Inspirational and Inclusive: Best Practices in Library Design

A Place for Everyone

There are few places where there is truly something for everyone. One, of course, is the buffet table at an all-inclusive resort. The other is a community library.

At the library, you can do almost anything. You can learn how to cook new dishes, transport yourself to magical kingdoms and faraway lands, or become an expert on the history of ancient civilizations. 

A place where you can do anything should be a place designed for everyone. However, that’s not always the case. 

“The reality is that all of us have different degrees of mobility and needs at different stages of our lives,” says Jenny Gallow, SHP vice president of interior design. “This is about spaces that need to work for a 60-year-old and a 6-month-old.”

For a library to live up to its potential to be the heart of a community, it’s crucial to be intentional about structuring it in a way that is accessible and navigable. Let’s look at a few best practices that are living up to that promise.  

Planting Seeds for Accessibility

Building a library is like growing a garden; before you can smell the roses, you must know the best plot to plant the seeds in. 

Jenny says, “When you’re selecting a site for a new branch or building, there are a couple of elements to keep in mind. How easy is it for someone to find? Are they going to get on campus with ease or are they going to have anxieties about finding the facility? Making the facility as accessible as possible is so important, so people can find their way without anxieties and without barriers.”

Jenny notes that a variety of barriers—physical, social, economic, cultural and more—should be considered in library design. For example: Low-income families are the most likely to use their public library, with 49% of low-income households viewing their library as a community anchor. However, one in five low-income families don’t have access to a personal vehicle, making it difficult to find safe and efficient transportation to their local libraries. Other factors to consider include age and limited mobility. Many people over the age of 65 stop driving due to health reasons, and physical ailments can make it difficult to walk to the library. 

One option that we’re seeing to address some of these obstacles is co-locating branch libraries with affordable housing and/or senior services. These locations create an intersecting space—in other words, a shared site with separate entries—between apartments and the local libraries that serve the community.

A recent design competition in Chicago brought three of these first-of-their-kind co-locations to the public. We can’t help but be inspired by how these projects set a new standard for inclusivity:

So, when you’re thinking of where to start building, think of the challenges your community might be facing, first—and think of those challenges broadly—and how site and facility design can help overcome those obstacles. 

Convenience Doesn't Happen by Coincidence

The Liberty Branch Library in Delaware County, Ohio is designed to accommodate people at all stages of life—and as such, it has it all. According to Allison McKenzie, SHP vice president and director of environmental responsibility, the library’s amenities are a direct reflection of the community’s needs. None of this, however, was by chance.  

“We collaborated with the Delaware County Board of Developmental Disabilities to give input and feedback on some design features of the building, including sensory-friendly restrooms—complete with child-height toilets and fixtures—and family restroom that includes an adult changing station,” Allison explains. 

Another community priority was the children’s area. Anyone who has ever had, known or been a child can agree—getting a kid to sit still is hard. By creating a children’s space with furniture suited to their height and interests and a clear layout that encourages movement, these children can explore their interests freely and comfortably.

Each library patron has a different level of literacy and physical ability—which, according to Jenny, is one reason universal design and easily understood wayfinding are so vitally important. That’s one reason the community prioritized accessibility measures to support multiple generations. For instance, the Liberty Branch Library is color-coded, meaning that every section is marked and mapped by a coordinating color. Anyone can find their desired book selection without worrying about confusing charts or hard-to-read signs—all they have to do is pick their new favorite color. 

(Take that, Melvil Dewy!)

We believe that libraries are more than just collections of shelves that hold collections of books – they are community centers. By designing these libraries to maximize interest and minimize anxieties, we create spaces that can truly belong to everyone.