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Library study space design: Intentional, inclusive, flexible

In the Assessment & User Experience department, one of our ongoing tasks is to gather and review patron feedback in order to identify problems and suggest improvements. While the libraries offer a wide variety of services to our patrons, one of the biggest and trickiest areas to get right is the design of our physical spaces. Typically inhabited by students, our library study spaces come in a variety of sizes and shapes and are distributed somewhat haphazardly throughout our buildings. How can we design our study spaces to meet the needs of our patrons? When we have study spaces with different features, how can we let our patrons know about them?

These questions and the need for a deeper assessment of library study space design inspired the formation of a small team – the Spaces With Intentional Furniture Team (or SWIFT). This team was charged with identifying best practices in study space furniture arrangement, as well as making recommendations on opportunities for improvements to existing spaces and outreach efforts. The team reviewed and summarized relevant literature on library study space design in a preliminary, internal report. We hope to publish a modified version of the report to Duke’s institutional repository in the coming weeks. In this post, we will share a few of the most surprising and valuable suggestions from our literature review.

Increase privacy in large, open spaces

Some of the floors in our library buildings have large, open study spaces that can accommodate a large number of patrons. Because study space is limited, we are highly motivated to make the most of the space we have. The way a space is designed, however, influences how comfortable patrons feel spending a lot of time in the space.

With large open spaces, the topic of privacy came up across several different studies. In this context, privacy relates to both to visibility in a space and to the ability to make noise without being overheard. Even when policies allow for noise in a space, a lack of privacy can make students nervous to go ahead and be noisy. For spaces where silence is the norm, a lack of privacy can make patrons feel on display and especially nervous about any movements or sound they might make.

The literature suggests that there are ways to improve privacy in open spaces. For group spaces, placing dividers or partitions between group table arrangements may both offer privacy and provide useful amenities, like writeable surfaces. For quiet spaces, privacy can be improved by varying the type and height of furniture and by turning furniture in different directions so individuals are not facing each other. Seating density should also be restricted in quiet spaces.

Isolate noisy zones from quiet zones

Controlling noise is a common topic in the literature. Libraries are some of the only spaces on campus that offer a quiet study environment, but the need for quiet spaces needs to be balanced with the need to engage in the increasingly collaborative work required by modern classes. Libraries are often in central locations on campus and offer prime real estate for groups to meet in between or after classes. How to provide enough quiet space for people who need to work without distractions while still accommodating group work and socializing?

Once strategy is to make sure that people feel comfortable with making noise in spaces where it is encouraged. Libraries can position noisy spaces to take advantage of other sources of noise to provide some noise “cover” – for example,  a staff service desk, copy machines, elevators, and meeting rooms.  Quiet spaces should be isolated from these sources of noise, perhaps by placing them on separate floors. Stacks can also help separate spaces, as books provide some sound absorption, and the visual obstruction reduces visual distractions for students studying quietly.

Reservable private study rooms meet several needs

Sometimes, enforcing noise policies to keep spaces quiet only solves part of the problem. Quiet study spaces reduce distractions caused by noise, but students can be sensitive to other kinds of distractions – visual distractions, strong or chemical smells, etc. For students needing spaces completely free of distractions, libraries might consider creating reservable rooms available for individual study.

This kind of service is useful for more than low-distraction study needs. Making exceptions for pandemics, libraries often employ a first-come, first-served approach to seats in study spaces. Patrons with mobility issues or limited time to study would benefit greatly from being able to reserve a study space in advance. Identifying reservable study spaces for individuals, either within a larger study space or as part of a set of reservable private rooms, might meet a variety of currently unmet needs.

Physical spaces need web presences

As SWIFT begins to think about recommendations, we know we have to address our outreach around spaces. Patrons currently have few options for learning about our spaces. We have some signage in our buildings to identify different noise policies, and we have a few websites that give a basic overview of the spaces, but patrons are often reduced to simply performing exhaustive circuits around the buildings to discover all that we have available. More likely, students find a few of our spaces either by chance or by word of mouth, and if those spaces don’t meet their needs, they may not return.

One detailed review (Brunskill, 2020) offers very explicit guidance on the design of websites to support patrons with disabilities. As is commonly true, improvements that support one group of patrons often improve services for all patrons. Prominently sharing the following information about physical spaces will better support all patrons looking to find their space in the libraries:

  • details about navigating physical spaces (maps, floorplans, photos)
  • sensory information for spaces (noise, privacy, lighting, chemical sensitivity)
  • physical building accessibility
  • parking/transportation information
  • disability services contact (with name, contact form)
  • assistive technologies hardware and equipment
  • any accessibility problems with spaces

Next steps

Throughout our literature review, we saw the same advice over and over again: patrons need variety. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to patron needs. Luckily, at Duke we have several library buildings and many many study spaces. With some careful planning, we should be able to take an intentional approach to our space design in order to better accommodate the needs of our patrons. The libraries have new groups tasked with acting on these and related recommendations, and while it may take some time, our goal is to create a shared understanding of the best practices for library study space design.

Relevant Literature

Furniture Arrangement

Noise Isolation

Private Study Rooms

Websites about Spaces

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