How to create a magnetic library

Author: Traci Engel Lesneski

As libraries evolve, so does library design. As recently as the late 1990’s, libraries were more or less introverted (e.g., staff waiting to be asked for help and buildings with few windows, to keep focus inside). Slowly, libraries started to become extroverted (e.g., smaller service desks, proactive customer service, and buildings opening up visually to their surroundings). The next step in that evolution is for libraries to become magnetic. That is, the library should become a sought-out destination that the community feels compelled to visit. The library will have customers no matter its condition. But by providing a great experience through design, libraries can become a central part of more peoples’ lives and the communities they serve.

Customization has increased in recent years. Consumers have the ability to define their own experience in nearly every aspect of their lives. It started on a small scale, with being able to supersize french fries or choose the softness of a bed’s mattress. The ability to customize has morphed into something ubiquitous. The focus has shifted from mass production to mass customization. Personal choice is available for all, not just the rich—for everything from the cup of coffee we drink and suits we wear to the bicycles we ride and way we have news formatted and delivered. We have options in the kind of schooling our children receive, with charter schools more prevalent than ever before and continuing to increase in number. We can customize our higher education experience as well, through greater choice in institutions online and on campus, as well as in the curricular path within a major. We can customize just about anything. This ability to define and choose our experiences has huge implications on customers’ expectations for both library service and design.

In addition to all this choice, customers are inundated with design-related media and resources through television and the Internet. Websites such as,, and expose consumers to a wider range of style than was possible just ten years ago without travel. Big-box retailers are upping the design consciousness by collaborating with well-known designers and tastemakers in their product lines. Customers are more sophisticated and design-savvy than ever before. They demand high-quality experiences everywhere they go, including the library. The term “user experience” has permeated our culture. Retailers, web designers, software developers, product designers, manufacturers, and architects all talk about user experience. This evolution doesn’t mean libraries have to become theme parks—far from it. It means paying attention to a few basics about human nature.

It is common to compare libraries to retail because retailers understand something that libraries can learn from: emotions and experience matter.

“Humans are not either thinking machines or feeling machines but rather feeling machines that think.”
—Antonio Damasio, in Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain

Neuroscientists such as Antonio Damasio remind us of the importance of recognizing the role emotion plays in our decisions. Where we choose to spend our resources (i.e., our money and time) is personal. A recent University of Texas study by Raj Raghunathan and Szu-Chi Huang suggests that we tend to base our decisions first on emotion (our gut) and then try to back that gut response with facts and logic. This pattern has been found to apply to dating, religion, politics, and hiring, among other activities. So what does it mean for the library that wants to be magnetic?

Being magnetic means appealing to customers’ emotions and creating a narrative that they can identify with. For a library, this identification means different things to different people. Consider raising money for a project and the importance of crafting various customer archetypes to target the message to. How one speaks of the library’s relevance to the senior looking for the morning’s print newspaper will likely be different from the message of relevance for a teenager. Libraries provide lifelong learning, but the kind of learning is different for each person who sets foot through the door.


Crafting the Narrative

Storytelling has always played a crucial role in the human experience. Storytelling has shaped communication, history, memory, and culture. Stories connect us to one another and help us find common ground. Telling the story of a library, one can cite gate counts, program attendance, and circulation stats or demonstrate how a library increases commerce on Main Street. One can cite figures supporting most arguments regarding the library’s place in society. But connecting personally through story will get the point across more effectively and memorably. Part of being a magnetic library requires telling the story of how the library is integral to daily life and fulfills a need that nothing else in the community does.

In Accidental Branding, marketing consultant and New York University instructor David Vinjamuri discusses several well-known product lines and how their founders, in being true to their story and values, stumbled upon wildly successful businesses. In the parting words of his book, he writes, “Every brand begins with a story and ends with a promise. . . . It’s important to remember to tell the story and honor that promise.”

Customers and potential customers already have a perception of the library. Their perception is their reality. A library may need to update, add to, and in some cases completely overhaul that perception to become magnetic. Show customers how the library is serving, supporting, and empowering them in their daily lives. And remember: it’s personal.

But to be magnetic, the library must translate its story into the user experience: the products, services, and building itself. As library designers, we typically begin our work with a library by establishing a vision for the project. What is the main objective? What does success look like? The result becomes the project’s narrative and serves as a starting point for design. Vision is just as important to consider when the library doesn’t currently have a building project. Beyond merely knowing the narrative, we must honor the promise. Honoring the promise can mean many things. In the context of being magnetic, it means providing an experience that matches the narrative.

To illustrate the point, consider a library that strives to improve the cultural resources of its community. One way to bring the narrative of “we are the community’s cultural destination” into the library would be to pair programming with a changeable gallery space. Perhaps the meeting room should be flexible enough to accommodate musical concerts and large arts presentations as well as more intimate gatherings, such as poetry readings. The point is that the story matches what customers will see and experience when they enter the building. The message is consistent.

