Reopening Libraries: Designing for Health

In addition to enhanced cleaning protocols, training, and the public use of personal protective equipment like face coverings, the impacts of coronavirus are transforming how we design public spaces in the short and long term.

Inspiration from other fields as libraries rethink shared spaces for COVID-19

In addition to enhanced cleaning protocols, training, and the public use of personal protective equipment like face coverings, the impacts of coronavirus are transforming how we design public spaces in the short and long term.

By offering their communities spaces for play, congregation, and collaboration, and shared access to amenities like specialized equipment, reading rooms, and lounge areas, libraries offer community members a third space that combines elements of the home and the workplace. As we learn more about how the coronavirus spreads, through in-person extended conversations and closed, dense office environments, libraries across the country are grappling with how to fundamentally transform their spaces to keep their communities safe and healthy.

Those that have begun to open are taking inspiration from other sectors—museums are learning from hospitals, and amusement parks are learning from restaurants. Libraries, academic and public alike, can also take inspiration on how to begin to redesign their physical spaces to continue to provide enrichment opportunities in a safe environment.

Several trends align with the goals of designing for health. Fewer tight corridors and more open environments that have offered patrons the ability to quickly assess their surroundings and identify where to go will now offer library staff the ability to monitor density and communicate social distancing guidelines. Windows that open up to fresh air, and plazas, gardens, and other outdoor spaces offer both physical space and a surrounding environment where the virus is less likely to spread.



Densely packed office buildings are scrambling to redefine the open-office layout by adding plexiglass and plastic barriers to desks, staggering seating on benched workspaces, and adjusting layouts so that employees are not facing one another. Flexible public furniture allows libraries to quickly transform spaces for different types of activities or to adjust to periods of high or low patron traffic.

Furniture on wheels or made to be picked up and moved can be used to create socially distant functional spaces. Modular furniture can be set up to further enforce social distancing guidelines by increasing space between users with extensions, dividers, or even attached personal writing surfaces. Book shelving on casters can be moved out of the way or used as barriers to limit mobility as needed in an open area. In staff workspaces, we can expect to see more use of translucent and transparent perimeters and barriers that can be set up easily and quickly. Information and circulation desks will resemble registers in grocery stores and markets, with translucent or transparent barriers in place.

Libraries can also bring the indoors out. Offices reopening in the summer months are now encouraging business to take place, if possible, in open areas like plazas. Libraries with gardens or adjacent parks or plazas can expect to see an increase in use of these amenities during warm, pleasant weather. Many libraries, like the Tulsa-County City Library, embedded technology into outdoor spaces to be able to offer digital programming. Restaurants are turning their parking lots into seating areas with picnic tables. In Cincinnati and other cities, restaurants are working with officials to close down streets to offer outside seating.

Spaces that can easily be subdivided or even kept open while other parts of the library close can ensure that libraries can create experiences for patrons that manage the density of participants, and can offer staggered services over differently scheduled periods of time. In the short term, these kinds of spaces can be created with free-standing translucent or transparent barriers that we’ll see in place at service desks and in staff workspaces. Longer term, libraries can look into creating or retrofitting spaces with permanent but flexible partitions such as demountable walls.



Now that deep cleaning routines are more frequent in public spaces, the ability to transition spaces from one event or use to another creates an opportunity to rethink how libraries can use their lobbies or cafés to offer a socially distant space for patrons to queue or otherwise wait for scheduled use of resources. Programming that once took place in an enclosed multipurpose room might expand into lobbies.

As hot desking (desks shared by more than one person in one work day) in office spaces becomes a thing of the past, so too will libraries need to rethink how their patrons access shared resources such as reading rooms, makerspaces, or computer labs. While shared resources will not likely vanish altogether, the come-as-you-please model won’t be feasible in the coming months. Retailers and restaurants are leaning heavily on appointment or reservation-only interactions both to limit density and to allow time to clean surfaces between uses.

