Monday, November 26, 2012

The Importance of Physical Space

On Saturday night, while reading graduate student papers, I was also tweeting thoughts and ideas that came to me from them.  Students in my one class had to tour four libraries of their choosing, pay attention to specific details in those libraries, then write-up what they found along with a personal reflection.  While several of my tweets seemed to be about space, this one started a Twitter conversation:

Into the conversation jumped a number of librarians and LIS students from across the U.S.  The conversation was quite lively and even continued after I had gone to bed.

Since there is overlap between the libraries that the 25 students visited, I cannot say that I read about 100 different libraries, but I can say that I read about 100 different experiences of libraries.  (I would guess that I read about 50-75 unique libraries.)  Even when two students visited the exact same library, what they noticed was different and how they felt about the library often was different.  From their library visits, they got a sense of how space matters.  Some libraries have been blessed with the ability to see how to use their limited space in a way that makes it welcoming, while others have not. There were a few comments about libraries where these LIS students really didn't want to spend any time because they didn't like the space. (And if an LIS student feels that way, what must the community members feel?)

Grocery stores, large department stores, "big box" stores, theme parks, and hotels are among the institutions that recogize the importance of space to their financial success.  For example, a grocery store wants you to move through the store in a specific way, so that you will pass by foods that they want you to purchase.  They also want you to shop in a specific order. You will notice that a grocery store (and not a small family-run store on the corner) has you enter and go through the produce section first.  That is on purpose.    Aisles are wide and uncluttered, because clutter causes us to move quickly by whatever it is.  And...by the way...the entrance to the store isn't cluttered either, also on purpose.

When you look at the shelves in a store, items are placed intentionally.  This is not a haphazard arrangement.  Sometimes the arrangement annoys us, but they wouldn't do it if it didn't make them money.

How do we arrange our libraries?  Do we think about the best layout for the goals that we have?  If we want the library to be a community center, have we laid it out with that goal in mind?  If our focus is on literacy, does the layout and placement of material support that?  Are our aisle wide and uncluttered?  Do we make it easy for people to linger?  For those that linger, can they find the things that they need (restrooms, power outlets, water/food)?  Is our signage big and easy to read, even from across the room? 

In Twitter, people commented on libraries that were making their spaces more flexible.  Two academic libraries were noted as having purchased furniture that is movable, so that the students can rearrange it at will.  Students who want to study together, work on large project, etc., can move the furniture to meet their needs.  (Yes, sometimes it will seems as if they do it just to have fun, but we'll never know if that creative endeavor sparked something important.)

As the tweets flew by, I remembered visiting the public library in Telluride, CO.  This library had placed specific items in its entry way, including a place to sit and the restrooms.  From the entry way, you could look inside the children's room.  This means that a parent could be on her phone in a noisy area, while still keeping an eye on her child.  The children's section was closest to the front door, which meant that they didn't run all through the library to get to their own space.  And from the front door, it was easy to see how the entire library was laid out. Is this the ideal layout for every public library?  Perhaps not, but it is interesting to see how they considered their space and then how people use it.

I know that there are architects that work specifically with libraries.  If you are going to renovate your library space, I encourage you to work with library architectural firm.  I also encourage you to learn about space design on your own.  Don't just rely on what the architect tells you!

Also recognize that how your libraries decides to configure its space may indeed be different that what others do, but that it should not be haphazard.  Quoting David Weinberger from his book Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder (page 2):
More typical merchandisers use physical space against customers so the customers will spend more money than they intended... When Medill talks about making it easier for Staples' customers to get out of the store fast, he's a bona fide revolutionary.
With that all in mind, I found these books that you might want to read or skim through.  Even if you think this is malarkey, I bet you'll find something that could be useful.

Finally, I should note that one of my students wondered why we - not-for-profit libraries - would want to take clues from for-profit businesses.  Just because we don't make sell things doesn't mean that we can't learn from those that do.  Businesses spend millions of dollars to create spaces that people will enjoy and that they will come back to.  Shouldn't we take what they have learned and use it, so people will enjoy and come back to our spaces?

And because this topic has consumed me, as I've been writing and revising this, I found this video of a the new Surrey City Centre Library (Canada). Obviously, they had the funding to pull this all off!

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