New Spaces for New Services | Design Institute

LJ’s Design Institute:  Salt Lake City addressed creating space for new  services, testing incremental  change, and more


On Friday, April 27, LJ’s Design Institute: Salt Lake City convened at the Salt Lake County Library’s Viridian Event Center, collocated with the library’s West Jordan branch and deliberately established to host events for library staff and the surrounding community. The venue featured a giant glass garage door that connected attendees to not only daylight and fresh air but the grandeur of the surrounding mountains, which inspired but did not—quite—overpower the exciting content.

The unique setting spoke to the possibilities for libraries that are committed to putting community meeting space front and center instead of treating it as an afterthought. It also illustrated the opportunities born of innovative products in architecture and fixturing: the eye-catching window wall and air dividers that carved the giant event space into the right size rooms for the main event and speed sessions, as well as comfortable auditorium-style seating that, incredibly, collapses for storage at the touch of a button like old school bleachers.

On Thursday, an optional tour organized by the cohosts, the Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County systems, took early arrivals through the Natural History Museum of Utah, with its instructive focus on reflecting the local environment in both materials and design, and through the University of Utah J. Willard Marriott Library, where visitors learned about a variety of creative spaces, as well as an assortment of branches customized to serve their various communities.

Primed by these sights, attendees settled down to address how to design new and renovated libraries that are as perfectly suited to enabling their new and evolving roles.  

Top row: the Viridian Library/Events Center site presented a strong example of the day’s lessons. Second row: attendees networked with vendor sponsors, including Brodart (l.) and Bibliotheca (r.). Bottom row: Library Challenge sessions (l.) applied creativity to real library needs; LJ Executive Editor Meredith Schwartz in welcoming mode. Photos by Kevin Henegan


The first panel tackled designing for shifting collections and staff roles. Panelists Jeff Davis, principal of Arch | Nexus, and Mindy Sorg, associate, OPN Architects, were moderated by Peter Bromberg, executive director of the Salt Lake City Public Library System (SLCPLS).

To kick off, Sorg spoke to the question of how to determine just what roles the community needs the library to shift into, pointing out that some services trending in the larger field—such as Maker spaces—may duplicate resources already on offer locally elsewhere, so that opening one in the library might not only be redundant but set the library up as unintentional competition. To ensure you know about such other offerings and what potential patrons want, Sorg urged attendees to “get out in the community, not just [hear from] the ones who come to meetings.” She reassured library leaders that, no matter how disparate and even incompatible various community members’ desires at first seem to be, “It all starts to come together to a unified vision; it actually ends up aligning,” even though specific requests “might not be the number one priority.”

Davis reemphasized Sorg’s point about being proactive to collect input: “The days of having a meeting, advertising it, and asking [residents] to go to you are gone.” It’s important, he said, to find out what the key activities are around which locals convene and ask them there, such as soccer on a Sunday, small-town grocery stores, or and high school basketball games.

Once you know what you need to make room for, Davis said systems with main libraries have seen success concentrating their books in the larger facility to make room for other services in the branches. Those without a main, of course, may have to continue to house more titles in the branches to keep a critical mass of the materials in demand. For those with centralized storage, Davis pointed out the feasibility of public libraries looking to ASRS systems, or “book bots,” which take less space and cost less money than open stacks but were heretofore primarily the province of academic libraries. Davis indicated Boise, ID, where the public library is saving $14 million by implementing such a system.

Sorg pointed out that although the trend in library design is to reduce collections in favor of community space, “everyone is different. Some libraries we work with, the community is passionate about the collection, and they already have other community space.” (For those retaining more books in the branches, she reiterated the importance of lowering stacks to get eye lines across the whole space, and Davis added that turning books face out will increase circulation.)

