptop, and zones where you can talk and work" (see our interview with Jill Taylor-Roe, Head of Liaison & Academic Services at Newcastle University Library, which was conducted in December 2007).

Angela Dove, a theatre designer turned consultant on designing space for knowledge workers, believes that the medieval monastery provides a metaphor for the modern library, as its combination of individual cells (private space) and cloister (public space) represent the creation of knowledge individually and collectively. She cites the Cass Business School at the City of London, where the library has a broad cloister-like corridor and both semi-public study areas as well as places for quiet study and reflection (Dove, 2004).

In the West, the idea that learning happens as part of a social process, when people get together in groups, has become very popular. One survey of library renovations, reported at the April 2003 Association of College and Research Libraries conference, found that the provision of group study was one of the most significant changes, and that whereas 46 per cent of the older facilities had no provision for group study, only 8 per cent of new facilities lacked these (Shill and Tonner, 2003, reported in Boone, 2003).

The same survey also reported a doubling of computer labs in libraries, to accommodate the vast amount of digital information. Any renovation project needs to allow space for computers linked up to the Internet, and provide plenty of Ethernet ports for high speed laptop connections, as well as Wifi.

The provision of space to cater for a number of different learning needs, but with a strong information and communication technology element has led to the creation of the "information commons". First making its appearance in the 1990s in the USA, it is a loose term which implies a technology rich environment (information) in a shared space (commons) with various different types of working space, for both groups and individuals, and different ways of accessing technology (people can work on their own laptops and on PCs provided).

At Indiana University, 27,000 square feet has been transformed into an information commons (see Figure 3). This has seating for individual and group work, more than 250 individual and group configured computer workstations, wireless networking, library reference services which is also linked in to other parts of the library and other campus resources. Support staff are at hand and there is also an IT training facility. Disabled students are helped through the Adaptive Technology Center which provides a variety of services such as high speed scanning and adaptive technology.

Photo: Figure 3. The second floor of the information commons at Indiana University. © Indiana University Libraries, View 1. Photo: Figure 3. The second floor of the information commons at Indiana University. © Indiana University Libraries. View 2.

Figure 3. The second floor of the information commons at Indiana University (photo © Indiana University Libraries)

Sometimes, the library also provides support for other types of learning; for example, the Saint Mary's University Library in Halifax, Nova Scotia introduced a writing centre as a result of concerns about literacy. The term "learning commons" has been used (Boone, 2003) to refer to areas with services which are less reliant on digital information.

So far, we have looked at design in terms of purpose of use, whether social or for learning. There are some other general design principles which must be applied, such as fit to building, navigation, lighting, use of space and use of interior design.

The building

Sometimes, a librarian has the enviable job of specifying requirements for a library built from scratch, and he or she can envisage a building ideal for purpose. A lot of the time, however, it will be a matter of compromise: for example, an old building will need to be adapted, as with Madeleine Lefebvre's refurbishment of Saint Mary's University Library.

When the Leipzig Bibliotheca Albertina was renovated, the historic nature of the building imposed certain restrictions: it was not possible to provide seminar rooms, lighting was dim, and the central circulation desk had to be located on the third floor (Blume and Kempf, 2003).

There is a major trend in both public and academic libraries, according to Alan Clark, towards shared premises, and multifunctional buildings. Many public libraries are housed in buildings also used for other purposes, such as a theatre/cinema, or even a medical centre and lifestyle centre with a gym, while academic libraries are accommodating a wide range of informational and teaching and learning functions.

The University of Worcester, for example, has a £50 million project to develop a library and history centre, a joint initiative between the university and Worcestershire County Council, the first of its kind in Europe. The idea is to create a new cultural centre for both town and gown.

Whatever the age of the building, there are some design principles which should be observed and are summarized below. More detail is given in the resources at the end of the article.


Libraries should have a clear layout with a logical organization of space so that the user can find his or her way around easily. The most used services – reference and issue desks – and resources should be centrally placed. Help points should also be abundant.

The open plan layout of Bishopstown Library in Cork, Ireland, is revealed immediately on entering and the internal floor is patterned to lead from the entrance to the issue desk. See Figure 4, below.

Photo: Figure 4. Bishopstone Library showing red stripes leading to the central issue desk.

Figure 4. Bishopstown Library showing red stripes leading to the central issue desk

The library at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, Nova Scotia keeps its "top 78" journals in its main reference room in an area with comfortable chairs.

Michigan State University Library has centralized all its reference desks on the first floor (where previously there were none).

