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Planning Your Library Makeover: Small Budget, Big Impact Ideas

Julia Crawford, LEED AP, Library Designer

In recent years most libraries throughout the country have shared a common experience: their popularity has increased while their operating and capital improvement budgets have decreased. Libraries today provide essential services such as access to the Internet, media, computers, classes and information not available anywhere else – at least not without paying a fee or buying a cup of coffee. Children, teenagers and adults rely on libraries more than ever before for their learning, research, crafting and gaming needs. With their increasing popularity, many libraries could benefit from an appearance overhaul to meet the changing needs and expectations of their visitors. What are some big impact ideas that can be accomplished on small budgets during challenging times?

Many older libraries feel and look their age and even younger libraries appear older than they are due to the high rise in usage and lack of maintenance resources. Libraries often suffer from peeling wall paint, stained flooring, missing ceiling tiles, old mismatched chairs and oversized study tables that dominate the floor space. Revitalizing the largest surfaces in a space, such as the floors and ceilings, typically results in the greatest visual impact. Consider replacing the old carpet and installing new ceiling tiles in the existing ceiling grid. If replacing the floors and ceilings is not within your budget, repainting the walls a crisp clean neutral color to get rid of the outdated color may be a more feasible undertaking. Display artwork by local artists, add plantings, and revive old but sturdy wooden chairs with a fresh new stain color. Save money (and the environment) by buying used instead of new. Major bookstores that go out of business offer steep discounts on their stylish tables, chairs, display units and even light fixtures that could be used in the transformation of a library space.

The most successful library makeovers are a product of effective communication, collaboration, exploration and implementation. What does this mean? In order to create a well-received environment, communicate with your visitors to learn about what they expect to find at the library. While conducting surveys can lead to a better understanding of your visitors’ needs and wants, also observing how they use the library throughout the day can identify where some important changes might be needed. Pay attention to where the tables and chairs end up at the end of the day. Were they moved near a window, to the middle of the space, or clustered at the corner? Take the lead from your visitors and set up cozy lounge chairs or even rocking chairs near the windows for the enjoyment of natural light. Purchase some lightweight furniture on wheels that can be easily rearranged to accommodate group or individual studying. Do you notice visitors weaving through the crowd of those waiting for available computers? Perhaps access to more computers may bring the greatest satisfaction to your visitors. Do you find empty drink bottles and food wrappers on the floor whether or not eating is allowed in the library? This may lead you to create a cafe area with a few small round top tables and colorful chairs versatile enough for studying and snacking. Answers to all these questions can be the guiding principles for a very quick, economical and effective makeover.

Libraries, old and new, should be welcoming, inviting, well organized and easy to understand. Is your library easy to understand visually? Do visitors perceive a welcoming sense of place and an inviting, understandable path or procession across the library? Many solutions for improving library spaces are inexpensive and require only the willingness to revise old service models and implement new ideas. Visitors will immediately perceive a more welcoming experience if the floor space upon entering the library is open, uncluttered and unobstructed. To make room for attractive displays, consider freeing up floor space by downsizing the traditional large circulation/customer service desk to a smaller desk. Introduce movable self check-out stations at key points throughout the library to avoid bottle-necking at the circulation/customer service desk. Provide individual mobile cart-style work stations/kiosks (these are smaller than lecterns or desks) that allow staff to roam throughout the library and can double as satellite reference desks.

One idea that costs almost nothing – simply put the right parts of the collection in the right place at the right time. Move popular items forward and arrange them next to seating and gathering areas where there is ample room for easy access and viewing. Re-evaluate and weed out outdated parts of the collection to make room for more current and relevant topics. Many libraries have natural light coming in but the stacks block access to the light or views out due to their positioning and placement. Reposition the stacks so that they are perpendicular to exterior windows to allow natural light to flood down the aisles and invite visitors to browse the collection. Invest in a few bays of hip mobile shelving that can wheel out of the way to make room for special events such as book signings or movie nights at the library.

To take the concept of opening up the floor space even further, remove non-structural walls in the public part of the library or consult an architect to make openings in structural bearing walls to improve sightlines and eliminate blind spots. This level of renovation would require a little more money, but may still be within reach on a small budget. Removing portions of a wall is called “selective demolition” and it can literally transform the character of a space from tight and cramped to visually open and inviting. Visibility to more spaces from a staff service location not only increases safety and security for everyone throughout your library but also improves customer service as staff will be able to see visitors who may need assistance finding material.

Similarly, if your budget allows, bring life to dull spaces by exploring new lighting technologies ranging from compact fluorescents to LEDs to lighting controls and beyond. Research shows that parts of a collection that are specially illuminated will circulate at a much higher rate than those poorly illuminated. Indirect/direct light fixtures that shine light both up to the ceiling and down to the work surface can be highly efficient while providing excellent quality, low-glare illumination. Reduce your future operating costs and energy bills while enhancing the look of your library. Work with an architect to select energy efficient light fixtures that can accent an underutilized space while possibly qualifying for an energy rebate from local utility companies – helping to offset the cost of new light fixtures.

At the Elkton Central Library in Cecil County Maryland, where not enough money was available for a major renovation, the library decided to implement a sequence of modest, cost effective changes over time. This required the assistance of an architect to develop and plan for the phasing of the improvements. It was decided that replacing the bulky lounge seating with comfortable and contemporary lounge chairs upholstered in bright, durable fabrics was a starting point. Rather than purchasing new furniture from a factory across the country, the library searched within their community and hired a local woodworker to restore the wooden furniture throughout the library for a reasonable cost. Old vertical window blinds were replaced with woven shade cloths to provide solar protection while still allowing views to the outside. The redesign of the space introduced an inviting floor pattern to draw visitors across the library, a vending cafe with bistro style tables and chairs and translucent end panels to make the stack area appear open and bright. A smaller circulation desk was placed in the lobby and a glass enclosed study room anchored the end of the new carpet path. Lighter paint colors were selected to replace the dark and dated ones and new display cases will showcase the work of local artists.

A library makeover, whether big or small, is an opportunity many librarians and instructors are likely to experience at some point in their careers. Accommodating the challenge of increased visitors and decreased funds can be achieved on a small budget with careful planning, creativity and enthusiasm. Even if the changes happen a couple at a time, visitors will enjoy and appreciate the new features and look forward to new changes from time to time. So go for it, start planning and have fun!


Julia Crawford is a designer at Grimm + Parker Architects. Grimm + Parker Architects has recently planned and designed over 20 public libraries. With over 16 years of award-winning public library experience, combined with over 36 years of public architecture experience, our team is especially qualified to provide high quality library design services. Learn more

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