Another example could be a community that needs free destinations for families with children. The library is a logical choice, but would a space that looks like it is an adult library with child-sized items fit the narrative of library as the go-to children’s place? Wouldn’t a space with whimsy, color, child-sized fixtures, child-sized book bins to flip through, a child-only entry, an activities area, and a way to reinforce pride in accomplishment better honor that promise?

Find the library’s stories (there will be more than one) and tell them through the building and spaces provided. Craft the narrative and honor the promise.


Making it Personal

People come to libraries for many reasons, including everything from relaxing and playing to applying for a job online or intense research and study. They may visit libraries for individual work but just as often are looking to collaborate with others. To be magnetic, libraries must support the entire spectrum of library use.

Providing a variety of experiences gives users choices based on their needs on that particular visit. Offer quiet corners as well as lounge spaces that are more open and invite collaboration. Offer technology-free zones as well as technology-rich ones. Provide spaces for actively making and for passively absorbing. Giving customers choices for how they self-sort activity options helps to personalize the library.

Customization is another way to personalize the library. Library users can customize nearly every aspect of life today, from the color of their phone cases to when they want to watch their favorite television shows, to the elementary schools their children attend. With so much customization available, imagine the reaction when library users enter a library building where one mode of use is expected to fit all. At best, they see how the library is great for others, but not themselves. At worst, they think libraries are an outdated and obsolete concept.

Customization can be offered on a variety of levels. On a large scale, pivoting or sliding walls can change the very nature of a space from open to closed for privacy. Movable or sliding privacy screens can make a space private or visually accessible. Allowing customers to change a room’s layout (and therefore purpose) through flexible furnishings and smartly planned access to technology signals to users that the building is theirs. On an intimate scale, task lighting that users control is another way to allow customization. Offering access to power and data wherever they might need it also allows customers to use the library on their own terms.

Library users will revisit a library if they can see how it accommodates the ways in which they want to work, play, interact, study, create, engage, or find refuge. To be magnetic, libraries have to be designed so that customers can create the experience they are seeking.


Focusing on User Experience

When it comes to physical and psychic comfort in a physical space humans have innate needs. Buildings designed with these basic needs in mind help library users learn and focus better and be more productive. They may not consciously recognize why, but will appreciate the building on a deeper level and want to return.

SHELTER. In a restaurant with booths and tables, booths typically fill up first. In a room of empty tables, people seek to anchor themselves near a column, wall, or other more permanent feature. Humans instinctively seek out places that offer protection and view. Niches that allow people to get out of the fray, a lowered ceiling height, or furniture that offers some enclosure provide shelter.

VISUAL VARIETY. Contrast the typical convention center meeting room with a walk in the forest. The meeting room lacks visual variety: the ceiling is a plane of white punctuated by glaring lights; the carpet and walls are basically the same tone; the room offers no view outdoors. A forest, however, has variety in color, texture, light, shadow, canopy and ground cover. Humans are wired to appreciate this sort of visual variety and are drawn to interiors that provide it.

CHOICE. Offer control over how to use the library, through choice and variety. Provide movable furnishings or task lighting, for example. Allow users to control the window coverings in a study room to reduce glare. These small details can make a large difference over how the space is perceived and enjoyed.

DAYLIGHT AND VIEW. Studies consistently show that daylight increases well-being and concentration. Variability in lighting also helps thinking and is healthier for our eyes. While glare is a problem, a sunbeam marking the passage of time as it moves across a wall throughout the day is a desirable trait (consider that forest hike). Views outdoors are also important for well-being and can be a powerful wayfinding tool, helping library users orient themselves in the building.

PRIVACY & COMMUNITY. Humans are social animals. We want to connect to our fellow human beings. Sometimes it is enough to be alone with others or to have privacy. At other times, we want to connect with others more actively. Offer all options.

UNITY. Using color, line, scale, and material harmoniously results in interiors that people subconsciously understand. Our brains are wired to look for patterns as a survival tactic. We have an innate ability (and instinctive need) to make order of our surroundings through that pattern seeking. Consider what happens to our psyche, then, when confronted with a library filled with mismatched furniture, overfilled displays, or haphazard signage.

ZONING. Library users have their own expectations for using a library, whether to work alone, collaborate with others, or quickly grab an item and go. Often all of these uses take place in one open, flexible space. Humans are more at ease when we know what is expected of us. At an amusement park, we know we can be loud and boisterous. We know to be quiet in the waiting area of a doctor’s office. But the definition of library is changing, and old norms are being challenged. Visual cues (e.g., ceiling height, lighting, materials, or furniture layout and type) signal appropriate behaviors.

DELIGHT. Delight is perhaps the most important, and most overlooked, innate need. Delight feeds the human spirit. Daylight and view can help, just as the perfect chair in the perfect spot can make us feel content. But the unexpected can delight as well. Providing little touches of whimsy or delight, for example through public art or interactive fixtures, can elevate a building from ordinary to extraordinary.





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