Many service industries are changing their cleaning schedules to showcase to their clientele that regular cleaning is taking place in high-use areas during regular business hours. Likewise, hand sanitizers, no-touch trash receptacles, and cleaning sprays and wipes will no longer be relegated to dark corners. We can expect to see these amenities in lobbies, meeting rooms, and any other spaces where shared equipment or resources may be heavily used.

Furniture and finishes that are durable and cleanable may slowly replace the plush, soft, and textured styles that have dominated furniture design in recent years. While copper and silver are surfaces that are naturally antimicrobial, we’ll likely see nonporous cleanable surfaces such as glass, plastic, or metals being used throughout high-traffic areas in public spaces.



As digital and physical experiences cohere, libraries will continue to be places of connection and collaboration. Elements of interior design such as density, geometry, and division will shape how we configure spaces, what furniture we choose, and how we can expect staff and patrons to move through physical buildings.

As we look at what patron and staff experiences will likely be in the future, “contact-free” services will be in demand. Global hotel chain Hilton is expanding its Digital Key service, which offers guests the option of using their smartphone to check in and out of their rooms and access it in between. Many restaurants are turning to smartphone apps and QR codes to provide digital menus. These services are likely to stick around as a way to make the customer experience seamless and convenient. Lockers for patrons to pick up or drop off materials outside of building hours may become a standard feature of both public and academic libraries.

Museums, such as Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, are reconsidering their interactive displays that rely heavily on touch interfaces. In the short term, they have purchased styluses for visitors to use rather than touching the interfaces with their hands. Longer term, they are investigating gesture- and voice-based interactive displays. Libraries with digital visualization walls or interactive wayfinding kiosks can look to transitioning these tools into touch-free experiences as resources become available, relying on creative interventions like styluses in the meantime.



Longer term, we can expect that some design considerations related to building infrastructure will mature. Libraries can expect to invest in air circulation measures that frequently clean circulating air or bring in outside air. Staff should be allowed to open or close windows in workspaces. Systems that offer passive air handling systems and use smart HVAC systems that monitor air and water purification, quality, and circulation, will rise in installation and use.

As a potential site of aerosolization of the virus, restrooms pose a particular challenge. All-inclusive, accessible restroom designs that feature single-use stalls help to ensure the “toilet plume” doesn’t travel to adjacent stalls (and users). S-shaped doorless entries and exits and touchless faucets and hand dryers decrease the amount of surfaces that need to be decontaminated and offer more density control. Gender-neutral restrooms facilitate social distancing by offering respite from lines forming for gendered restrooms.

Touchless interactions that incorporate gesture and voice-based commands will become integrated into digital experiences in physical settings. A variety of industries are looking to add more of these options for interaction and engagement to their environments in the near and long term. “Zoom rooms” in offices are being considered as businesses expect to continue to have a mixture of remote and onsite staff collaborating during work time. These models might prove useful for meeting rooms in libraries set up for research and teaching consultations or for public use.

In a data-driven world, the supermarket chain Kroger has collected and shared anonymized data about outbreaks and density in their stores. This helps to inform training needs, shift work, and where stores may need to be closed due to exposure. In libraries, we can expect to see more visible communication about how densely occupied the building is at any given time. Displays of this data can be present both online and onsite, providing information valuable to both staff and visitors.

Our post-COVID world will offer ample opportunity for libraries to embrace adaptive and user-centered design practices as we look to quickly but effectively evolve services and spaces to support the health and safety of our communities. In a public health–informed world, workflows must be tested in real time and with real users to ensure they function appropriately. We can expect services to continue to spin up quickly and be adapted for target audiences, such as senior hours in grocery stores, or curbside and contactless delivery.

Many libraries have already built spaces that offer respite, personal space, and choice in how their communities experience their buildings. These design considerations yield physical experiences that can adapt to a variety of uses—a key success factor in the months and years to come.

Emily Puckett Rodgers is the Space Design and Assessment Librarian at the University of Michigan Library.

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William Rickenbacher

All of this sounds reasonable, but the costs involved will be astronomical! At the same time the available funding will likely be reduced.

Posted : Jul 10, 2020 04:09



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