Design for Life

A soaring atrium can offer delight and inspiration. However, atria can also present a platform from which people can do themselves harm. Individuals looking for publicly accessible spaces to conduct self-inflicted violence have sought out libraries, including atria in the San Francisco Public Library’s main branch and the San José State University’s (SJSU) joint public-academic library. On the East Coast, libraries at New York University (NYU) and Brown University have experienced similar tragedies within the past decade.

DIGITAL DÉCOR, WORK IN PROGRESS New York University’s Elmer Holmes Bobst Library (top) with its sparkling screen; San José’s Martin Luther King Jr. library under scaffolding to build a $2.6 million glass suicide barrier around the atrium

Structuring libraries to reduce the risk of suicide

A soaring atrium can offer delight and inspiration. Atria are sustainable; they promote air circulation and allow natural light to filter through many floors. They encourage informal gatherings and connections among people. They are also functional, allowing facilities staff to maintain services more easily, such as changing out lighting. By offering elevator access to floors in addition to stairways or stairwells, atria help to increase accessibility.

However, atria can also present a platform from which people can do themselves harm. Individuals looking for publicly accessible spaces to conduct self-inflicted violence have sought out libraries, including atria in the San Francisco Public Library’s main branch and the San José State University’s (SJSU) joint public-academic library. On the East Coast, libraries at New York University (NYU) and Brown University have experienced similar tragedies within the past decade.

In the libraries where these events have occurred, architects, designers, and librarians have developed both people- and building-based interventions to increase safety and security while remaining accessible.

Secure but see-through

At NYU’s Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, a gorgeous ­pixelated screen now wraps around the atrium of the Philip Johnson–designed facility. The screen is an addition to the 1970s building made after lives were lost to suicide while simultaneously complementing the original design and ­celebrating the digital era of libraries.

According to Joel Sanders, principal at Joel Sanders Architect, the firm that imagined and implemented the screen enfolding the Bobst, rather than considering designs constrained by regulations that practically protect people, one should consider regulations as “catalysts for creativity.”

SJSU’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library is taking a similar approach by further securing its open atrium after recent suicides. Wrapped by glass panels, the atrium will continue to provide both air circulation and sight lines within the building.

beyond the building

Rae Ann Stahl, associate dean, technology and information services at the King Library, says that in addition to the $2.6 million renovation to the atrium, the administration is reinforcing its commitment to engage in a multifaceted approach to supporting the health and wellness of all of its patrons. “We are not making any other changes to accessibility for anyone using the library, and we are committed to the library [continuing to be] accessible to both community and university users,” Stahl says.

The public and academic administrations work in collaboration to provide training for staffers. “We are always looking for the best possible ways to make our libraries safe for our students and our public,” says Stahl. “We look out for our staff as well as [our] students.” The library is training staff and student employees conducting stacks maintenance on the upper floors and in the interior of the building to connect with library users to provide additional support, whether they are seeking information or other services.

While no building is suicide-proof, designers and ­librarians can incorporate protective elements and use a ­people-centered approach to foster the social, intellectual, and physiological health of the communities they represent and serve.

Emily Puckett Rodgers, a 2013 LJ Mover & Shaker, is the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Space Design and Assessment Librarian. She received her MSI from the School of Information in 2010, after working for eight years at the Fayetteville Public Library, AR.

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