Massachusetts Public Library Construction Program Blog

Thinking about the link between library use and design

A really great post about user behavior in libraries, again from #uklibchat — it focuses on academic libraries but is still excellent:

This post was written by Lauren Stara on July 9, 2014

What contributes to good library design?

This string was shamelessly lifted from — via the Designing Libraries blog from the UK.

#uklibchat summary- Library design – 3rd June 2014

A summary of our April chat on reading can be found below.  A full archive of the chat can be found at


1. What outstanding design features have you seen in library buildings? (Your own or others)

Some fantastic designs were shared for this question, including:

2. What design pitfalls should be avoided at all costs?

It looks like everyone shares a dislike of atriums in libraries – it is difficult to regulate noise and temperature in a large open area – but they are very popular with architects.

The other big issue discussed was poor signage and wayfinding. The University of York and Anglia Ruskin University were given as examples of good signage, which use images and colour coding rather than a wall of text. Plasma screens and other electronic signs can help to cut down on the number of posters and notices needed.

Other things to be avoided were garish colours and patterns, heavy/inflexible furniture, bean bags, off-putting barriers between users and staff.

Staff spaces are often neglected but this leads to upset staff who don’t feel invested in.

However @Preater pointed out that it is difficult to  pick things to avoid “at all costs” because you are always constrained by things not under your control.

3a. What skills are required when planning a new library building/refurbishment project?

Common themes were:

  • Good communication & negotiation skills – and the ability to say no!
  • Thorough consultation with users (& non-users) – and evaluation of the results
  • Strategic thinking
  • Flexibility/an open mind

3b. If you have been involved in a library design project, what kinds of surveys/engagement with users did you do?

Surveys – post-its, electronic surveys, asking students to pick preferred image from lots of pairs of images of library spaces.

Consultation/focus groups, inviting users and staff to meet with architects and designers.

Small-scale pilot projects – e.g. get a small amount of the intended furniture first and get honest feedback.

Engaging non-users as well – finding out where people study outside of the library, eaching out  rather than expecting them to come to you (one library posted up plans for new building by the lunch queue). Find out if they are “can’t-users” instead.

4. Have you got any advice on working with architects/suppliers etc.?

A few people emphasised how important it is to check & recheck the designs as it is easy for things to creep on/off the design as it goes through many iterations.

@LibClare‘s library found talking to a psychologist very useful in understanding how people use space. Users could also complete diary exercises, and there are apps that can help with this (e.g. People Watcher)

Make sure that the designs will actually work by using established suppliers, visit libraries already using the supplier and ask them questions. Fancy shelving designs can turn out to be impractical when they are actually in use (e.g. slippery metal shelves, curved or shaped shelves which are less practical for fitting in books). Staff expertise and user evidence needs to balance out the architects’ emphasis on aesthetics.

5. How are you responding to changing user needs in your library buildings/space?

Examples of good practice included flexible spaces/furniture, teaching digital literacy and providing tech services, integrating technology such as GPS/RFID to improve customer experience, creative use of staff.

However it is not always possible to respond to changing needs as quickly as we would like. Lack of funding and support can restrict how well a library can adapt.

There is also the danger of trying too hard to please everyone and to be flexible but ending up with an incoherent design that pleases no-one.

We agreed on the need to keep consulting with users and not making assumptions about their needs.

@PennyB and @SamanthaClare pointed out the importance of thinking about people who are excluded from using our services, and thinking about accessibility on a deeper level than just the legal aspects. Very few library designs go further than thinking about wheelchair access when considering accessibility. This was a very valuable discussion and we will be hosting a separate chat on the subject of accessibility in a few months as I’m sure there is a lot more to talk about here.

6. How do you persuade larger organisations to invest in library spaces?

Top tips:

  • Share success stories – show off the value you are adding
  • Make the library a hub of relevant services – make it the place to be
  • Demonstrate how the library helps your organisation achieve its business objectives

7. Where is your favourite space for research/study and why? (It doesn’t have to be a library space)

Some preferred to “nest” with all their papers and books spread out within arm’s reach. Others preferred a “hot-desk” approach, working in a different spot each time depending on their mood. For some, it was important to be near a window with lots of light, others find sitting by a window too distracting. Several people mentioned the British Library reading rooms as a great spot to work. The wide range of responses to this question emphasised how important it is for a library to provide a variety of types of study space.

