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Designing for the Future — The Post-Pandemic Library

by David Vinjamuri and Joseph Huberty

How do we move forward?

As the pandemic swept across America, libraries across broad swaths of the country closed their doors to the public. In the following months, librarians watched as waves of social unrest sparked a reevaluation of race and policing. Public health guidelines suddenly became partisan divides as masks became partisan symbols. The turbulence of the Trump presidency boiled over after a lost election, with widespread denial leading to the sacking of the U.S. Capitol. In spite of months and years of portents, signs and warnings, all of this would have beggared the imagination just twelve months earlier.­­­­

The past year frayed the fabric of American life. Our civil society fractured, as citizens living side by side consumed vastly different information streams. Patent untruths and conspiracy theories flourished in the mainstream. Our civic dialogue broke down more than at any time since Reconstruction.

In the midst of ongoing turmoil, libraries must still plan for the future. For some, this means reorganizing and reopening. Others must prepare for renovations or new construction in the face of grave uncertainties. Nobody knows — or can know — what the patron of 2022 wants. Will our struggles today will lead us to greater comity or further division? These questions remain unsettled. Essential services still move forward, however. Scheduled renovations must be planned. New libraries cannot wait for society to settle before they are built.

In this article, we examine seven fundamental issues that libraries confront as they plan for the future and how these affect library space planning and design.

A Return to Territoriality

A fear of strangers is one of our oldest instincts as a species. In its worst incarnation, this manifests as xenophobia and racism. But the basic instinct for distance from strangers also stems from the need for protection against attack and infection. Edward Hall, an American anthropologist studied cultural concepts of personal space and helped create the definitions of territoriality guiding design today. We predict new relevance for territoriality during the post-pandemic era. It is no coincidence that health guidelines mandating 6’ of separation between individuals from different households falls comfortably within the range of Hall’s ‘personal reaction bubbles’ for social space of 4–12’.

We feel comfortable around community members we don’t know when they’re at a sufficient distance for them not to immediately infect us, just as we feel comfortable around complete strangers with no shared connection (as on a sidewalk) when they are 12 or more feet away — or far enough away for us to react before they might attack us.

There have always been exceptions to these rules. On a subway in New York City or Tokyo, we are likely to encounter absolute strangers well within our intimate space — the outermost band of which ends at 18 inches. A commuter in one of these cities might routinely find herself pressed up against complete strangers. But despite their frequency, these situations are instinctively uncomfortable for most of us. We guard against them by retreating inwards. Crowded elevators are usually silent, as are jammed subway cars. Co-workers in open office plans wear headphones to create the illusion of personal space, to compensate for being crammed together in ill-designed workspaces.

The COVID-19 pandemic has reawakened our most territorial instincts. In 2020, an unknown person person in a public space passing close to us presented little or no physical threat in most of the country. Just a year later, this same person hovering nearby has become an existential threat for the first time in 100 years. This shock will not soon wear off. Just as the frugal habits of Depression-era children did not diminish as they became adults, we should expect library patrons to desire and demand more personal space for the foreseeable future.

As patrons return to libraries, we can think of territorial issues as creating friction, meaning that while a lack of adequate planning for territoriality will not absolutely deter patrons from entering, browsing, sitting or engaging, it will make the experience less comfortable and, if not rectified, may reduce their total number of visits or visit duration.

Implications for Library Space Design:

1. Pathways — One-way pathways may continue to feel safer for patrons even after health restrictions subside. Design library zones to allow for one-way pathways. Add design cues for one-way travel such as canting displays towards patrons traveling in the preferred direction

2. Seating — Seating should ideally be flexible, allowing patrons to define a safe distance. Where space is a significant constraint, barriers, partitions or angled seating can be used to ameliorate patron concerns.

3. Tables — Four and six person tables may see minimal usage outside of child and teen areas. Consider flexible table arrangements or two-person table sections that can be combined for more efficient space usage.

4. Event Space — Consider limiting event size until you can determine patron comfort level with proximity. Add gaps in seating to allow patrons to self-select. Consider hybrid approaches allowing live events to be simulcast as webinars.