Continuing her caveats about not getting carried away by trends, Sorg mentioned that “we still have plenty of libraries that want a desk,” though they’re getting smaller. She compromises by giving them the desk but also setting up options for kiosk service in the future. Davis, indeed, said that he sees a trend back from no desk at all to a “smaller, more welcoming, approachable desk,” which is not a barrier. How small is too small? In one example from Margaret Sullivan Studio, the library put in modular furniture as the desk and each week took a piece away. It got quite a bit smaller before they started getting pushback and said okay, that’s the right size.

In addition, Sorg said, with regard to changing fixtures, libraries should also work on change management. “You can’t just expect your staff to move into a new building and change how they do things.” She advised attendees to make changes that staff can experience during the process, not wait until the end. 

Top row: Viridian’s workable flexible spaces. Bottom row: EveryLibrary’s John Chrastka, an expert on building voter support for design projects (l.). Salt Lake County Library director Jim Cooper (ctr.) led a lunchtime tour of Viridian’s West Jordan branch. Photos by Kevin Henegan

Reconvening after breakout sessions functioning as mini design-charettes for real-life library challenges, John Chrastka, founder and executive director of EveryLibrary, the first nationwide political action committee for libraries (and a 2014 LJ Mover & Shaker), delivered a keynote on how to build voter support for getting the funds to construct or renovate. 

His most crucial message: libraries need to stop focusing on voters who use libraries and instead concentrate on voters who value libraries, whether they use them or not. Counterintuitive as it may seem, use does not matter to voter support for library measures, said Chrastka. Neither does party affiliation, with the exception of the Tea Party, whose members tend to be against any tax regardless of what institution it benefits.

Instead, he said, for advocacy purposes, libraries must appeal to the values of voters, so relationship-building and campaign messages must focus on their value system as opposed to what they are going to get out of the new building. That doesn’t, however, mean they don’t care what the community as a whole will derive from the new building: since such voters share the all-too-common outdated image of what libraries do, they want to hear about what the new space will enable the library to make happen. 



Thereafter, a second panel tackled the issue of developing new spaces from which to deliver new services, whether early learning centers or community business hubs, and how to carve out room in which to do so. Panelists Jeff Hoover, principal of Tappé Architects, and Peggy McDonough, president of MHTN Architects, were moderated by Jim Cooper, director of the Salt Lake County Library (SLCL). 

Hoover sounded the event’s leitmotif by emphasizing the point that design should “not [be] global but intensively local.” Successful feedback gatherers, from the library or the architect, must “speak the local dialect, have conversations with native speakers,” both one-on-one and in groups.

McDonough suggested looking to other types of public service institutions for inspiration and solutions, such as hospitals and higher education, and meditated on the dilemma that patrons need libraries both to enable access to tech and tech skills and to provide a getaway from omnipresent technology, a contradiction that can be addressed by creating zones within both adult and children’s areas.

Another balancing act Hoover raised is that of equitable access versus local customization. “You want a sense that my community is getting equal library services to my neighbor,” he said, but of course different populations have different desires. The solution, he suggested, is a constant core program (in the architectural sense)—the same number of seats, for example—but within that fine-tuning what he called the texture so that one branch may have ambiance while another focuses on families.

McDonough went further, calling for not only the same number of services but for them to be located in roughly the same places, so that patrons can go from one branch to another and know what to expect. Still, she agreed that the look and feel and character should be customized. She also called for learning from the private sector to apply to the public sector, but with the caveat that she doesn’t mean to commercialize the library or make it a retail environment.

As examples of such transferrable lessons, Hoover cited how coffee shops create pink noise so patrons won’t be overheard but don’t have to shout and how they arrange chairs around a fireplace so people have something to look at other than one another. Convenience stores, on the other hand, are the go-to example for getting people in and out.

“Look where people like to spend time and we can just steal it,” he urged. “Find it in the community, advance it a touch, and bring it into the library.”

