BEYOND THE BOOKS: Library Design Trends

a gallery of various library photos While some have questioned their long-term viability, both public and private libraries are reinventing themselves and, according to the 2018 American Library Association report, continuing to serve as a valuable resource for diverse groups of people. Libraries face many similar challenges to those of retailers, as large numbers of people turn to digital resources. However, the convenience of digital shopping, reading, learning, communicating and so forth can be isolating and less rewarding. This is where public libraries can step in to provide positive interactions, teachable moments and a collaborative community experience available to everyone regardless of their financial status.

a University of Washington student piloting a study of digital textbooks
A University of Washington pilot study of digital textbooks found that a quarter of students still bought print versions of e-textbooks that they were given for free.

Today’s libraries provide a myriad of resources beyond the books. And of course there’s the ongoing argument that books are still relevant.  According to the Washington Post, textbook makers, bookstore owners and college student surveys all say millennials still strongly prefer print for pleasure and learning, a bias that surprises reading experts given the same group’s proclivity to consume most other content digitally.

Our clients, which have included public libraries, schools, colleges and senior living communities reflect the diverse forms today’s libraries can take, based on each of their respective organization’s needs.  However, the resulting physical spaces continue to evolve as libraries strive to provide inviting and useful spaces for patrons and staff in our increasingly digital world. We’ve highlighted some of the recent interior design trends that reflect those goals.

Recently completed renovations and modest expansion of the Columbia Public Library
Recently completed renovations and modest expansion of the Columbia Public Library created bright, open spaces to support 21st century functionality and provide handicap accessibility. Nathan Cox Photography
  1. Light & Open Spaces

Frequently when renovating an older library, we are challenged to make the interior spaces feel lighter and brighter. Often this goes hand-in-hand with increasing transparency between the interior spaces and surrounding community so passers-by can see activities taking place inside.  Finding ways to take advantage of natural daylight and views is almost always a top priority. In some cases, this is as simple as relocating bookshelves or introducing lower shelving options that won’t block exterior windows.

Reconfiguring layouts to make various areas visually accessible helps to engage users and promote safety which is also increasingly important today.  Open floor plans also pave the way for some of the other trends we’re seeing, such as introducing more comfortable seating and flexible arrangements.

touchdown work stations at the Messiah College Murray Library
The touchdown work stations at the Messiah College Murray Library can be adjusted up or down based on student preferences. Larry Lefever Photography
  1. Flexible Furnishings
Lowering bookshelves using the top as a work surface as illustrated in this example from The Carroll School in Brooklyn, NY
Lowering bookshelves can also create new opportunities for collaborative learning using the top as a work surface as illustrated in this example from The Carroll School in Brooklyn, NY, designed by Loci Architecture.

Recognizing that libraries will continue to evolve, current design strategies focus on modular furniture options in lieu of built-in service counters, computer stations or meeting/study rooms. In fact, today’s libraries are equipped with fewer fixed computer stations and more powered group study tables or individual connections that can be used by a broader range of patrons who will increasingly be bringing their own devices, but can also avail themselves of tablets or other portable devices available through the library.  Mobile furniture and even bookshelves work especially well for multi-purpose spaces like children’s areas or meeting rooms that often need to adapt to varied uses.

Movable furniture and temporary wall partitions serve the long-term functionality of spaces, as well as short-term needs for flexible work environments. Options like sit-to-stand tables, study pods or carrels work well for individual work. For group interactions, collaboration stations accommodate groups review and content sharing.  Unique lounge seating that can be easily rearranged supports both individual and group reading.

common spaces in the Messiah College Murray Library
Renovations to the Messiah College Murray Library introduced learning commons spaces including break-out rooms, individual study areas and group workstations. Larry Lefever Photography.
  1. Powering Up
a phone charging sitting on a chair and plugged into that same chair
Franklin & Marshall College, Nathan Cox Photography.

One of the biggest current changes is the need for power and Wi-fi access everywhere in the library.  For new construction, we may recommend a raised access floor system incorporating power, data and mechanical systems under the floor panels allowing for future relocation without major cost or disruption.  For renovations, a low-profile access floor system may be a viable alternative for getting power and data throughout the building with the ability for receptacle relocation. However, under-carpet wiring, with receptacles placed on top of the floor, is a more economical option for tighter renovation budgets.

There are an increasing number of options for powered tables or lounge furniture as well as hard-wired or wireless charging stations. Other considerations, particularly for colleges and universities, include accommodations for distance learning classrooms that provide videoconferencing capabilities and electronic flip charts to share information both graphically and electronically, advanced computing centers with the latest video, graphics, 3D visualization and science software, presentation rooms equipped with projection systems and audio capabilities.

