Editors: Ann P. Dougherty, Mountainside Publishing; Richard M. Dougherty, University of Michigan, Emeritus
Contributing Editors: William Miller, Florida Atlantic University; Barbara Fister, Gustavus Adolphus College;  
Mignon Adams, University of the Sciences in Philadelphia; Kathleen Miller, Florida Gulf Coast University;
Steven J. Bell
, Temple University; Larry Hardesty, Winona State University; Mark Tucker, Abilene Christian University

Vol. 29, No. 6                           printable version (pdf)   home

July 2009

 Library Buildings 101: Tips for Successful Design

by  Kathleen F. Miller

While an ever-increasing range of scholarly material is available electronically, brick and mortar libraries continue to fulfill critical needs for our institutions. Libraries provide a physical as well as intellectual crossroads on campus where students and faculty connect with each other, use material and digital library collections, employ technology tools, and take advantage of librarian expertise. Libraries are so central to the academic experience that when Cain and Reynolds (2006) asked students which facilities were important factors in the college selection process, the library was ranked second in importance. Only the facilities that housed the intended major were ranked as more important to a student’s choice of institution.

 The Book Endures

The continuing importance of the book, particularly in such areas as history, art, and literature, and the continuing importance of primary, archival materials, must not be underestimated. Academic libraries in the 21st century will continue acquiring and housing physical collections as well as creating spaces imbued with technology that foster teaching, learning, and research. In fiscal 2008 colleges and universities recognized the need for adding or renovating library space with the completion of 30 library construction projects (Fox, 2009).

Current economic conditions have posed challenges for every industry and higher education is no exception. Institutions are facing budget reductions and shrinking endowments that have already brought increased scrutiny to space utilization in existing facilities on campus (Cain and Reynolds, 2006) and are likely to delay funding and construction of some capital projects. Library Journal, in its most recent annual architectural issue (December 2008), reports the completion of 110 new facilities and 103 library renovations or additions in the United States between July 1, 2007 and June 30, 2008. The report identifies 15 new library construction projects and 15 expansion or renovation projects completed by colleges or universities (Fox, p. 38).

Pedagogical Changes Beget Library Changes

The number of projects reported for 2008 is consistent with previous years, but may represent the last library construction projects to be funded before the full impact of the economic downturn was evident. On the other hand, recent developments in pedagogy and technology continue to drive the redesign and expansion of learning spaces including classrooms, instructional labs, and libraries. Active and collaborative learning models depend, for example, upon institutions investing in different furnishings and in study space configurations as well as in technology and technology support. A library renovation, expansion, addition, or an entirely new facility may, therefore, be in the future for many institutions.

Planning for Success

While library projects vary in scope and complexity; there are a number of issues that are common to the vast majority of projects including security, maintenance, lighting, technology, and environmental considerations. If there are plans for a library building project in the near future on your campus, consider the recommendations below an introduction that may help in identifying potential problems before the design process is underway (or too far along for easy, and affordable, changes).

The Committee

Ø  Make no assumptions about the knowledge and experience that members of the planning committee bring to the process.

The design of a campus library is nearly always a process that includes soliciting input from numerous constituencies and creating a plan which addresses the input with the inclusion of many of the desired features. The planning team generally includes broad representation from library stakeholder groups including representatives of students, faculty, campus facilities staff, IT staff, advisory board members, trustees, university administrators, librarians, and library staff.

The team will be a model of diversity; one may anticipate diverse backgrounds in and perspectives about libraries; diverse levels of expertise and experience; diverse educational backgrounds; and diverse expectations of the process and the completed facility. If the library is intended to serve users from another institution or a public library in addition to its own institution, the committee (and its level of diversity) may be expected to increase. Finally, the architectural firm and construction company will bring additional sets of expectations to the table as they begin working to translate the program into a distinctive design and bring the process to fruition.

Planning committee members bring valuable perspectives to the process and will be best prepared to contribute when they receive a briefing before they begin. The briefing should include the following information.


Ø Library users should enter and exit the library through a single location.

The security of library collections and equipment depends upon security gates similar to those used in retail stores and sufficient staff to monitor and respond to gate alarms during any time when the library is open. Library staff must be able to see the exit and be close enough to respond to alarms promptly if the security system is to be effective. If an additional entry or exit point is added to the building, it requires an additional set of security gates and staff must be assigned to monitor it whenever the library is open.

Ø Institutional ID cards may be used to access the library after hours –within limits.

If entrance to the library is limited to those associated with the institution, a single entry point is also the most efficient way to check identification. Many campus identification cards have multiple functions and could be used to access residence halls or the library. This solution must be implemented thoughtfully to ensure the access cards only work when the library is open, and only provide access through a single entrance. After-hours library access works well if it is limited to a secured area of the library that is easily seen by anyone outside of the building. Consult the institution’s police department about design and monitoring options.