The different areas of the library should be indicated by signage, but the furnishings should also give a key to expected behaviour – for example, large tables for group work, comfy chairs for browsing. Different sections of the library should be organized in a way that makes sense, for example by demographic or user behaviour.

The University of Edinburgh Main Library seeks to be the intellectual hub for the university, dedicated to supporting learning in a research environment. Each floor represents a progressively higher step in the journey from learning activities to research activities. The students' immediate requirements are met on the lower floors of the building, while special collections are all upstairs. (See .)

Newcastle City Library is made up of six floors. Level 1 is the main reference and information space, level 2 the space for performances, which can also be turned into a space for meetings and isolated from the rest of the building. Level 3 is dedicated to leisure and is divided into fiction, children's section (with bespoke areas for homework and storytelling). Level 4 is an area for the public to consult reference works and use PCs. Level 5 houses the staff offices and level 6 is dedicated to local studies and family history.

Heat, lighting and climate control

Adequate lighting is an obvious essential for libraries: it must be neither dim nor dazzling. Hence the need not only for appropriate fixtures, but also for some way of avoiding glare from the sunlight. Modern building design is also concerned with environmental solutions, so buildings need to conserve energy.

The new SLUB building in Dresden has a huge underground reading room with an electrochrome glass roof. Light is filtered by a solar sail which automatically controls heat and light (Blume and Kempf, 2003).

Madeleine Lefebvre was dismayed by the dim lighting in her library at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. A priority was the installation of new lighting in the central lobby area – two large (12 ft by 12 ft) ceiling lights at either end which literally changed the atmosphere "at the flick of a switch" so that the lobby is now basked in a warm and inviting glow (Houlihan, 2005).

Bournemouth Library (pictured in Figure 5) won the CILIP/Emerald Public Relations and Publicity Awards in 2002, and makes considerable use of natural light to minimize energy use. It makes extensive use of glass, solar panels and brise soleil.

Photo: Figure 5. Bournemouth Library.

Figure 5. Bournemouth Library

Furnishings and interior decor

These are essential to create the right atmosphere and provide appropriate comfort, and much can be done with furnishing and design if the budget is limited.

Many libraries have now installed comfortable chairs in particular areas, while tables should be of differing sizes to accommodate different study needs. The central services and reference desk should look friendly and be laid out in a helpful manner. Carpeting is important to muffle sound, and cool, timeless colours are best. As with any space, artwork and plants can create a warmer, more "lived in" atmosphere.

Saint Mary's University Library in Halifax, Nova Scotia supplied its reference room with reupholstered furniture and laminated computer workstations and coffee tables, which gave the whole area a fresher look on a minimal budget.

At UCL Library Services Learning Lab, new soft seating in open plan space enables users to read printed material and access the Internet from their laptops – the area is enabled with RoamNet wireless network.

Dienst Openbare Bibliotheek at Den Haag has been designed as a large living room where the library functions (and coffee bar) have been moved to the outer edges, while the central space becomes an area where people can relax, read and meet, surrounded by books.

Photo: Figure 6. Dienst Openbare Bibliotheek.

Figure 6. Dienst Openbare Bibliotheek


Most countries have legislation in place to support the rights of disabled people to have equal access to buildings. Good features include wheelchair access to and within the building, signage, furniture at appropriate height, and assistive technology. Baby changing facilities are also important.

The Library Council in Ireland has provided a booklet on accessibility, see .


Given that libraries today are used for a multitude of different purposes – not only different types of studying and knowledge work, but also for events, community activities, etc. – it is very important that the space be designed for flexibility, so that, for example, large rooms can be transformed into smaller meeting areas. Open plan designs are useful in this respect. Having furniture, including central units, on casters helps by making it easier to move these items around.

Flexibility also future proofs: who knows what the IT requirements will be in ten years' time?

Photo: Figure 7. Interior of Bournemouth Library, showing the flexible open plan design.

Figure 7. Interior of Bournemouth Library, showing the flexible open plan design

The new Sheppard Library at the University of Middlesex is designed so that rooms can be added or removed without major structural alterations or disruption of services (Wilson, 2008).


We have looked in this article at a range of space planning issues for libraries: making the library a place in which to socialize as well as to study; providing for a range of different types of knowledge work, both group and individual, discussion-based and resource-based; following good design principles of lighting, navigation, furnishing, accessibility, etc.

Although few librarians may get the opportunity totally to redesign a library, all should know how to plan space to the best effect. These skills rarely find a place in library schools’ first qualification courses, which concentrate on instilling the core principles of library and information science work. They must therefore be acquired, if libraries are really to become places where learning happens.

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