Instant Ideas and Collaboration

Feature #14: Thinking about the link between library use and design

Our feature article this month is by Bryony Ramsden, Human and Health Sciences Subject Librarian at the University of Huddersfield. Bryony tweets as @librarygirlknit, and will be speaking at this year’s ARCLIB conference on the topic ‘What is a library for? Ways of Seeing Things Differently’. If you enjoy this month’s feature article, do join us for the chat tomorrow on Library Design, 18.30-20.30 BST. There is still time to add your questions to our agenda doc here.


Ethnography in libraries is a Good Thing. Andy Priestner has already blogged here in support of librarians becoming slightly less famous versions of David Attenborough (while wearing cardigans[1], and hopefully also in really nice coloured Dr Marten boots), so I won’t repeat too much of what he’s already said other than ethnography is AWESOME. It tells you loads about what library users do that you’d never learn about otherwise. Ethnography gives us the option to find out just how much goes on and discuss the issue with our visitors in more detail – library users are less likely to tell us in a survey something they think we don’t want to hear because RULES and BREAKING THEM. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to primarily talk about behaviour manifesting in academic libraries relating to design and policy, and ways of responding to it (if at all). And I promise not to get started talking about atriums.

Libraries as ‘home’

We are designing libraries to become a home from home for our students, a place they can (and should!) feel comfortable in, so we shouldn’t be surprised that they’ll begin to treat our spaces like their own bedroom. The most obvious consideration is that people visiting the library get hungry sometimes, and while many libraries now provide cafes or similar as part of their design/just outside, many still have rules that prevent the transfer of food and drink to other areas. We all know that students visit the library, do *something* and get hungry so they want to eat, and from our own professional practice, we know they end up eating in the library. Unsurprisingly, this is a contentious issue in The Library World but there are plenty of libraries preventing food consumption in their spaces. Please note I’m not talking special collections here, which naturally need careful handling. But as Donna Lanclos has discussed on many occasions, why do we expect library users to act like some kind of martyr to their studying? Libraries offer extended opening hours, in many cases 24-hour opening. Our environments encourage our visitors to settle down for long-term research, provide a study area they can’t always get at home, often with more space to spread out and equipment they can’t afford to buy, so they’ll spend a LOT of time with us. Is it fair to ask students to forgo eating and drinking for the sake of studying, when it might impact on their work, and we are essentially giving them the room to work constantly? And do we really think that any materials taken home will be used well away from food and drink?

Similarly, we need to not be surprised or disturbed that students will sometimes want to grab a bit of shut-eye when they are using the library, because, you know, comfy seating, warm buildings, that 24-hour opening thing, etc.

It happens, and more often than you might realise. Whether it’s because of academic endeavours, or activity of the social kind, if you provide long opening hours and an environment that allows for comfortable extensive study time, you’ll get people napping or more. It isn’t unheard of to find students bringing sleeping bags to libraries, or visiting post-clubbing. It’s their choice, like it or not, but keep in mind that no matter what you do with your library designs, it’s highly likely your visitors will find a way to use it the way they want to, especially if your policies encourage it to happen…

Changing rules, changing spaces?

Don’t expect a modification of design to automatically create a modification of behaviour either. Environmental press[2] (and proximity to particular resources) means that often behaviour and use will continue, and be copied by others. It takes time to develop new usage patterns. Don’t change the rules of a space without making changes to the furnishings and layout, and even then, don’t assume use and behaviour will change overnight. And if you want to change the rules for the space without changing the design, think about why you want to do that. Is it for the benefit of all library visitors, or is it to make it easier to manage? Design should match intended purpose, be intuitive. In my own experience I’ve seen a library space change from group study to silent study with no modification of furnishings, in an effort to curb social use. It stayed, in all but policy, a group study/socialising area in spite of heavy policing, because it retained the original meaning of the space. If you wanted to try and fix this, you could rethink your modification decision, you could provide alternative spaces for the rule you want to instigate, but really, you need to focus on what your library users are doing in the space, and endeavour to accommodate a variety of places that suit and intuitively lead to the desired use. You can’t please everyone all the time, but you can certainly try and do your best to let use lead policy/purpose rather than try to ‘fix’ things. And don’t forget, that loud socialising you hear? Could be a way to relax in the middle of some really onerous studying.

Library anxiety and assumptions on design style

Lastly, a word on library buildings in general. I had an interesting discussion with another librarian at a seminar, where she said she thought students preferred using old, traditional library buildings like this:


That’s the Brotherton Library at Leeds Uni, and I have a soft spot for its old-school marble, balconies, and long tables. I also love modern spaces, like this:

I’m not lucky enough to have visited Aberdeen University’s recently-built library, but I think it looks stunning.

I have no idea whether either of these work better than the other for my own personal study purposes, but different build styles can work VERY differently, depending on the individual. Old-school libraries can be inspiring because of their traditional academic aura, or they can intimidate and terrify those who are already nervous about starting university. A modern build can put visitors off because of the unfamiliar territory, or enable them because it is new, different, exciting, and draws them in. Don’t assume that your build will be all things to all people. Remember that all the library-based observations in the world will only tell you about the people willing to visit them. If you want to learn even more about what does or doesn’t work for your user base, get more people involved who only see the library as a tiny component of their studying, who don’t like using it, and ask where they do feel comfortable and why. You don’t have to try and deal with all the issues at once, but you certainly don’t want to create a building that excludes people from the outset. Talk to people to find out how you can make the library work for them without having to create a building for each person. Could just be something as simple as changing a colour on a wall, or making it simpler to navigate the shelves, or even just adding a couple of tables of different height into a space.

In short, what design works for you as library staff isn’t necessarily what works for your visitors and certainly not for all visitors all the time. To provide the best user experience you need to get out there and spend time with the people who actually use your facilities to learn what you can do to support them. To learn more about how, read Foster and Gibbons, Lanclos, Doug Suarez, and many more – there’s an increasing body of research on using ethnography to learn about student use so take advantage of it. And remember that it isn’t always the library or the users who need to change, but US who need to change our way of thinking, and modify how WE think about design, use and policy.


[1] I’d like to think David likes a good comfy cardi himself when the Arctic gets a bit nippy.

[2] The way an environment prompts an individual’s emotions and reactions.

3 comments on “Feature #14: Thinking about the link between library use and design

  1. tribigild
    June 24, 2014

    ‘Don’t assume that your build will be all things to all people’ is a great, succinct way of looking at the question.

    Leeds University is a good example to include actually; by having libraries designed in different eras (Brotherton 1930s, Edward Boyle 1970s, Health Sciences refurbished in 2000s and the Laidlaw is currently being built), we (will) have four very different library environments in which students can choose to study, which hopefully means that everyone can find a place which works for them.

  2. Pingback: hinking about the link between library use and design - Massachusetts Construction Blog

  3. Pingback: Door ogen van de klant: ILI2014, 1 | Infobesitas

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This entry was posted on June 2, 2014 by in Feature and tagged , , , , .


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