An Enriching Place

Nov. 1, 2004
Universities should design their libraries to reflect the times and the communities they serve.

The library is a building typology at the forefront of defining our culture. Since the founding of the first institution of higher education, the library has offered an opportunity for students, faculty and staff to explore and expand their minds. It is a place to enrich, entertain, educate and empower through knowledge. In striving to serve its campus, a library must clearly understand the continually changing needs of its constituency, from undergraduates, graduates, doctoral candidates, faculty and even school-age children and local citizens.

The demands on today's college libraries far exceed those of the past. The library is much more than a collection of books and the people who help find them. Today, the library is a resource center and a community center; it is the academic heart of a university campus.

Modern times

As a college library fulfills more functions, decisions about seating capacities, collection capacities, staff space and other functions are being evaluated constantly. Even long-held standards about library design, such as the appropriate area per seat, are being rethought. Table seating, lounge seating and technology stations all require different amounts of space, degrees of lighting and locations in the library.

In addition to private study spaces, libraries often have lecture halls, classrooms, group-study rooms and collaborative carrels. To accommodate recent trends in educational approaches, older libraries face increasing pressure to provide additional space for collaborative and project-based learning. Flexible spaces such as these provide opportunities for interaction among students, faculty members and library staff.

As libraries evolve spatially, the librarians are forging change in their service models. The practice of descending into a windowless office somewhere in the lower level of the building to do research no longer is appropriate. Today's academic libraries have multiple service points throughout the building where librarians work with students and faculty in support of their scholarly pursuits. The service points also function as librarian workspaces — and not simply a transaction counter — where students and faculty can come to collaborate.

Integrating multiple service points into a large library helps make library patrons feel more secure with their physical environment, and makes the library and its staff appear available and accessible. Seeing activity throughout the library and knowing people are around at all times also helps reassure patrons, especially in large facilities.

The collections in a modern university library also are evolving. Library materials now include many non-print media formats — CD, audiocassette, videotape and DVD. These materials are fragile, and the technology required to play them may become obsolete in the near future, but they have become popular. These new media have challenged the library about how to integrate them into the collections and make them accessible. Many institutions have chosen to keep these materials as a closed collection; others are experimenting with a retail-influenced method for material storage and display. Such displays require more floor area and do not store materials as efficiently as closed collections.

Other institutions have embraced a digital media retrieval system that allows delivery of a new media format to any computer desktop in the library or elsewhere on the campus network. The technology for this solution is in its infancy and can be costly to set up if a large portion of the collection needs to be converted to a digital format. It is, however, an effective methodology for delivering these non-print formats to a large number of library patrons.

Special collections

A library collection often includes artwork, historical materials and memorabilia from the college's history. By preserving and providing access to these materials, a library helps foster an understanding of the roots and growth of the college community. A library also can showcase trends in culture and education. It provides a venue for student and alumni artwork, poetry, and musical and dance performances. This celebration of identity imparts a strong sense of unity. To do justice to these presentations, a college should allocate a substantial amount of library space for these uses.

Broadband wireless access to the Internet also is becoming prevalent in libraries, enabling use of this technology through personal laptops within the library. According to the Association of College and Research Libraries, about 60 percent of academic libraries that have been renovated or expanded recently have wireless technology. Ubiquitous access to electronic media via wireless technology clearly is on the horizon for academic libraries.

Along with advancements in technology, libraries now are reconsidering three previous taboos. Food, drink and noise slowly are being welcomed into library spaces in carefully controlled instances. Providing a limited menu is an effective amenity to activate the building and update it for modern students.

The operational implications of introducing food, however, are a significant challenge to the library administration. Often the services are a separate franchise; others are self-serve or operated by library volunteers or work-study students. Each institution must find the right commitment to food and drink in the library and the best operating model to deliver these services.

At Teachers College in New York City, the renovated library has a small cafe situated within the library security limits, but a good distance from the computers and collections. Providing the amenity while protecting the library holdings helps balance conflicting needs and has contributed to the cafe's success.

Conveying community

Architecture is meant to inspire; a well-created space sparks a positive sensory experience. In exploring new materials and methods for defining space, architects and planners give physical form to social values. The best architecture not only speaks of today and our collective culture, but also celebrates our diverse heritage and reflects its influence in the formation of an institution.

In designing a library, an architect can translate a university's goals and aspirations into meaningful form, while organizing and coordinating space to meet functional and programmatic needs. A library building, like most architecture, should be flexible, innovative, provocative and inviting. Much as the library should inspire people to explore their identities and expand their knowledge, so should the architecture support and enhance a library and a school's mission.

Both physically and programmatically, the focus of an academic library must be not only internal, but also forward and outward. Today's libraries not only exist to house collections and support faculty for current curricula, but also they serve the college community in many ways. The growth and evolution of a library is dependent on the college leadership — student, faculty and staff — working with the library administration to create a place that can benefit the community. Therefore, university librarians are offering services to faculty, research groups and student organizations in an effort to attract more people to the library.

Functionally, the overall organization of a library should be clear and easily understood. Architectural features of the building should indicate special places, and internal landmarks should make navigation within the building intuitive. These features can take the form of breaks in regularly spaced elements, different systems for shelving, or “events” in lighting or seating that make the space unique and memorable.

In designing spaces and their relationships, it is important that the appropriate solution for a library, a campus, an institution and its educational mission be considered. A modern library should be a successful multi-event destination; by attracting people for a variety of purposes at different times of the day, week or year, it will continue to evolve as a vital part of a changing college campus.

Blau is associate principal at Fox & Fowle Architects, New York City.

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