General Considerations for Library Layout

by Greg Andrzejewski

“The survival of the library as a space is not dependent on smart architecture (it may help though) – it is dependent on the ability of the library to meet the needs of people and convincingly add value to their lives” (Jens Thorhauge (2004).   “Building Design for the Digital Age.”  Danish National Library Authority, Naple Meeting, Ireland, 4/22/04, slide 20)


Glasgow School of Art Library Reading Room

How many of us remember encountering this sort of library?    One that looks like a torture chamber more than a place to share knowledge?

Much has changed as libraries have developed over the years and much remains to be done if libraries (public, academic, school, and special) are to remain useful to the public.   Much of their usefulness will have to do with their layouts.   The atmosphere/ambience, ability to find information/signage, safety/accessibility and organization of collections all contribute to creating a productive and satisfying user experience.  Whether designing the layout for a new building, remodeling an existing structure, or simply making changes to the existing design on a limited budget, the layout of the library should emphasize the patron or customer and should also reflect the creativeness of the librarians.  Let’s explore some of the basics and think about the possibilities.

Ambience and Atmosphere


In two of her works, Creating the Customer-Driven Library:  Building on the Bookstore Model (2005) and Creating the Customer-Driven Academic Library (2009), Jeannette Woodward argues that libraries need to change in order to suit the changing needs of customers and to accomodate current technologies.   In her earlier work she looks at bookstores and how they attract and invite customers and extrapolates her observations to envision ways to improve the library experience.   Even though different libraries, serving different communities will have particular needs, many of the aspects of library layout apply to most if not all library types:  color (paint), furniture, sound/acoustics, lighting, and food and beverage services.  Woodward writes that color poses particular problems for libraries.   Many libraries have been painted in neutral, lifeless tones for the practical reasons of making everything “work” together and because trendy color schemes go out of style almost as soon as they are finished.    She remarks however that color has a profound psychological and sensory effect on people and that depending on the purpose of particular areas of the library the color scheme may change.   For example, yellow and red are warm inviting colors that may function well in a northern library where the winter days grow increasingly dreary but softer colors and wood panelling might work best in quieter study areas where people want to focus and feel comfortable.   She argues that prints and patterns need to be carefully considered because colors, especially in a vast space often look different from a distance, at different times of the day, and in different surroundings.   She points out that colors also help reduce eye-strain for people staring at their computers for hours.    Depending on the library’s location (e.g., in a sunny or cloudy locale), it’s ability to capture natural light, and its indoor lighting systems all determine which colors may or may not work.    The important thing is to provide something more than dreary white walls while avoiding colors that may go out of style or become in themselves offensive after a given time (Woodward (2004), pp. 93-6).    Considerations about lighting and acoustics/noise also affect users’ experiences.   Fluorescent lighting gives many people headaches and tall ceilings often make lighting especially difficult.   Libraries should consider table lamps for study areas and lightbulbs that create a comfortable light level and a soft glow for reading (Woodward, 2009, pp. 55-6).  In addition to lighting, noise levels and quiet areas need to be considered and designed.   And in today’s technological world, reading/study areas should have plenty of outlets for laptops and a solid and strong wireless internet access.


Librisdesign offers many technical documents discussing library design, including lighting and acoustics, and offers a database to help libraries plan out their libraries.

For considerations about the design needs of different library types, please visit the Whole Building Design Guide and click on the various links for public, academic, school, and presidential libraries.

For academic libraries also look at the ACRL/LAMA Guide for Architects.

Woodward notes that bookstores have been extremely responsive to customer needs and that libraries can learn from their design.   She writes that bookstores are often no more than large warehouses but that they often succeed in creating a comfortable environment, an area in which libraries tend to be lagging. Furniture and the inclusion of a cafe are two of these areas that libraries need to consider.  Bookstores over the past few years have created comfortable reading areas by purchasing couches and comfortable chairs in addition to providing tables and wooden chairs.   Woodward writes that furniture should be varied enough to provide for the needs of a variety of people.   When choosing furniture, designers and librarians must consider their patrons’ needs as people come in a variety of shapes and sizes and should be accomodated and comfortable.   A person with back trouble, for example, may not want a soft chair into which they sink.   Likewise an older person might need a higher seated chair that makes it easy to sit down and get back up.   A student studying in a college library might at times want to sit comfortably and read in a nice plush chair but at other times may want to sit at a table or in an area where s/he can collaborate with others.    One style of furniture will probably not suffice for all customers.    In addition to chairs, libraries need to consider other furniture as well.   Often shelves of books are tall and looming making it difficult even for a 6 foot person to browse the top rows.   Libraries need to consider the accessibility of their materials for the average user.   Circulation and reference desks need to be considered as well.   For years libraries utilized tall desks that were easily seen but intimidating to patrons.   Lower desks for circulation and reference services make the librarians seem less like towering figures and more friendly.


