Ten Ways to Make Libraries More Inclusive  

There’s a reason we often refer to libraries as the heart of a community. They are so much more than books on shelves: a resource for education, research, and personal and professional development, certainly, but also spaces for gathering. They are spaces where communities, families and individuals come together—regardless of class, race, ethnicity, culture, political views, education, religious belief, physical ability, social needs and more. 

With such a wide audience and range of needs to serve, it’s no wonder that inclusivity and accessibility have taken on even more critical roles in modern library design.

Allison McKenzie, vice president and director of environmental responsibility, and Jenny Gallow, vice president and director of interior design were among the panelists who explored this topic and best practices in depth last year during the Ohio Library Council’s Convention & Expo. They and their co-presenters, Doug Gallow (FAIA, NCARB, Principal of Lifespan Design Studio) and Bryan Howard (MLIS, Director of the Delaware County District Library) shared the following top ten tips for creating more inclusive libraries.


  1. Go Beyond: Universal Design

According to Doug, to be considered truly inclusive, library design should go beyond simply meeting ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) standards. This tip particularly resonated with our team.

Universal design is a concept in which products and environments are developed to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. Pioneered by a group of architects, product designers, engineers and environmental design researchers, universal design principles call for equitable, flexible and intuitive usability and effective communication; minimizes potential errors; requires low physical effort; and is appropriately sized for use regardless of body size, mobility or posture. 

While SHP generally believes in employing universal design best practices in all our designs, doing so becomes even more important for libraries. For example, a staircase is so much more than steps, railings and a way to move between floors. Universal design considers elements like a shallower-than-average tread, handrails placed at multiple heights and contrasting stain on the risers, to help people with visual impairments. These may seem like simple or even purely aesthetic design choices, but they are ones that allow the stairs to work for everyone and with everyone. 


  1. Get Folks in the Door

First impressions are everything—and a library’s first impression begins well before patrons ever reach the front door. A functional and inclusive campus offers easy access points for people of all abilities to navigate. For example, think about how easy it is for people to find the location. Is there clear and identifiable signage? Are the parking lots difficult to maneuver? Are there curbs, uneven terrain or landscaping that could prevent differently abled bodies from traversing the parking lot or front entrance? Are the entrances well-lit? All these questions—and more!—are key considerations when creating a space that allows all visitors to feel confident they’re in the right place.


  1. Interior Wayfinding

When individuals walk through the front door of a library, the first questions they will most likely ask themselves are, “Where am I and how do I get where I want to go?” Then they’ll quickly start looking for the restrooms, a service desk, their meeting room or study group, or the genre of literature or materials they’re there to borrow. Some may linger in the lobby, while others will try to get as much information as they can in a glance. 

As designers, we try to merge many different communication styles into our design. Well-labeled and identifiable signage are important, but the use of symbols, graphics and/or and colors can be just as effective at creating an understanding of how to maneuver the building.  


  1. Sensory Friendly Spaces

As designers, we think about how all the different senses—what we see, hear, taste, smell and touch—impact how people experience the space. As we design inclusive library spaces, we take into consideration how we can control the different sensory experiences visitors will have. 

Noise is a great place to start. Gone are the days when libraries are hushed, silent tombs; today’s libraries can be energetic and loud community hubs. At SHP, we look for ways to create spaces that can fit both needs. For example, quiet rooms, study rooms and phone booth pods offer privacy and noise isolation. Learning stairs, classroom-like convertible spaces and communal lounge areas provide space for more energetic interactions. 

We have also started designing spaces for sensory sensitivity, overload and disorders, which comprise a host of conditions that include ADHD, anxiety, vision impairment, developmental disabilities, migraine, traumatic brain injury and more. Although they aren’t an SHP client, Boone County Public Library is an example of this approach in action. The library includes a sensory room for individuals to feel safe and comfortable and offers a sense of relief for those who feel overwhelmed. A hammock swing, LED projectors, fidget toys, puzzles and books, sensory floor tiles and an interactive activity wall are just a few of the features included in the design of the space.  


  1. Celebrate and Showcase the Community

Designing a space that invites celebration of local history, culture and art has become more appealing to many of our library clients. Highlighting recognizable and carrying forward community assets is therefore increasingly important. At Oxford Lane Library, for instance, SHP incorporated recognizable pieces—including a giant globe and a mural that spans an entire wall—from Miami University’s archives. Other clients have requested display casework and public areas in which to showcase local artists or student projects. 


  1. Library of “Things”

Increasingly, libraries are offering more services and resources to the community for their enjoyment. Sewing machines, cooking accessories, musical instruments, power tools, wireless access points (for those who need them) and even bicycles have begun to pop up. The only catch? Ensuring enough storage space! As designers, thinking about areas that can accommodate these extra items is vital.   


  1. Remember the Kids…

Nearly all of SHP’s library clients ask the question, “What is going to make people decide to come to the library?” And certainly, appealing to children—and, by extension, their caretakers—is an important part of library design. Allison and Jenny point to three ways to accomplish this: 

  • Make it a Destination: A special attraction, kids-only spaces and opportunities for interactive play are great ways to turn your library into a destination. For example, at North Dearborn Branch Library, SHP has combined reading and seating areas with a rocket ship that doubles as a cozy reading nook. But even something as simple as a play mat and toy cars can grab (and hold!) the interest of a child.


  • Tell a Unique Story: The Oxford Lane Library has become a creative center for children—and one of our favorite spaces for imaginative play. The children’s area includes an interactive “farm” where children can “grow” vegetables; a farmer’s market where they can “sell” their produce; and a play kitchen in which to “prepare” a meal. The entire experience is a chance for children and their grown-ups to understand where our food comes from, 


  • Support the Caretakers: We’re also seeing a greater emphasis on ensuring caretakers have the resources they need for a productive trip to the library. This includes everything from installing child protection seats in restrooms to integrating parent + child work/study carrels like this study pod from TMC
  1. …But Keep it Multigenerational

As Doug pointed out, inclusive libraries take into consideration the physical, emotional or social issues that could potentially prevent the community from using them. If we want libraries to be a community asset, we must make sure that as many people as possible are comfortable in them, and that we’re not creating further obstacles through our design.

For instance: (see table below)



Table 1

  1. Make Them Resilient

The definition of resilient is, “able to withstand, adapt to and recover from adversity.” In our opinion, that’s pretty much public libraries in a nutshell!

While designing for climate change is an obvious and important part of SHP’s work to improve facility resilience, we have also spent a lot of time examining how our clients can overcome in the face of adversity. Libraries are a perfect example of the adaptability required for this to be a reality. For example, we’ve seen libraries become charging stations during a power loss event, temporary winter or summer shelters, distribution sites for emergency care kits and more. It’s all about creating adaptable spaces with the developing needs of each community in mind.


  1. Customize Them to the Community

While we always want facilities to be equitable, as designers, we also acknowledge there is a uniqueness to each library. We always want to design facilities that are tailored to the needs of each community. For example, some libraries might not need wireless access points, but some do. There’s no such thing as “one size fits all” or a “kit of parts” when it comes to library design. Being thoughtful about the users and visitors of each library has helped SHP make the right decisions to help each community thrive.