At the 2017 Dutch Contact Day last October, we heard how staff at the library of the Free University of Amsterdam is going to renovate their library space. One request students made? Surprisingly (perhaps), they wanted books around them. Not just because of the information that physical books provide, but because of the atmosphere and comfort they provide. So, the library kept the books as part of their renovation.
This may seem counterintuitive in our digital world as more and more of our experiences happen online. And it raises a few questions: What role does the physical library play in a digital world? And what makes people still want to come to this place?
Joren van Dijk, a well-known environmental psychologist, helped Contact Day attendees explore and address this fascinating topic. What he told us, based on his research, is that physical space is still very important. In fact, for libraries, it’s crucial if we want to become or remain that special “Third Place” where people gather to engage, meet, and learn in an ambiance that promotes both conversation and quiet relaxation.
What design elements help create all of those feelings? Nature, flexible space, and … books.
Physical space still matters
The theme for the 13th annual OCLC Contact Day in the Netherlands was “Third Places: Experience is environment.” I had the honor to host more than 300 members from across the country who came together in Rotterdam for one day to discuss how we can make our libraries “the places to be.”
Clearly, in today’s world, the library competes with other places, such as restaurants, cafés, concert halls, and parks to name a few, to be the preferred Third Place, where people let down their guard, relax, be themselves, develop new friendships, and deepen existing ones.
The concept of Third Places was first coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg in the early 1990s in his book, The Great Good Place. It’s a space where people meet to unwind, discuss, and talk about things that matter to them, their neighborhood, and their community. It’s a space distinct both from the work environment where communication and interaction can be functional, stereotyped, and superficial and distinct from the domestic space of home and family life.
Third Places provide opportunities for a community to develop and retain a sense of cohesion and identity. They are about sociability, not isolation.
At Contact Day, Joren stressed the role of the physical facility, whether we are conscious of it or not, in shaping experiences. He studies how the physical environment influences the behavior and perception of people. And he challenged us to think about how we can improve the library experience for our users and how we can make our libraries more attractive.
Improve your space with these three tips
If you are considering a remodel of your library space, or building a completely new facility, Joren suggests these three things.
- Involve end users in the design. By involving people from your community in the design process, you can respond better to their diverse needs and wishes. Participation in the design process can also increase the involvement of end users at the library; the library transitions from a library to their library.
- Bring the outdoors in. Nature impacts people, and research shows that seeing or experiencing nature results in vastly improved concentration. That can be nice views of nature, nature in the building, or even images of nature. Because of nature, people can study better and are refreshed in the process.
- Offer a range of spaces. The way a physical space meets the needs of individuals in specific user groups is key. Some space should be designed for social interaction to support group meetings and brainstorming. Some space needs to be designed for people who like to work in silence. Be careful not to ignore the needs of user groups or to place conflicting functions side by side.
Environment is part of who we are
Although we live in a technology-driven, digital world, physical space remains core to the human experience. People long for community and places to go for solace, comfort, reflection, and joy.
As Joren told us, the environment will influence how users experience your library, both the physical and the digital. By carefully designing our space and delivering the services users need, libraries can maintain and grow their role and increase their relevance as community hubs.