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Multipurpose Libraries for Multigenerational Communities

Libraries of today are community gathering spaces, going beyond the sole purpose of renting books—and their designs show it.

01.23.2018
By Louisa Fitzgerald

The award winning Chinatown Branch of the Chicago Public Library The open designs of updated libraries help promote transparency and communication. Lower shelving for children's books is a functional design element in modern libraries.

Libraries have always been a place for people to gather but in recent decades they have shed their identity as solemn institutions that demand silence and embraced their larger, louder role in communities. Library design has evolved to reflect not only this transformation, but also to define it and propel it forward.

Mindy Sorg, IIDA, NCIDQ, LEED AP, interior designer, OPN Architects, and Jessica N. Kayongo, J.D, M.A., sociology librarian, Hesburgh Libraries, University of Notre Dame, are seasoned jurors of the biennial ALA/IIDA Library Interior Design Competition and have evaluated award-winning library design from around the globe. Here, they offer insight into the design elements that support libraries in better serving their communities. 

Bringing Down the Walls
Libraries are embracing transparency—in both how they operate and how they are designed.

“Newer libraries feature light-filled welcoming spaces and visible hubs of activity,” Kayongo said. “It helps people feel less intimidated.”

Floor-to-ceiling windows, glass partitions, staff offices that are accessible to the public, lower shelving in children’s areas, and atriums that welcome patrons with sweeping interior views are democratizing libraries and encouraging users to experience the entire space versus one section.

“Modern library design is about that visual connection,” Sorg added. “We want libraries  to feel open and foster  connection and transparency between community members and the staff. We’re designing  libraries so people have a better understanding that the library appeals to everyone.”

Designing Beyond Books
As libraries morph to meet the needs of local populations, they often find they need to be more things to more people, which means providing areas that are not strictly for collections.

“We’re seeing a lot of non-library spaces in libraries, such as landing spaces for other community organizations in public libraries or campus entities in academic settings,” Kayongo explained. “This prime real estate allows other important services to reach various populations.”

Areas featuring comfortable seating such as cafes in addition to flexible event spaces that can serve multiple purposes are also becoming more common in newly designed libraries. According to Sorg, creating spaces in a library that do not prominently feature books can be a challenging conversation. “But library administrations are [increasingly] understanding that it’s not always about circulation—it’s about creating engagement and making an impact within the community,” she said.

Partnering for Design Excellence
Great library design begins with a strong firm-library partnership and requires a collaborative process to determine the community’s needs. “Designers help libraries extract what barriers and opportunities exist and how a design can reflect and enhance the library’s strengths and eliminate the barriers,” Sorg noted. The Chinatown Branch of the Chicago Public Library, which was named the best of competition winner of the 2016 ALA/IIDA Interior Design Competition, exemplifies how a strong partnership between designers and the library administration can elevate an interior to benefit the local population. “As a designer, I could look at the floor plan and photos [of the Chinatown Branch] and I immediately understand that the firm and the library had gone through a community-centric design process,” Sorg explained. “The result was an interior that made everyone feel as though the library was designed just for them.” Kayongo agreed. “The elements of design in the Chinatown branch were a nod to the neighborhood. For a library to have an award-winning interior, the space has to make sense for the people who will be using it.”

Be Recognized for Exceptional Library Design
The biennial 2018 IIDA/ALA Interior Design Competition is now open for sub-missions. Visit iida.org/competitions to learn more.


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