Multi-seat media tables in Messiah College’s Murray Library
Multi-seat media tables in Messiah College’s Murray Library include an integrated audiovisual system that allows students to plug in their laptops for viewing on the flat panel display at the end of the table. Larry Lefever Photography
  1. Collaboration and Individual Spaces

Today’s libraries must successfully integrate information or learning commons, a wide range of individual and group workspaces that typically integrate technology with traditional reference and research resources. Serving as a hub for patrons to gather, exchange ideas and utilize technology, the learning commons is a blend of formal and informal spaces to accommodate diverse preferences and needs.  Far from the quiet, hush of a traditional library, the challenge for these modern spaces is providing appropriate acoustical considerations for sound control between lively, sometimes loud, areas and more quiet spaces.

Lancaster Chamber of Commerce conference room with two women and a man talking
Lancaster Chamber of Commerce, Nathan Cox Photography

Demountable partitions or moveable walls work great for makerspaces and study rooms that feature writable marker board walls and collaboration stations.  Freestanding partitions and screens are a great option for some visual and acoustical separation for small scale work/study spaces. In both cases, we recommend transparency to allow for light transfer, provide visual access and maintain an open environment that can be easily monitored by staff members.

As learning pedagogies and workspaces shift, demand has increased for a wide range of group interaction and collaboration spaces.  Having areas where people can come together for discussions, debate and information-sharing is critical, however, there is also a need for a variety of individual spaces to suit diverse needs and preferences. These spaces need to be visually and audibly separated to the greatest extent possible.  A variety of modular study “pods” are available to create the desired sense of individual space. Private study carrels will be expected by some patrons, while comfortable lounge furniture is more suitable for others.

Columbia Public Library interior
Today’s brighter libraries often feature a combination of windows and innovative lighting strategies that are both functional and aesthetically appealing. Columbia Public Library, Nathan Cox Photography.
  1. Community Resource
coffee shop and cafe inside a library at Woodcrest Villa
Coffee shops and cafes, or even art galleries, can also be found in today’s libraries to further create an appealing destination for patrons. Woodcrest Villa, Nathan Cox Photography

Key to the longevity of today’s libraries are the resources they provide beyond the books and traditional research and technical services.  For both public and academic libraries the library is increasingly home to services such as writing, business and tutoring centers, maker and advanced lab spaces for everything from scrapbooking and pottery to a recording studio or 3D printing, as well as other specialty resource spaces such as rentable conference rooms, passport services or local historical resources. Libraries in retirement communities are often paired with computer technology resources and associated technology support services. These spaces often work well in the circulation zones and other “between areas” for logical adjacent functions. Converting underutilized areas into spaces that further promote engagement and encourage interaction further solidify the library’s value for the community it serves.

Columbia Public Library interior
For Columbia Public Library renovations, new paint and carpeting breath new life into existing spaces where many of the original furnishings and window treatments remained. Nathan Cox Photography

For many children the library is a daily safe space. The library provides a place for the child to stay in the time between the end of school day and the time that their parents come home from work. Many residents find their only access to computers and printing at the library. On a practical level, many families find savings to their monthly budget by using the services that the library provides.

When considering a renovation or addition to a public library, fundraising can really bring the community together. Sites for libraries can vary greatly from the suburban, rural and urban. Often suburban and rural libraries require driving to the city or the library itself. With the trend for both millennials and seniors to move to and vacation in walkable cities, the library sits at a prime spot to regain its role as a community servant.

Warwick Middle School library interior
Warwick Middle School, Larry Lefever Photography

There are a myriad of possibilities for breaking out of the traditional mold when designing a library or breathing new life into existing spaces. Color helps to make a space more appealing and more likely to be used, in addition to the potential for reinforcing a community brand or school colors. Color is particularly important in children’s and teen’s spaces. Bright colors add a sense of fun and casual accessibility to spaces that can otherwise seem quiet, imposing and uninspiring.

Matt Barley earned a Master of Design, (MDes) Interior Architecture from the Rhode Island School of Design.  He has 12 years of design experience and is himself a craftsman and artist. According to Matt, there has never been a more exciting time to be involved with library design. What we thought of as a traditional library is changing, but that is a common truism for our work.

Matt points out that libraries can provide a calm space in the midst of the highs and lows of travel, that help to orient visitors to the local community. “I recall one Thanksgiving climbing trip the Sierra Nevada Mountains in which we were camping in tents. The local library became a warm place we could gather to read books and recover from a day in the mountains.”

Jacqueline Fox earned a Bachelor of Science from Philadelphia University.  She is a member of the International Interior Design Association and has earned National Council for Interior Design Qualifications (NCIDQ) certification. Jacqueline loves to help find ways to merge collaborative experiences with traditional library functions. She points out that it’s important to maintain features like study carrels, especially with an open floor plan, for those times when individual work or focus are needed.

Blog Editor – Jodi Kreider, LEED AP