Woodward suggests that academic libraries especially should consider a normal office desk with chairs on both sides so that librarian and researcher can sit and speak at eye-level while seeking information.    Because libraries are vast spaces, designers often choose oversized and intimidating furniture, likely so that it stands out in that enormous space.    Woodward and others recommend removing reference desks altogether and instead placing librarians at smaller desks throughout the library.   Similar to a bookstore in which associates wander the store asking if you need assistance, librarians would be performing a similar role, or at least making themselves available in the areas where patrons are seeking information.   Anyone who has had to travel down three floors and cross a building to get back to the reference desk and then has to go all the way back to the stack can testify to the inconvenience this poses.

In addition to comfortable seating, bookstores have provided Starbucks or their equivalent.   Since users will be inside the library, perhaps for hours, they need a chance to grab a coffee or a muffin, to sit in a more active environment, take a break from staring at computer screens and endless stacks of books.    In addition, as Woodward points out in talking about the academic library, students are more likely to remain in the library if they can meet their needs without leaving the building.   Woodward suggests creating a relaxing area perhaps with popular fiction, current periodicals and the like near the cafe so that users taking a break can find relaxing reading before continuing on with their research.   Public libraries likewise can utilize the cafe to make themselves community centers where people can spend hours relaxing.  Libraries need to follow the bookstore example as bookstores (looking at their bottom lines) have realized that providing for customer needs keeps them in the store and thus increases the chances that they will make a purchase and return.


The PLA blog provides several lists of customer needs when designing library spaces.

Finding the way:   Information desks and signage

Information desks and proper signage also have a profound impact on a library’s users.    Woodward writes in both her texts that having an information desk or kiosk available as a user enters the library provides an extremely important function.   It’s purpose is to orient the visitor and provide information necessary to using the library.   She writes that it should provide maps and/or assistance in finding the right direction to begin and should point out where to go for information (the reference desk, for example).   She writes of one public library that staffed the information desk with volunteers (usually senior citizens) who could answer basic questions about the library but would refer the patron to librarians for reference or technology services.    Not every library has space for a welcome center or information desk, however a kiosk giving directional information about the library should be present.    Libraries should help their users feel comfortable and oriented from the minute they walk through the door.    Once inside the library, signs should clearly indicate where to find materials and services, exits, restrooms, the cafe, elevators, photocopiers, etc.    Ellen Bosman at the New Mexico State University Library provides a website that outlines the process of determining the library’s signage needs and instructions for developing a plan of action.  She refers to a 1986 survey in which 80% of students responded that they felt anxiety when going to the library.   This anxiety was largely attributed to feeling lost and disoriented, often because signs were either out of date, unreadable, or poorly placed.    Woodward writes that “To be effective, signage must focus on the customer’s need for information at precisely the moment when that information is most needed” (2009, p. 79).  Woodward again looks at the bookstore model as an example of effective sign usage.   Walk into a Borders and instantly you can find your way around thanks to large simple signs that direct you to books, CD’s, DVD’s, Periodicals, etc.    Once in the general area, books for example, there are smaller signs for fiction, history, poetry, etc.   and even smaller signs dividing the books from there.   In short, customers are rarely left feeling fearful and confused.

signage and display case

signage and display case

She writes that “Signs are an absolutely essential ingredient in your library’s success formula.  They are one of the most important means of communication between the library and its users, and nothing is more important than communication” (2005, p. 119).   She and others emphasize the importance of an effective sign system.   Some of the characteristics necessary for such a system are as follows:

  • Consistent design and color scheme (especially so that all of the signs performing a similar purpose look alike)
  • Just enough signs (to avoid clutter)
  • Placement of signs so that users see them (for example, right in front of them when exiting an elevator)
  • Up-to-date signs (should be updated as collection or layout changes
  • Placement where they are needed (for example, “No Food and Drink” is placed at the exit to the cafe rather than throughout the library  (Woodward, 2005, pp. 118-129)