The Concierge is Here … Forever

Public libraries may have triggered a crisis of rising expectations in adapting to difficult conditions during the pandemic. Just as Apple disrupted conventional retail practices by eliminating traditional lines and removing cash registers from Apple stores, the pandemic has disrupted traditional library practices by causing patrons to eschew the circulation desk in favor of curbside pickup.

We won’t sugar-coat the logistical challenges: offering this service on an ongoing basis will be difficult for many libraries. Turning the foyer or external conference room into a staging area won’t be possible when public libraries are fully open. Pre-pandemic points of service may not be adequate to support parking lot services on a long-term basis. But the need is real. Seniors, persons with disabilities, rushed commuters, harried parents and many others see a real benefit from curbside pickup and related external services.

This flexibility may have additional benefits. Libraries interested in making more efficient use of their space and eliminating dead zones by moving desirable materials deeper into the library space have long encountered resistance from a small but vocal group of patrons. Maintaining a concierge or other friendly, front-of-the-library service point can allow these patrons to receive their items without the extra walk while freeing librarians from the burden of repeated complaints.

Libraries can plan for the future by visualizing their range of services on proximity scale encompassing the interior of the library, curbside delivery, outdoor events, activities in the community and virtual/online. This means creating the physical, technical, organizational and social infrastructure to support the new pieces of this spectrum. Of all the versions of the future that this article proposes, the safest to predict is that patrons won’t easily give up new conveniences, so libraries should plan to continue curbside delivery and other new and popular services moving forward.

Implications for Library Space Design:

1. Front Service Point — Create a service point in the foyer, lobby or otherwise near the main entry. A standing or high-seated staffer is preferable. Avoid large desks that may form a barrier.

2. Storage/Sorting — Creating space for materials to be staged in or near this area is critical to efficient operation. When designing new space, consider roll-in/roll-out storage close to the main entry.

3. Drive-Through — When renovating or designing new space, consider adding a drive-through window, particularly in locations with extreme weather.

4. Systems — Evaluate the effectiveness and user-friendliness of your online ordering system for curbside delivery. A more intuitive website & smartphone app may make the entire library feel friendlier.

The Adaptable Library

An overarching lesson of the pandemic was the need for adaptability. This need will only grow as patrons return. There is no guarantee that the same mix of patrons who left the library in 2020 will return in 2021 or 2022. Even if they do, it is foreseeable that their needs will have changed, and that some of those needs won’t be evident until they’re already in the space.

This has two implications: the obvious one is for the design of library space. There has been a movement among architects and library space planners for some time to promote multi-use spaces, movable and flexible furniture and adaptable zones when designing libraries. Part of the impetus behind this is the recognition that the library has dayparts: it has different uses and functions at different times of the day and days of the week. When toddlers depart for naptime, the children’s library changes. When young elementary-age children burst through the doors, that area changes again. An adaptable library can grow and shrink zones to accommodate these shifting needs. This is more important than ever now. When a library renovates but then recognizes that some of the design choices just aren’t working, what can it do? Experiment, measure and iterate. Flexible furniture, pathways and zones along with ample storage are critical in making this an easy and painless process.

The second implication is for staff. An adaptable library implies a different mindset and temperament for staff as well as a particular set of skills. This mindset may change traditional hiring expectations for library staff. Librarians who can see space organically, who are open to change, who are willing to experiment but are also analytic in their approach to change will succeed in this environment. Librarians who are very resistant to change or believe there is a fixed answer to any given patron need may not flourish.

Even adaptable, analytic librarians may need training to meet the challenges of the adaptable library. Space planning, public relations, effective management, fundraising, occupational safety, merchandising and marketing are all critical skills for library leaders to possess or hire. Yet none of these skills is among the core curriculum for the majority of graduate library science programs in the United States. Universities are turning out a generation of impressive data specialists when they need to also be developing civic leaders.

Implications for Library Space Design:

1. Flexibility — Furniture should be easily movable by a single person. Zones should be designed to grow or contract based on need with a minimum effort from librarians. In other words, the babies/toddlers area might be quite large for storytime in the morning but much smaller during the after-school period in the afternoon.

