Novel Strategies for a Novel Virus: Designing Resilient Libraries for a Post-COVID World

Some libraries are already attempting to reopen their physical locations to the public, at least to some limited extent. Others, in harder hit areas or with local governments more focused on stopping the spread of Coronavirus, are still months away. But all are considering how to reconfigure their space, as well as their service, to best shield staff and patron health.

Amanda Markovic and Zachary Zettler head shotsSome libraries are already attempting to reopen their physical locations to the public, at least to some limited extent. Others, in harder hit areas or with local governments more focused on stopping the spread of Coronavirus, are still months away. But all are considering how to reconfigure their space, as well as their service, to best shield staff and patron health. There’s a lot that we still don’t know. As many states move to ease social distancing measures, we’re unsure of how large the growth in new cases will be. We don’t know how long it will be before an effective vaccine is developed and distributed; or even drugs that mitigate the worst of the symptoms. We don’t know whether having had it once will mean immunity—and if so, for how long. We don’t know whether Covid-19 could become a seasonal phenomenon in the coming years, forcing further closures in the fall (and beyond).

Still, it’s all the more appropriate to ask what libraries can do to adapt spaces to reduce the risks of this and future pandemics.

 

1) CLEANING

There is no better or more responsible defense than easily cleaned surfaces and a rigorous cleaning regimen. This experience should prompt libraries to appreciate the value of highly cleanable finishes—especially, for surfaces that the public regularly encounters (door handles, railings, desks, etc.). However, these finishes do not have to be “antimicrobial.” In fact, some antimicrobial products should be avoided due to environmental and health concerns.

Antimicrobial-treated furniture and fabrics contain added chemicals to suppress the growth of bacteria and viruses, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have found no evidence they work and many health systems are banning them for environmental and health reasons. Copper has received a lot of attention recently for its antimicrobial value, but its environmental impact should also be considered. Though it is naturally occurring and recyclable, it’s less likely to be recycled when it’s used as a surface treatment, and its extraction and disposal carry environmental risks.

 

2) SPACING & TRAFFIC

As libraries institute measures to encourage social distancing, artful strategies that use brightly-colored tape to create beautiful, simple geometric designs may encourage people to respect the boundaries by communicating their intentionality, rather than an improvised barrier which might look incidental. Be aware, however, that for some protestors, the intentionality is precisely what they want to transgress against—aesthetics alone can’t be counted on to produce compliance.

Remove chairs from conference rooms, shrink occupancy limits, and hood computers that are too closely spaced. To make up for decreased capacity indoors, consider whether you can add safely arranged outdoor spaces. Given everyone’s heightened awareness of social distancing, extending visual cues to these spaces (reinforced by signage) will be enough to encourage most people to keep furniture in its place and to observe appropriate distances. Though, libraries should consider what their policy will be for those who don’t give others enough space.

Consider shifting your stock of computers to laptops distributed via a central kiosk, allowing cleaning between uses and facilitating social distancing by encouraging users to disperse themselves throughout the library (instead of being forced into large banks of desktops).

Good design can avoid pinch points; movable furniture and reconfigurable, flexible spaces enable libraries to adapt to emergency situations.

Global Workplace Analytics, an analytics and research firm, predicts that as a result of increasing familiarity and comfort with remote working, 25 to 30 percent of the workforce will continue to work remotely multiple days a week by the end of 2021. But as public spaces open back up, they may not all want to work literally from home, especially if home also contains other remote workers and students. Many will look to “third places” like libraries, coffee shops, and coworking spaces. To meet that increased need, consider strategies for mitigating noise when creating a variety of spaces to support different kinds of work, so that those doing collaborative projects don’t disturb those who need solitary focus. Finally, make sure to leave room for partnerships to provide additional amenities—from good coffee to childcare options.


Amanda Markovic and Zachary Zettler are both Associate Principals at GBBN Architects.

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