This post was written by Lauren Stara on July 9, 2014

Public Procurement

Nearly sixty people attended our Planning and Design Grant Recipient workshops last week. The days were packed with information. The first half of the day focused on how to write a library building program. The second half was devoted the paperwork, process and picky red tape issues associated with administering a MPLCP grant.

While covering M.G.L. bidding requirements, the question of using the state-mandated Designer Selection Process for hiring the library building consultant and owners’ project manager (OPM) came up. When we got back to the office we put the question to the Designer Selection Board (DSB). The DSB referred the question up the chain and finally to the Department of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance’s (DCAMM) legal counsel.

Legal counsel determined that libraries can hire a library building consultant to write the building program without following the Designer Selection Process required by Massachusetts General Laws (M.G.L.) Chapter 7C Section 58

They also confirmed that libraries do not have to follow this process for hiring owner’s project managers (OPM). This doesn’t mean that an OPM is not required, just that the Designer Selection Board does not have guidelines for doing so at this time.

For going out to bid for library building consultant and project management services we recommend that libraries follow the bidding requirements mandated in Chapter 30B of the M.G.L., the Uniform Procurement Act, which establishes uniform procedures for local governments to use when contracting for supplies, services, and real property. The Act is found here: The manual that will help you to understand the requirements in Chapter 30B and best practices is The Chapter 30B Manual Legal Requirements, Recommended Practices, and Sources of Advice for Procuring Supplies, Services, and Real Property. This document is also available online, at

You will want to check with your local procurement officer for other requirements related to the bidding process in your town.

It is important to remember that the Designer Selection Board does require that the Designer Selection Process be used for hiring the architectural firm for your projects.

Happy Procurement!

This post was written by Rosemary Waltos on July 3, 2014

Workshop Powerpoints are up

For those of you who attended a Planning & Design Grant Recipients’ Workshop last week, two of the three powerpoints are up on the Resource Guide — click here to go directly there. They are available in both full-page slides and the 3 per page version we used as a handout. The third one will be up in the next day or two.

This post was written by Lauren Stara on June 30, 2014

South Hadley!

Take a look at this beautiful video of the new South Hadley library under construction. Really looks good, Joe!


This post was written by Lauren Stara on June 18, 2014

P&D Grant recipients, lend me your ear!

To all of you who received a provisional grant award for planning & design, congratulations! Mark your calendar for next week — we’ll be holding two Grant Recipients workshops. You can choose from Tuesday, June 24 at Leominster Public Library or Wednesday, June 25 at Westwood Public Library. Both will run from 10-3.

We will be going over exciting things like how to write a library building program, how to navigate the red tape of a MPLCP grant, and the designer selection process.

Please contact Rachel Masse at to register.

This post was written by Lauren Stara on June 16, 2014

Planning & Design Grants

The Planning and Design grants have been announced! Twenty libraries have been awarded provisional grants for up to $50,000 to undertake planning and design activities in anticipation of the next construction grant round. The press release with more information can be found here. Congratulations to the grantees!

Provisional Award Recommendations




Amherst Jones Library Inc. $50,000
Chester Hamilton Memorial Library $41,205
Dartmouth Dartmouth Public Library $50,000
Dighton Dighton Public Library $50,000
East Bridgewater East Bridgewater Public Library $50,000
Erving Erving Public Library $50,000
Falmouth Falmouth Public Library: North Falmouth Branch $38,860
Greenfield Greenfield Public Library $50,000
Hadley Goodwin Memorial Library $50,000
Kingston Kingston Public Library $50,000
Littleton Reuben Hoar Library $50,000
Lynnfield Lynnfield Public Library $50,000
Nahant Nahant Public Library $49,245
North Attleborough Richards Memorial Library $50,000
Seekonk Seekonk Public Library $50,000
Springfield Springfield City Library: East Forest Park Branch $50,000
Sutton Sutton Free Public Library $50,000
Upton Upton Town Library $44,220
Westborough Westborough Public Library $45,895
Westford J.V. Fletcher Library $50,000


This grant round was extremely competitive, and six qualified applicants did not receive funding. Here are some things for those six libraries to remember:

  • Your applications all had merit, but there simply wasn’t enough money to fund everyone
  • You don’t need a Planning and Design grant in order to apply for a construction grant
  • Assistance from the Library Building Specialists (Roe and me!) is available to you during your planning process, regardless of your grant status

And now, onward! Spend some time with our Resource Guide on Developing a Library Building Program. It’s a good place to start.