2. Adaptability — The design of spaces must incorporate the need to flex spaces for different uses. Aisle widths, ceiling heights, storage rooms, and elevators all need to accommodate these needs.

3. Training — Meeting spaces must now also be sufficient to conduct regular staff training within the facility.

The Library as a Municipal Point of Service

Public Libraries have been community hubs for decades, particularly as the popularity of library programs has grown around the country. Increasingly, though, libraries are beginning to act as a coordinator of services for vulnerable populations including refugees, jobless patrons, seniors, disabled patrons and patrons experiencing homelessness.

For people experiencing homelessness, libraries have long offered shelter from the weather, a place to search for jobs and affordable housing, resume assistance, free access to computers, the Internet and Wi-Fi, homework and tax support.

Even before the pandemic, though, a number of model libraries throughout the U.S. including Baltimore County, Denver and Queens have begun to make it easier for patrons experiencing homelessness to understand and locate support services. As detailed by the American Library Association, Baltimore County created a ‘street card’ in cooperation with the Baltimore County Communities for the Homeless with “information on employment, food and emergency assistance, health, financial support, legal issues and shelter”. Pima County, Arizona has a full-time public health nurse and offers rounds in their libraries to provide health services including blood pressure screenings, nursing assessment and nutrition and health education.

The San Francisco Public Library worked with the city to create a homeless outreach team to reach homeless patrons in the library system and connect them with services. This team works in the library every day to identify patrons experience homelessness and provide them with services onsite as well as connecting them to jobs, housing and other resources. The team even employs homeless patrons.

The pandemic has added a huge strain to the needs of these populations as well as dramatically expanding homelessness and food insecurity in the U.S. Looking forward, public libraries will need to consider vulnerable populations in library design, particularly as food insecurity and joblessness are still expanding and may take months or years to alleviate. For libraries around the country, the next logical step in this process is to co-locate services for these populations with or in public libraries. As Madison, Wisconsin designs a new library, the Imagination Center at Reindahl Park will follow this model. The Imagination Center will be “a place for social connection, civic engagement, cultural expression, economic development, and health resources,” according to the City of Madison. Early plans include co-located municipal facilities, a teaching kitchen, daycare center and other non-traditional library services first tested in a partnership between Madison Public Library and Madison Public Schools & Community Recreation at the Meadowridge Library/Meadowood Neighborhood Center.

Two new vulnerable classes have emerged during the pandemic and the resulting economic downturn: small business owners and the self-employed. Many now fall into the perilous gap between full unemployment and adequate earnings. Small business owners may be struggling with the complete reinvention of their businesses to support online sales. As John Whitman, Megan Janicki and Marijke Visser describe for the America Library Association,

“Low-income and/or under-represented small business owners and entrepreneurs … are disproportionately affected by the pandemic and at heightened risk of losing their businesses and livelihoods due to a variety of systemic barriers and discrepancies.”

Meanwhile, the self-employed, many of whom were already struggling in the ‘gig’ economy are especially vulnerable to economic dislocation.

Public libraries must anticipate the very real need to help these workers along with small businesses, the foundation of American commercial life, pivot and recover. This means providing training, sponsoring volunteer consulting, even providing expert assistance for online tools like Shopify or online advertising.

Implications for Library Space Design:

1. Offices — To allow for co-location, office suites need careful consideration. Unlike library workspaces, municipal and social service agencies may require privacy and the ability to meet patrons individually in offices. This is very different from traditional librarian workspaces which are generally not intended to accommodate the public. Outside agencies may also need separate entrances accessible during hours when the library itself is closed.

2. Pathways — As libraries consider expanding services to vulnerable populations, pathways within the library require extra planning. For examples, a library incorporating shelter or counseling for victims of domestic violence may not want to enter an office within easy sight of the main entrance to the building.

3. Bathrooms — When libraries expand accommodations for people experiencing homelessness, maintaining separate restrooms with showers or changing options may be desirable. These may need enhanced security and sanitation to maintain.

4. Meeting Spaces — For at-risk populations, education and community are key needs. Expanding services to these groups, even in a library not able to provide dedicated spaces, requires ample meeting rooms and meeting spaces. For some purposes, like ESL or health education, movable partitions may be adequate. For others, it will be very important to have meeting space. Training and consulting for small businesses also requires available meeting rooms.

