Library design shakes off the dust, finds new purpose for the future

Library Design for Colleges and Universities

Sliding ladders, rows and rows of books, a little dust—and of course that distinctive smell. Many of us have similar memories of our college libraries and the hours we spent amongst the stacks. And while many university libraries felt dated and old-fashioned to us even back then, library design has never been more future-facing than right now.

Even as the pandemic hit and libraries around the country were forced to close to in-person patrons, these same institutions took the opportunity to improve access to their materials—offering additional titles online, digitizing special collections and archives for electronic access, and even sharing resources across other universities by cooperating as one shared library network.

Because information is now so easily accessible online, libraries are shifting to accommodate new users and revamping their existing spaces—focusing more on the creation of knowledge and content, rather than just the consumption of it. For example, spaces are shifting to include green rooms, video equipment and software users can use to create and share their own content.

To learn more about the future of library design and how these educational fixtures are evolving, we turned to our own Amanda Gascon, AIA, NCARB, an architect in our Castle Rock office. With extensive expertise in library design, including these evolving virtual-ready spaces, Amanda has worked with both academic and public library clients to develop master plans, facility assessments, bridging documents and construction documents for new facilities, renovations and additions.

Amanda Gascon
Amanda Gascon, AIA, NCARB

What role do libraries play in today’s colleges and universities? 

Academic libraries continue to serve as the intellectual core of university and college campuses nationwide. They provide invigorating spaces where students and faculty can collaborate, learn, socialize, create and share information and ideas, while simultaneously offering quiet spaces for research and study. Yet, as higher education continues to evolve, these spaces will be utilized differently to remain the core as well as be future-ready—whether that be a hub of virtual learning spaces, an area for maker spaces, or something else.

With the changes in media and educational resources, how has library design shifted? 

While providing access to information will always be an integral function, the golden standard of modern library design addresses not only how information is stored and accessed, but how it’s created and shared. With the construction costs on the rise, architects and librarians have had to get creative with how to provide more space for collaboration and creation, while also housing extensive academic library collections. Many libraries decide to keep a portion of the collections browsable, but lesser referenced texts are often being relocated to high-density compact shelving or off-site book repositories to allow for precious square footage to be reused as group study rooms, large meeting rooms, digital media labs, and collaboration and presentation space.   

How do you feel about those changes?

As a designer, I thrive on problem-solving. Each library is unique in exactly what new resources and spaces would most benefit students. Project budgets are often tight, and there are many conversations that are essential to discovering a path forward for each library and academic campus. There is no “one size fits all” in library design.

Where do you expect library design to go in the next 10 to 20 years? 

That’s the million-dollar question! Even new (and newly renovated) libraries change rapidly as users interact with the environment. Library design will likely continue to cater to growing technological advancements and sustainable design, while continuing to provide spaces to learn, create and share. 

Architects can help facilitate future needs by emphasizing flexibility. We know changes will be needed, but the key is preparing for them. That may mean providing a raised access floor system to allow for power and data locations to be easily reconfigured as spaces change over time, or buildings designed with wide-span structures to remove limitations of future spatial reconfigurations—this removes some of the boundaries preventing spaces from being able to shift over time. Furniture and shelving can also be equipped with casters to create flexible spaces depending on usage. 

As libraries deal with budget shortfalls and space issues, how should colleges and universities approach challenges in library design?

Funding pressure often causes project delays and cancellations. It’s important to set realistic project goals and expectations at the forefront of a project, with an organized plan for how to make a vision a reality. Master plans and spatial analyses are great tools: A comprehensive master plan should assess and analyze the existing building (or identify goals of a new facility), include engagement findings from key library user groups, define the program and scope of work, have a schematic level design, and an associated cost that accounts for project escalations. 

A key piece of information often missing from master plans is a phasing plan that strategically communicates a future vision with step-by-step instructions to get to the final design. Many times the university can tackle small projects with facilities staff to prepare for a larger scope renovation; doing this work in-house often saves precious financial resources for later improvements. When funding does become available, the master plan provides a guide to accelerate the project. With a plan in place, spaces are moved and rebuilt with intention, ultimately cutting down on overall project cost by reducing trial and error.

Learn more about library design and how we’re helping higher education institutions design the future of learning!

Hollis + Miller is an integrated architecture firm that designs the future of learning environments, including public K-12, private and higher education. Share your thoughts on Facebook, LinkedIn or on Twitter @HollisandMiller.

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