New York Library Association. - The eBulletin

Looking At Your Library - Your Library is One of the Four RESOURCES Common to All Public Libraries

Part 3 of the Facility Planning Series by Karen Watson & Robert Hubsher

Effective delivery of services and programs requires the appropriate allocation of resources. The four resources available to a library manager are staff, collections, technology and facility1. Each of these four resources is finite, interrelated, and fully allocated for the delivery of the services and programs to meet the needs and expectations of your library community.

A library building, a branch, a room or a specific area within a library are NOT goals; they are resources.  In order to withstand scrutiny and intelligently answer questions about your proposal for any physical improvements in your library, you must be ready with data that can be translated into actual plans and cost estimates.  Without background information and sound reasoning, you will not get the end result you envision (you will get an architect's idea of what you want) or, the library project may fail before it begins.

Observing and collecting data about your library with these four resources in mind will serve as a touchstone to organize information and help you recognize needs, deficiencies, advantages, and usage patterns in your library.  If the outcome of your decision-making process is to pursue a building project, whatever the scope, data that you have collected will serve as the basis of the library building program and form the groundwork leading to the engagement of an architect or design professional. 

The library's services and programs are entirely dependent on library staff as a crucial resource. It is their skills and knowledge that is the foundation for everything that the library is and offers.  Their tasks and responsibilities demand that they occupy spaces within and move freely throughout the building. The space they occupy and the interactions between staff (volunteers included!), and with users, affect space allocation and planning.

Identifying and documenting procedures and workflow will help you better understand your space requirements.  The building layout will improve or reduce staff efficiency and effectiveness.  When communicated properly, staff will welcome the opportunity to share their observations and opinions about how workplace efficiencies can be improved.  Any procedure is inefficient if it requires a staff member to waste time and steps by going around an obstruction or travelling more than necessary to complete a task.

In any library, there are key focal points of public contact – the circulation area, the reference desk, computer terminals, the children's services desk, etc. Strategic placement of staff work areas in relation to these key focal points can improve public service, reduce wasted staff time and mitigate the need for increased staffing. 

Gathering data about the existing sightlines in the building, as it is currently configured, will help you convey to the architect important considerations regarding workstation placement and pedestrian traffic.  High quality customer service, public and staff safety, and effective management of the building all require unobstructed views of public spaces from all public service areas.

Self-checkout and mobile or roving library staff are two emerging trends in public service that will have an impact on the design of your library building. In some libraries, staffed circulation desks are complemented by self-checkout stations.  Reference desks are being augmented or replaced by mobile staff that go to the library user, rather than wait for them to come to a service desk. It is important to consider space implications of such service decisions.

The formats, organization and size of a library's collections, and the manner in which the materials are displayed, have an enormous impact on library space requirements and design.

Formats.  Digital and electronic materials broaden a library's resources in unprecedented ways. Although these materials take up no space within the building, space is required for computers and related hardware to store and provide access to these materials.

Newspapers, magazines, hardcover, trade and paperback books, DVDs, audio books and games, by their very nature have different storage requirements. New formats will provide space allocation challenges.  Keep current with upcoming developments regarding new formats and international developments in media products, making it possible for your library to reflect the increased speed of innovation.

Unique storage requirements of non-traditional items available at your library will affect your space needs; be sure to capture everything that you have to offer.

Organization.  The organization of collections will further influence space requirements. Additional shelving, and the need for different types of furniture, will be influenced by such factors as, but not limited to, these considerations:

•    the number of discreet collections;
•    sections for genre, biography or categories of materials;
•     “staff picks,” display area;
•    adopting commercial merchandizing practices, such as face-up displays.
Size.  You will need to provide to the architect accurate data about the current and anticipated size of the library's designated collections.  Print and other formats will continue to be in demand for the foreseeable future. As the ratio of physical materials compared to digital resources declines, space may be reallocated for additional computers and workspaces required to access the digital resources.  Keep in mind that workstations for technology require more space than you might think.  For example a standard single user workspace requires at least 35 sq. ft. while a double-sided shelving unit with a total of 10 shelves occupies about 30 sq. ft. and holds about 200 volumes with about 15% unoccupied space per shelf. 

Display.  How your collections are displayed has a dramatic impact on the type of shelving and the space required for the collections.  Look closely at the collections at the ways your collections are shown to users.  Creating discrete displays of various types of materials may support effective access for certain types of users but requires additional space allocation and limits access for some users. For example, discrete genre collections are useful to the users of those collections, but reduces browsing serendipity for fiction reader, and discrete biography collections are a great boon to those who love biographies but may reduce access to these titles for people interested in a specific subject.

There are no right answers to these issues but space allocation is affected by the decisions made during this part of the design process.  Also, effective signage may help deal with potential access issues, but should not be relied on to solve design issues. Be aware of visual overload, user accessibility and space implications of your choices.


The technology requirements of staff must be thoroughly reviewed by considering current usage and anticipating future needs. Computers, scanners, RFID and/or magnetic strip readers, and printers are required at public service desks, in staff work rooms and for mobile library staff.

Wiring for data and electrical needs will continue to be required throughout library buildings for many years.  Wireless networks are unfortunately still slower than wired and as a result, data lines cannot be eliminated from library buildings.

Users who access the Web, e-mail and online library resources using their own laptops, netbooks or other devices, have several space and staffing implications for libraries.   Hardware is becoming more compact and takes up less space on the desk surface or under the desk but the total amount of space for a workstation is not significantly reduced.  Increased computer use by library staff and users will increase HVAC load.

Computer training rooms and spaces for teams to work together on their devices need to be considered and planned.  Power outlets will be in greater demand the more users bring their devices to your library.

Each distinct space, and the activities, tasks, services and programs within the building, have an impact on users' experiences, staff effectiveness, and the interaction between the public and staff. Library buildings that are built using design practices that respect practical reality, while anticipating the future, have the potential of actualizing your vision of a library that meets and exceeds the community's expressed needs for library service. 

Take particular note of the different types of space your library houses. Spaces required to facilitate programs are different from those that accommodate a board room or house the mechanical or electrical rooms.  The purpose of a space and how it relates to another will influence all the other spaces in the building.  Everything within the building envelop is related in some way, nothing can be designed in isolation.  We will address the importance of the interconnectedness of your library’s spaces and how you can plan an effective library around them, in a future article.

1Sandra Nelson, Strategic Planning for Results. American Library Association, 2008.