This post was written by Lauren Stara on June 9, 2014

Identity Crisis

A few months ago, I ran into an old school friend of mine at an architecture conference. I told him about my job and how excited I am to be combining my two careers, architecture and librarianship. Then I talked a little bit about how library design is changing to accommodate new needs and new functions.

His response was to wax poetic about the image of a library that exists in most North Americans’ minds: an imposing, neoclassical stone or brick building standing up high on a plinth, indicating the elevated position of knowledge in our cultural iconography.

As early as 1958, Joseph Wheeler wrote:

Misconception: that the library building is primarily a monument, something to look at, that it should stand apart, as a “quiet retreat,” to be looked up to on a raised base, and that it should above all be surrounded by beautiful grounds in order to have the “proper setting.” Present-day thinking holds and actual practice demonstrates that the library can become a habitual part of the daily life of even more citizens by being quickly reached and easily and familiarly approached. It should rub elbows with and be part of the workaday world. No false dignity, no heavy and forbidding façade, no retreat or withdrawal from the crowd, no death-like silence have any place in the modern library building concept.*

The main problem is that the image doesn’t work. The very plinth that seeks to elevate the concept of library in the mind inhibits the body from entering, whether physically or psychically. Ask any librarian who works in an unrenovated 18th or 19th century library and s/he will tell you about the problems. Accessibility problems, technology problems, water problems, mold problems. Not all of these are because of the image, but it’s a fact that many stem from that idea as the overriding aesthetic.

Wheeler advocates the location of public libraries near shops and businesses that make it convenient to drop in while doing other errands, rather than in a place that requires a special trip. Today we would call this ‘green’ – a way to save gas. He calls it good sense, and good marketing. “Children and students will find their way to the library wherever it is located, but older teen-agers and adults, for whom library use is potentially so valuable, will fail to use it when out of sight and out of mind.”*

Making the library an everyday part of life in a community benefits both. The library’s use statistics and support at Town Meeting goes up. The community suddenly realizes what a great asset they have. We in the library world know that libraries are resources, not monuments. Unfortunately, there are many stakeholders out there who don’t yet understand.

*Wheeler, Joseph L.: The Effective Location of Public Library Buildings, University of Illinois Library School Occasional Papers, No. 52, July 1958.

This post was written by Lauren Stara on May 30, 2014

Kisses for all

Thanks to everyone who stopped by  the MBLC info session at MLA on Wednesday. We had some good conversation, answered some questions, and gave a lot of kisses. In fact, we had extra kisses, and Rosemary was handing them out in the DCU Center for all comers! xxxxx

This post was written by Lauren Stara on May 9, 2014

Shaking It Up

On Thursday, I’m going to the MLA Conference specifically to attend a session entitled “Shaking It Up: One Desk Service Models in Libraries.”

While the one desk model certainly affects staffing and service modalities, it also has a substantial impact on space needs, layouts, furniture, and other building-related issues.

The first thing is, obviously, casework — your built-in, usually custom-designed desks. When you go to one desk instead of three or four, the need for casework shrinks dramatically. If you already have those three or four (expensive) casework desks, demolishing one or more can be a PR disaster. Communicate your reasons early and often – to patrons, to staff, and to town officials. If you don’t need to reclaim the space immediately, leave the unstaffed desks in place for at least a while. Let your patrons see that they aren’t needed or used any more. Then when you remove them and put in, say, some great seating, they’ll see it as a positive. When you do the demolition, find out if the desk(s) or its materials can be reused, either in the library or elsewhere. Auction pieces off, especially if the items are antique or otherwise valuable.

If you are replacing the desks with seating or other furniture, remember that you get what you pay for. Standard residential seating will break or wear very quickly. Go to a commercial furniture broker or interior designer – they can get you better, more durable furnishings for a surprisingly good price. Their commission is worth their knowledge and skill (at least the ones I’ve worked with).

The other big issue is security. If you won’t have enough service points to keep an eye on most of the public space in the library, understand that one of the responsibilities of your roving staff is to monitor those areas. This also has implications for the best location of the one service point – the desk staff should be able to see as much of the most public area as possible.

I started getting my desk staff out on the floor in the early 2000s, and my replacement was planning to remove more than half the service desk last year. Self-check and roving staff make large desks unnecessary space hogs, and research shows that some patrons are intimidated by large, imposing desks.

I’m sure the session on Thursday will give me even more to think about. Maybe I’ll see you there.

This post was written by Lauren Stara on May 6, 2014

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