Monday, 17 October 2016

Disheartening the visitor

For a long time — nearly twenty years — I had a very clear candidate for Worst Entrance To A Public Library Ever, though thankfully that particular entrance barely survived the millennium. I've now found one that's worse. No names, no pack drill, it wouldn't be fair to the staff who I know are trying their best in very trying circumstances.

The other day I popped into this library. I've been meaning to go and have a nosy for a while. Up to a few years ago this town had a reasonably busy little library, nothing special, in a simple brick two-story box of a building. The shopping area of the town got redeveloped quite extensively, one of the casualties being the old library. It was the replacement I'd been meaning to visit.

The good news is that the building's well-signed in the shopping area and made easy to find because there's a lot of colourful and useful library posters in the window. The first bit of bad news is that it's on the first floor above a supermarket so you can't idly walk past, see the library in use and be tempted in. But the posters and notices in the window try to draw you in.

library lobby with escalatorSadly, once you are drawn in you're in a small lobby with just enough room to wheel a buggy round to a lift or else take the escalator directly in front of you. Everything is grey: pale grey walls, mid grey ceiling, dark grey carpet, steel grey lift doors and escalator. It's all a bit soulless. Nothing much invites you to go up the escalator: it rises up into a dark grey shadow with no knowing that anything's up there, least of all a library. All in all pretty nasty.

Once you get upstairs it's slightly better, though that's despite the design of the library not because of it. The colour scheme is followed again, relentlessly, with grey metal shelving and an extensive network of exposed pipes in the ceiling space also painted mid-grey, the building designer obviously being a big fan of warehouse shopping chic. Or else one of the Borg. The overall effect was softened as far as possible by posters and displays but there wasn't physically a lot of scope for making it a much more human environment. Which was a shame as there were good things going on in there including a very enthusiastic rhythm and rhyme session going on in the enclosure that was the children's library. Lots of colourful books on the shelves may have helped a bit but this is a local authority that was closing libraries and cutting book funds back when the rest of us were refurbishing and replenishing so the staff didn't have many resources to play with there.

Generally speaking this is just the worst of a trend I've seen over the past few years, new library builds by architects and designers who see the library space as being like an office or else just a room with a few shelves of books in it. For all the consultations that go on it's evident that the designers haven't made any effort to understand how the business of the library is run:
  • The need to invite the visitor in, ease them back out again and leave them wanting to come back soon; 
  • The different lines of flow for different kinds of use and different kinds of customer;
  • The ease of navigation so that somebody standing in the entrance knows immediately where they need to go;
  • The essential requirement of lines of sight for staff so that they can provide unobtrusive supervision and support;
  • The capability for change in response to early experience of use (like some landscape designers who only hard pave paths after a few months so that paths follow the "cow lines" established by the people using the space) and to allow for development of delivery of the services on offer;
  • Most of all, the acknowledgement that the library space is a human space so people have to feel comfortable in it.
None of this costs anything except a bit of effort and a willingness to understand the desired outcomes that are being designed for, Sadly…

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