Sensory library design: responding to a pandemic’s impact on built environments

by Traci Engel Lesneski | MSR Design CEO and principal

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As the world works toward establishing the new normal, we must also turn our attention to the next normal. Interventions in the built environment—where we spend over 90% of our day in the best of times—are necessary to ensure healthy public and staff spaces in both the short- and long-term. Using a building engages the five primary senses—touch, sight, smell and taste (through breathing the air), and hearing. Each of these engagements with a building is impacted by COVID-19.

Library buildings are social equalizers and critical nodes of community connectivity. Today’s libraries offer a wide range of resources and services dedicated to fostering learning, curiosity, and discovery in all the literacies required to thrive. Open to all community members (academic or municipal), library buildings must support users in a full range of activities, from solitary, focused work to large meetings and social gatherings—and everything between. Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, many discussions about library design centered around human interaction: increasing space for community gathering and collaboration; creating spaces that promote exploration through hands-on learning; supporting learning about health and nutrition through community kitchens; housing tools and physical items as an extension of the sharing economy; and bringing staff members together in collaborative, flexible workrooms.

We still need these things to happen. Humans are inherently social and need one another to flourish and thrive. The built environment brings us together to connect with other community members. Erik Klinenberg writes in his book Palaces for the People that, “social cohesion develops through repeated human interaction and joint participation in shared projects.” The world’s complex problems (e.g., pandemics, racism, food insecurity, global warming, and homelessness) require systems thinking to solve. Shared spaces such as libraries provide spaces to practice the bridging skills needed to work across political lines, cultures, and countries. Talent is distributed equally, but access and opportunity are not. The pandemic has magnified inequality. We need the built environment and especially spaces that are open to everyone. Libraries are connective tissue in fractured communities, offering places where relationships can develop, and people learn to deal with difference, density, and diversity.

Yet the risks associated with gathering in public places while the pandemic is still ongoing are real. We have quickly gotten used to meeting online. In lieu of in-person programming, libraries have pivoted to online programming and podcasts. Curbside and remote holds pickup services have reinstated much-needed access to resources and entertainment. Even some volunteering at the library has moved online. These necessary adaptations and extensions of service do not, however, replace the real need to be in proximity to others and feel part of a community, even if only to be alone together.

As libraries plan to reopen their buildings, the onslaught of information about how to do so safely can be overwhelming. The opportunity lies in supporting health and well-being, while allaying fears associated with returning to buildings used by many. Considering our senses and how we interact with one another offers a helpful organization of the many issues and options.

What We Touch
We are familiar with the repeated urging of public health experts, medical professionals, and the CDC to avoid touching our faces and wash our hands frequently and properly. Yet libraries are by nature high-touch environments with shared resources, which has implications for how we design for safe use of library buildings.

What We See
Actual and perceived cleanliness will be important for the health and well-being of visitors and staff. Views to nature can help with focus and peace of mind. What we see impacts our comfort level in a shared public place.

What We Breathe
COVID-19 spreads most easily through droplets released when we talk, cough, sneeze, and sing, which has implications for the air we breathe in public buildings. Adjustments to HVAC systems are critical.

What We Hear
Acoustics are always a key consideration for library buildings. Library users expect to successfully engage in a wide range of activities, from solitary and quiet to highly interactive (and potentially noisy) ones. The pandemic may exacerbate user expectations around acoustics.

How We Interact
New behaviors will be required to keep the public safe as we reactivate public spaces. People will need visual cues to ingrain these behavioral changes. Library interiors will need to support physical distancing and be responsive and flexible.

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About the Author
CEO and principal of MSR Design, Traci focuses on design for libraries and learning. She promotes an integrated design approach—equally valuing human well-being, building performance, aesthetics, and delight. Recent building projects Traci has led include the award-winning VCAM building—a 24/7 visual culture, arts, and media creative hub for Haverford College in Pennsylvania—and Missoula’s new library and culture house (opening in summer 2020 in Montana). Traci regularly contributes articles to library publications and lectures nationally and internationally about the built environment’s role in fostering well-being, promoting learning, and creating inclusive and cohesive communities. Traci is chair of the American Library Association’s Architecture for Public Libraries Committee and a member of IFLA’s Library Buildings and Equipment Section Standing Committee.


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