Library users & design

by | Aug 12, 2013 | Uncategorized | 0 comments


UNSW main library tower

Getting the right fit between a library, and users is an ever evolving environment. Libraries, are no longer archetypal, but with constant refurbishment and build of new spaces and constructs, design, plays an ever increasing central role in the right fit for all who use a library. The right fit is not a “now thing” but has been evolving for a number of years. It is perhaps now that library design is actually considering users within this concept. Both of the Australian articles presented provide welcome content for the use of library spaces, while the third article discusses this from a school perspective. 

Nimmo, an architect, explores, the process of innovation in spatial design and the process of design, “…an interactive design…between architects, librarians and stakeholders”. This is a welcome statement. The process as outlined, seems to provide a worthy consensus outcome. Nimmo looks at two projects he has been involved in, refurbishing the UNSW Menzies Library, a ten year venture and a green fields build for the Gold Coast City Council, a somewhat quicker outcome. Critical is expounding ones first principle, what are we actually going to do?  A three stage workshop process is explored, from basic concepts to the final master design.

Further, “…new libraries are often an eclectic assembly of design components…without a coherent framework for strategic intent” To overcome this, a qualitative “workshop process” was used and described in some detail, to include all stakeholders. Through this process all gain insight on issues outside their own areas of concern and likewise, all gain insight of others concerns. The stakeholders become part of the process and not just onlookers accepting a fait accompli, the final product, a concensus model of design. A pararell process is separate consultative meetings being the kernel of the working design is also essential as this is where the first principles are made into practicalities. Data such as visits, loans and various uses are important as this quantitative area then supports and fuses with the qualitative, supporting the initial move to refurbish or build. 

What are we looking for when it comes to design for use? This has to be the basis of any move to redesign libraries and their spaces, flexible spaces, fewer books, more digital access, a communal/social centre. One gets a sense that the process is lengthy, requires commitment from all for the betterment of the communal environment. The formal process has solid merit, particularly as there are varying inputs for a costly building.

Norman’s views (a Sydney based librarian) are broad, challenging and in the public domain, in that public libraries to survive, must be and are regenerating their roles, constantly repositioning themselves to take advantage and align themselves with their paying communities. The community (users) must be at the table, they cannot be ignored. The issues raised can be articulated for both tertiary and many school libraries, all finding themselves in a similar position. The many topics briefly discussed are realistic and intertwining throughout the article is the user. What does the user want from the design of spaces? How libraries are reimagining services and their place in society in general and in particular instances?

Perrault and Levesque’s small article begins with a quote from To kill a mockingbird, a text well known to most from secondary school. It is this connection that they use to look at library design from the point of view of the student. The term “empathic design” offers a means of empathy, putting oneself in place of another, such as organisations to better understand users’ needs.  The concept is taken from an earlier article and used in their article as a ”relatively low cost, low risk way to identify potentially critical customer needs”, one would think this applied in terms of time and finance. Again quantitative data is useful to add weight to change. Complementing this is the qualitative aspect, that is observing the user in the environment and how the user engages, what they do or don’t do.

They discuss a relatively easy five step process, in contrast to Nimmo’s detailed design process. “The empathic process offers a proactive and purposeful strategy to offer fully inclusive programs and services”. It is not articulated in any detail, but others a snap shot of its characteristic and if interested the reader is lead to investigate the original article.
Empathic design addresses unarticulated user needs – its strongest feature. This user centered approach becomes an intimate model as distinct from a more structured model. 

One gets the sense that library design of today is about legitimising the users, their use of the space, the services they require  and not so much of a collection. It is the users who are driving library use. This is a critical factor to remember at all stages of design and ultimately the practicalities of daily use. To be flexible enough in 10 or 20 years – like a built in wardrobe, so a library too must have built in flexibility. 

What are user needs, their experiences, how are they articulated, establishing a broad consensus for the final design is paramount and one can only wish that such detailed processes really infiltrate the design process so that users and libraries are one fit. 

These offerings provide solid insight and practical directions for all stakeholders to contribute and make the library experience an ever evolving and collaborative environment. Proactive connections, is the future for libraries and users.


Nimmo, Andrew. “An architect’s perspective – how to encourage genuine innovation in library design”. Australian Library Journal 61:3, (2012): 200-6.

Norman, Mark. “Frail, fatal, fundamental: the future of public libraries”. Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services 25:2, (2012): 94-100.

Perrault, Anne Marie & Levesque, Aimee M. “Caring for all students”. 7Knowledge Quest 40:4, (2012):16-7.

This article first appeared in Incite
June/July 2013.

Edward Kostraby is a member of ALIA Research Committee and Head of Library, St Michael’s Grammar School, St Kilda, Victoria.


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