The Library as a Civic Hub

The pandemic became a political force in unforeseen ways during 2020 into 2021. The emergence of the medical mask as a political statement, the slipstream of online conspiracy theories moving into mainstream political discourse, the Black Lives Matter movement and the post-election protests culminating in the sacking of the U.S. Capitol Building by insurrectionists were shocking to the civic conscience. The need for civic education is more urgent than at any time in the past century. Libraries are perhaps the only civic institution equipped for this task. For one thing, they enjoy broad, bipartisan support. Public libraries are overall the most trusted institution in the country and fully 78% of adults say libraries help them find trustworthy and reliable information.

While some of the fallout of the pandemic may be aversive, public libraries can also expect to welcome patrons starved for human contact. Libraries have always been a natural gathering point for patrons seeking groups of affinity. Eric Klinenberg makes a strong argument for the centrality of libraries in civic life in his book Palaces for the People, published by Penguin Random House in 2018.

Expect this to increase. Library programs are sometimes treated as an independent country within libraries. Building a satisfying array of programs to library patrons is seen as an end in itself. But it can also be a powerful tool to engage new audiences, build consensus for library and community goals and help transmit accurate information, communal values and norms.

As patrons return, libraries should reframe the role of programs, even as they expand the reach. How can programs boost circulation, build new readers, educate taxpayers and voters, build the desire for language learning and break down social and cultural barriers? Does the library have a variety of indoor and outdoor spaces flexible enough to accommodate programs of different sizes? Does the library promote other services during programs and does it follow-up with attendees? Has the library recruited sponsors to support library programming? These are the questions to ask as libraries design for the future.

The library’s future as a civic hub must start with civic education. Perhaps the most urgent need for most patrons is learning how to identify false information online and how to find credible information. In addition, though, libraries can educate current and future voters in the basic of civics and American government.

Implications for Library Space Design:

1. Technology — Libraries need to accommodate all the different ways their patrons may access the Internet and incorporate those within the teaching environment. Computer learning labs made sense when everyone was using PCs. Today, a patron should be able to watch an instructor navigating smartphone apps while explaining how to evaluate the accuracy of information online. This requires better connective and display technology and more flexibility in technology use.

2. Instructional Spaces — Meeting rooms that can easily expand and contract may be helpful but adding wireless displays can be invaluable. Look for spaces within your library that might serve as instruction points but be used for other purposes as well. Flexibility is important.

3. Tutoring — The ability to accommodate both library and private tutors (for uses like ESL) is critical. Think about acoustic issues when designing zones that will host tutoring as well as education in open areas.

Delivering Services Outside the Library

Ironically, one of the key trends in library interior design will be driven by changes in the external environment. We’ve partly discussed this already, when confronting the unruly beast public libraries created by offering curbside delivery. But the pandemic showed that community needs don’t end when the doors to the building are closed. Moreover, underserved and geographically-distant areas are in more need of help than ever before. There are three ways to think about these changes.

First, libraries should more effectively use exterior spaces. Of the fifty or more libraries we’ve jointly and individually worked with over the past three years, more than two-thirds have some external space that is underused. Sometimes this is a function of climate. Both in New York and Wisconsin (where we live) there are periods of the year where outdoor activities are difficult. But part of this also has to do with attitude and approach. Public libraries are sanctuaries, which leads librarians to focus on the interior. But in addition to providing seasonal delights for children and adults alike, the exterior of libraries can provide important services to community. Creating wireless networks and external charging points that can help vulnerable and underserved populations year-round and the general population during blackouts and other crises should now be considered a basic service. Having the ability to accommodate nonprofits and other community organizations to deliver nutrition or childcare outside either seasonally or, as now, when health conditions require, is also no longer a luxury.

Secondly, libraries can reach farther into the community by creating mobile access points. Whether this is a used Toyota with a mobile hotspot and a signal booster, or a fully appointed bookmobile, may not matter. The essential service is creating predictable (i.e. scheduled) and dependable Internet access for underserved communities, particularly as unemployment climbs. The digital divide in 2020 can be more properly thought of as a data divide. Over 80% of Americans now own a smartphone (and that number is higher in adults 18–65), but low-income Americans may have very limited data access.