McDonough raised the issue of food: “It’s such a draw,” and libraries need to find a new way to incorporate it, since many libraries tell her that bringing in a café run by a vendor doesn’t work. The cleanup issue, she said, may be worth simply taking on as a library responsibility, and cleanable surfaces can make it less of a burden.
Restating the iterative testing motif that ran through the day, she suggested that libraries not sure how much of their collection to downsize can “do it in steps, rent some storage, find a place to test ‘what if we declutter everything?’ ”

On a related note, Davis called for iterating on your renovation as well. “When you have a little bit of capital money to spend, invest it intensively in one spot,” he suggested. “Don’t try to spread it too thin. Leave the rest of [the library] with its problems. When people walk in and say, ‘this spot is so great, look at the rest of it,’ it can snowball.”

Top row, l.-r.: Salt Lake City PL System’s Peter Bromberg (r.) with Arch | Nexus’s Jeff Davis (l.) and OPN’s Mindy Sorg. Cooper (r.) queried MHTN Architects’ Peggy McDonough (l.). Bottom row, l.-r.: Tappé’s Jeff Hoover (2d from r.) offered one-on-one advice during the think tank/speed sessions. Prescott Muir (l.) from Prescott Muir Architects and Humphries Poli’s Dennis Humphries addressed design influences and trends from outside the library world. Photos by Kevin Henegan


After speed sessions in which attendees were encouraged to bring their specific, real-world dilemmas to consult with the architects, the day wrapped up with Design Trends from Beyond Libraries—and Borders. Panelists  Dennis Humphries, principal of Humphries Poli Architects, and Prescott Muir of Prescott Muir Architects, were moderated by LJ executive editor Meredith Schwartz.

Humphries referred attendees to Dokk1, the revolutionary library in Aarhus, Denmark, that has become a must-see for U.S. librarians and architects. The library, which opened in 2015 and has reshaped downtown, was “cocreated by the entire community,” said Humphries, who visited there barely a month before the Design Institute (DI). Among the guiding principles for Dokk1 are “put the people first,” he said, and a series of “FROM/TO” statements that upend the traditional library.

The 180,000 square foot main library replaced a 30,000 square foot facility, which had half a million visitors annually; now visits are 1.3 million, said Humphries. With a staff the same size as the old library, Dokk1 is open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. but is staffed only from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Humphries encouraged DI attendees not to be daunted by the size and scope of Dokk1. “[You] can make a small improvement and still do some of the exciting things they’re doing there.”

Another key element, said Humphries, is the “building’s extraordinary connection to the landscape around it.” That tied into Muir’s presentation about biophilic design, the interrelationship between humans and nature. Harking back to the work of Edward O. Wilson and Stephen Kellert, biophilic design in architecture “infuses nature into the built environment,” said Muir. Among the 14 elements of biophilic design he pointed to are visual and nonvisual connections with nature, infusing light into a building, symbolic references to forms and patterns that exist in nature, and incorporating materials that reflect local geology and ecology, as well as views (“prospect”) and a place of refuge for the individual. The benefit said Muir: “Decreasing stress is stimulating creativity.... Change stimulates creativity.”

Muir showed a slide of a stunning library—Biblioteca Vasconcelos in Mexico City—with floating bookshelves connected by catwalks that are reminiscent of hanging gardens. The library, said Muir, is “incredibly visually appealing and [the interior] is situated as a progression along a street that creates a metanarrative—we all know how to navigate a street.”

Both Humphries and Muir gave tips on how libraries can make impactful changes without big budgets. Humphries discussed bringing in aspects of “retail-tainment”—cafés, boutique-like environments, and demo areas or spaces that can change so people can have experiences in the library. Muir suggested moving the collection around, even just painting a wall, and making places for groups to meet: “People need to identify with subgroups. Libraries can offer that.” To bring natural light into old buildings, said Humphries, move shelves away from the wall: “People like to sit next to a window. It doesn’t take a lot.” 


This article was published in Library Journal's July 2018 issue.

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Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz ( is Editor-in-Chief of Library Journal.

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