How do we move forward?
The COVID-19 pandemic has reawakened our most territorial instincts. In 2020, an unknown person person in a public space passing close to us presented little or no physical threat in most of the country. Just a year later, this same person hovering nearby has become an existential threat for the first time in 100 years. This shock will not soon wear off. Just as the frugal habits of Depression-era children did not diminish as they became adults, we should expect library patrons to desire and demand more personal space for the foreseeable future.
As patrons return to libraries, we can think of territorial issues as creating friction, meaning that while a lack of adequate planning for territoriality will not absolutely deter patrons from entering, browsing, sitting or engaging, it will make the experience less comfortable and, if not rectified, may reduce their total number of visits or visit duration.
Implications for Library Space Design:
1. Pathways — One-way pathways may continue to feel safer for patrons even after health restrictions subside. Design library zones to allow for one-way pathways. Add design cues for one-way travel such as canting displays towards patrons traveling in the preferred direction
2. Seating — Seating should ideally be flexible, allowing patrons to define a safe distance. Where space is a significant constraint, barriers, partitions or angled seating can be used to ameliorate patron concerns.
3. Tables — Four and six person tables may see minimal usage outside of child and teen areas. Consider flexible table arrangements or two-person table sections that can be combined for more efficient space usage.
4. Event Space — Consider limiting event size until you can determine patron comfort level with proximity. Add gaps in seating to allow patrons to self-select. Consider hybrid approaches allowing live events to be simulcast as webinars.
Flexibility may have additional benefits.
Libraries interested in making more efficient use of their space and eliminating dead zones by moving desirable materials deeper into the library space have long encountered resistance from a small but vocal group of patrons. Maintaining a concierge or other friendly, front-of-the-library service point can allow these patrons to receive their items without the extra walk while freeing librarians from the burden of repeated complaints.
Libraries can plan for the future by visualizing their range of services on proximity scale encompassing the interior of the library, curbside delivery, outdoor events, activities in the community and virtual/online. This means creating the physical, technical, organizational and social infrastructure to support the new pieces of this spectrum. Of all the versions of the future that this article proposes, the safest to predict is that patrons won’t easily give up new conveniences, so libraries should plan to continue curbside delivery and other new and popular services moving forward.
Implications for Library Space Design:
1. Front Service Point — Create a service point in the foyer, lobby or otherwise near the main entry. A standing or high-seated staffer is preferable. Avoid large desks that may form a barrier.
2. Storage/Sorting — Creating space for materials to be staged in or near this area is critical to efficient operation. When designing new space, consider roll-in/roll-out storage close to the main entry.
3. Drive-Through — When renovating or designing new space, consider adding a drive-through window, particularly in locations with extreme weather.
The Adaptable Library
An overarching lesson of the pandemic was the need for adaptability. This need will only grow as patrons return. There is no guarantee that the same mix of patrons who left the library in 2020 will return in 2021 or 2022. Even if they do, it is foreseeable that their needs will have changed, and that some of those needs won’t be evident until they’re already in the space.
This has two implications: the obvious one is for the design of library space. There has been a movement among architects and library space planners for some time to promote multi-use spaces, movable and flexible furniture and adaptable zones when designing libraries. Part of the impetus behind this is the recognition that the library has dayparts: it has different uses and functions at different times of the day and days of the week. When toddlers depart for naptime, the children’s library changes. When young elementary-age children burst through the doors, that area changes again. An adaptable library can grow and shrink zones to accommodate these shifting needs. This is more important than ever now. When a library renovates but then recognizes that some of the design choices just aren’t working, what can it do? Experiment, measure and iterate. Flexible furniture, pathways and zones along with ample storage are critical in making this an easy and painless process.
The second implication is for staff. An adaptable library implies a different mindset and temperament for staff as well as a particular set of skills. This mindset may change traditional hiring expectations for library staff. Librarians who can see space organically, who are open to change, who are willing to experiment but are also analytic in their approach to change will succeed in this environment. Librarians who are very resistant to change or believe there is a fixed answer to any given patron need may not flourish.
Even adaptable, analytic librarians may need training to meet the challenges of the adaptable library. Space planning, public relations, effective management, fundraising, occupational safety, merchandising and marketing are all critical skills for library leaders to possess or hire. Yet none of these skills is among the core curriculum for the majority of graduate library science programs in the United States. Universities are turning out a generation of impressive data specialists when they need to also be developing civic leaders.
Implications for Library Space Design:
1. Flexibility — Furniture should be easily movable by a single person. Zones should be designed to grow or contract based on need with a minimum effort from librarians. In other words, the babies/toddlers area might be quite large for storytime in the morning but much smaller during the after-school period in the afternoon.
2. Adaptability — The design of spaces must incorporate the need to flex spaces for different uses. Aisle widths, ceiling heights, storage rooms, and elevators all need to accommodate these needs.
3. Training — Meeting spaces must now also be sufficient to conduct regular staff training within the facility.
The Engaged Staff
The final issue confronting librarians is the changed nature of the job and the workflow. Libraries which focus more on services and education require more librarians who directly interact with patrons. A high-touch work environment may be less comfortable for introverts and less tolerant of traditional library design features which tend to erect barriers between librarians and patrons.
In terms of library design, this means using automation to accomplish tasks that would divert staff from direct engagement with the public. To allow more human interaction, self-checkout should be considered an essential and mandatory part of any full renovation or new construction. Large circulation desks should disappear in favor of smaller workstations. Ideally the concierge can also function as a reassuring staff presence by alleviating technology issues at the self-check and ensuring patrons have had a successful visit. Seeing a friendly, smiling face on the way out of the library is as important as encountering one on the way in.
* * *
This is an edited extract of the article "Designing for the Future — The Post-Pandemic Library" by David Vinjamuri and Joseph Huberty Full article available HERE
David Vinjamuri is adjunct Associate Professor of Marketing at New York University and runs ThirdWay Brand Trainers. He is author of Library Space Planning: A PLA Guide (ALA, 2019). Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Joe Huberty is Principal Architect with Engberg Anderson Architects. He has spent over thirty years designing and building libraries and other public buildings and has a passion for creating great spaces for people. Contact: email@example.com