Creating a library of things can also support these communities. Whether this is managed from a library’s collection or with community donations, the objective is offering access to necessities that low income households may need occasionally but do not own, like tools, baby carriers and even ties and suits for job interviews.

Finally, the library should consider its external digital footprint as a way to expand services. Removing fines and expanding online lending periods can be helpful. Providing access to trustworthy news services and reliable data is critical. Above all, effectively curating the digital collection is essential.

Implications for Library Space Design:

1. Storage — Items meant for lending outside the library which are primarily displayed online can be warehoused for easy retrieval. This may require better off-floor storage. Librarians must answer the question: where does a toaster go in Dewey?

2. Egress — Vehicles routinely used to serve the public along with the librarians who drive them will function more effectively with close parking and easy loading.

3. Technology — As online and remotely-requested services expand, even more attention needs to be made to server rooms, backup generators and the electronic infrastructure of existing buildings.

The Engaged Staff

The final issue confronting librarians is the changed nature of the job and the workflow. Libraries which focus more on services and education require more librarians who directly interact with patrons. A high-touch work environment may be less comfortable for introverts and less tolerant of traditional library design features which tend to erect barriers between librarians and patrons.

In terms of library design, this means using automation to accomplish tasks that would divert staff from direct engagement with the public. To allow more human interaction, self-checkout should be considered an essential and mandatory part of any full renovation or new construction. Large circulation desks should disappear in favor of smaller workstations. Ideally the concierge can also function as a reassuring staff presence by alleviating technology issues at the self-check and ensuring patrons have had a successful visit. Seeing a friendly, smiling face on the way out of the library is as important as encountering one on the way in.

When we design spaces, we divide the work librarians do into three phases: focused work that requires full concentration, interruptible work that allows for some patron interaction and assistance or outreach that is primarily engaged with the public. The first kind of work — focused work — should be completed entirely in staff areas, while the other two may take place in public spaces. But, as any librarian who has worked a registration table or concierge stand will know, public-facing roles can be fatiguing. Rethinking the workflow to include a frequent rotation of tasks is vital in the post-pandemic library.

The second question is the staff itself. As we discussed earlier, the modern library demands far more of library leaders than their education provides. For library staff, too, a renovation can completely disrupt the patterns of work they cherish. When hiring in the post-pandemic environment, librarians must consider the range of talents they need to succeed in a much more heterogenous work environment. A shelver with retail experience may be as important to the library director as an acquisitions expert. Building a team with all the requisite skills to success as libraries emerge from the pandemic is vital.

Conclusion

Craving continuity is a normal human desire. We like to think of the circumstances of our everyday life — whether they be relationships, jobs or our passions and pursuits — as eternal. But they’re not. We are time-bounded. Change often arrives calamitously rather than creeping up on us gradually. Relationships break as often as wither, we quit or lose jobs, we find new passions. So, too, is it with our society. Tectonic shifts have been triggered by wars, social unrest, economic crises and, for the first time in a century, a deadly pandemic. It is a mistake to believe that any of us will return to the world we departed in 2020, yet it is equally wrong to fear this change. The horrors of the deaths, mental health crises, education struggles, food insecurity and joblessness we’ve endured over the past year will not soon fade from our collective consciousness. But we can and will make something better out of them as we rebuild our society.

Libraries have an essential role in the rebuilding that will come. Embracing this moment is vital for their future and the future of our society. Though design is just one small piece of this moment, it’s a critical one. If geography is destiny, design is destination.

David Vinjamuri is adjunct Associate Professor of Marketing at New York University and runs ThirdWay Brand Trainers. He is author of Library Space Planning: A PLA Guide (ALA, 2019). Contact: david@brandtrainers.com

Joe Huberty is Principal Architect with Engberg Anderson Architects. He has spent over thirty years designing and building libraries and other public buildings and has a passion for creating great spaces for people. Contact: joeh@engberganderson.com

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