While professional signs may look nice, they are expensive and difficult to update.   Woodward recommends signs that can easily be changed to reflect movement in the library.   She also suggests that librarians make attractive signs if budget is an issue.   Carolyn Johnson provides a list of twelve questions to determine if your library has a signage problem:

1. Do you put up signs to answer all questions that are repeatedly asked at service desks?

2. Do you post the same sign in more than one place to be sure people will read it?

3. Do you point to signs instead of answering questions?

4. Do you have signs or arrows that point to signs?

5. Are there signs posted on all wall surfaces including, perhaps, all four sides of pillars?

6. Are signs posted that everyone can see but that are really directed only to specific people?

7. Does your library have signs made of three or more different materials: engraved plastic, plastic laminate with adhesive letters, printed cardboard, white plastic block letters that are pushed into grooved black felt inside a locking glass case, photocopied paper in various eye-catching colors, hand lettering on the back of library stationery?

8. Are signs positioned in order to cover debris from previous signs, holes in the wall, mismatched paint, or to hang in harmony with architectural details or in symmetry with other signs?

9. Have you discovered signs that were out-of-date and no longer meaningful but were still hanging because staff didn’t notice they were there?

10. Are you clinging to a color coding system started years ago that has grown to fourteen different colors that are all fading into pinkish tan and grayish green?

11. Are your library’s signs made and posted by any staff member who wants them, whenever and wherever the need is felt?

12. Are you aware there is a problem with signs but are waiting until there is money in the budget to hire a sign-age consultant to go through the whole place and do it right once and for all?  (Johnson, 1993).   In case you answer yes to any of these, she also provides a twelve-step program for fixing the situation.


Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.  at the University of Washington provides a rather complete list of considerations for making the library accessible:   Equal Access:  Universal Design of Libraries

Librisdesign also offers a section on “Universal Design in Libraries


Bosman, Ellen (2008).   “Signage.”   Accessed December 1, 2008 from

Johnson, Carolyn (1993).   “SIGNS OF THE TIMES: Signage in the Library.”  Wilson Library Bulletin 68, 40-2.   Retrieved from Library Literature and Information Science database.

Lackney, Jeffery A.  (2005).   “Post-Occupancy Evaluation of Public Libraries: Lessons Learned from Three Case Studies.”  Library Administration & Management 19 (1), 16-26.  Retrieved from ProQuest database.

LibrisDesign (2008).   Accessed December 3, 2008 from

Searing, Sue and Karla Stover Lucht (2006).   “The Library as Place:  The changing nature and enduring appeal of library buildings and spaces.”   Accessed December 3, 2008 from

Whole Building Design Guide:  Libraries (2008).   Accessed December 4, 2008 from

Woodward, Jeannette (2005).  Creating the Customer-Driven Library:  Building on the Bookstore Model.  Chicago:  American Library Association.

Woodward, Jeannette (2009).   Creating the Customer-Driven Academic Library.   Chicago:  American Library Association.

Questions to Consider

Thinking more about the bookstore model, what other features could be adapted by libraries to create the environment that bookstores have made popular?   Think about how bookstores organize their collections– could libraries adapt any of these methods?

What library design features do you find frustrating at your local library?    Suppose you were a librarian at that library…what could you do to make small but meaningful changes?

One trend in England especially has been to place libraries in shopping centers next to bookstores and cafes.   What are the advantages and disadvantages of this placement?   How might that help simplify all the features a 21st century library requires?

Go to Flickr and look at library interiors (   Choose one library or interior design (the really cool ones well past the first few pages) and then analyze what they have gotten right and what (if anything) looks wrong.  Is the design you chose adaptable to other libraries or types of libraries?


One response to “General Considerations for Library Layout

  1. Elements like coffee shops and more comfortable furniture are already being integrated into many libraries. I think rearranging the collection depends on the library type. This might work well for public libraries, and really, in some cases already is. My local library has the fiction collection divided into children’s, young adult, and then the adult section subdivided into mystery, romance, sci fi/fantasy, and general fiction. Usually this works for me, but I occasionally have to search multiple sections when the book could fall under one of three subdivisions of the collection.
    I really think this sort of rearrangement could be useful in the non-fiction section. I know that many people find the Dewy Decimal classified nonfiction section to be confusing and overwhelming. If the library were labeled like a bookstore, (aka American history, art, music, etc.) I think the average person might be more easily convinced to browse the collection and maybe actually find something useful.

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