Ø If there are plans to include other campus services (writing centers, instructional technology, centers for teaching excellence, etc.) in the library, a full discussion of security issues with the administrators of those areas should occur as early in the process as possible.

Ø Reading nooks in quiet, out-of-the-way corners may look appealingly cozy in the planning stage, but security requires a design allowing library staff to easily view user activities.

Shelving, study areas, and equipment should be arranged with consideration of sightlines as well as aesthetics. The ability of library staff to see user activities from service desks, or during a brief walk through the area, reduces opportunities for vandalism and theft of library material, as well as enhancing the safety of library users and staff.

Ø For the same reasons, glass walls and doors in publicly accessible rooms allow anyone to see everything that is happening in the space. This is more costly than drywall, but is a relatively small investment to protect people, collections, and equipment.

Similarly, individual or group study rooms must have clear, uncovered windows to allow staff supervision of activities in the rooms; this discourages vandalism and other inappropriate behavior. Using an all glass, storefront approach can be effective for security purposes and for letting students see which rooms are available at a glance.


Ø Routine maintenance on many campuses is minimal; work from the premise that floors, furniture, and carpeting will not be vacuumed or cleaned as regularly as the manufacturer recommends.

Select fabrics, finishes, and carpeting for durability and the ability to conceal dirt and stains. Consider dark, multicolored patterns and only select from commercial-grade carpeting and fabrics. Fabrics with durability ratings of at least 100,000 double rubs will work well in libraries.

Ø Know that students will move furniture as they come together for collaborative projects and study groups or simply want a better view. Consider adding casters to chairs and tables to reduce the damage caused by dragging furniture around.

Ø Some architectural features (a glass curtain wall or multistory atrium, for example) are difficult, and therefore expensive, to maintain.

Determine how such areas will be cleaned or otherwise maintained and by whom. Will campus maintenance staff be able to perform this function or will an outside vendor be necessary? In either case, the practicality and cost of maintenance must be considered.


Ø The library will require several types of lighting based on the functions planned for each area of the facility, and lighting must work well during daylight hours and after dark.

Ø Ask the architect to make recommendations for energy efficient lighting as well as illumination levels.

The Whole Building Design Guide recommends a practical approach: “establishing lighting zones at the beginning of the design process [and] Differentiat[ing] between the lighting needs for shelving, circulation, reading and workrooms.”

The standards for determining recommended lighting levels are published by the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America. The architect will use the standards to make decisions about the level, or intensity, of lighting. Unfortunately, the measure used is a footcandle, which is hardly a common measure outside of the lighting industry. Ask for examples of lighting in other libraries or nearby buildings that the committee may visit to develop a sense of what is meant by footcandle measurements.

Ø The most frequent library lighting error is failure to coordinate the lighting plan with the shelving plan.

Shelving is typically 90 inches tall and arranged with aisles of 36 to 42 inches between rows. Overhead fixtures must be placed to properly illuminate the aisles; light must reach the bottom shelf of books as well as the top and center shelves.

Campus facilities staff will, quite reasonably, work to reduce the variety of replacement bulbs they must stock, but that must not be permitted to drive lighting decisions. They will also be concerned with the maintenance requirements. One common problem is lighting fixtures that are difficult to reach.

As the design is developed, note the locations of all light fixtures in the building plan; will maintenance be difficult? This concern is similar to the architectural feature concern noted earlier: will a ladder or cherry picker be required to replace bulbs? Does the campus facilities maintenance staff have the requisite equipment for the job? If not, determine how this will be accomplished and the estimated costs.


Ø The library needs a more robust and flexible technology infrastructure than most other campus buildings.

Technological access and connectivity is required throughout the facility. No librarian has ever complained of too much capacity for employing technology to better serve the institution.

Ø Plan for wired and wireless connectivity in new facilities.

Ø When renovating an older library, consider relying on wireless if enterprise level bandwidth is available.

Bandwidth needs vary depending on how it will be used. If applications are loaded at each workstation, for example, less bandwidth is required than if applications are streamed to each workstation on demand.

Ø Plan a secure server room accessible from technology staff work space.

Select the room location to avoid water lines (including those on floors above the server room). Failure to do so may result in major consequences from minor leaks. Also ensure that the server room has separate environmental controls for adequate cooling.

Ø Do not overlook the need for electrical outlets throughout the facility for equipment and for spontaneous use as charging stations.

Ideally, users are able to charge personal equipment from most seats in the library. At a minimum, designated charging stations may be included.

Environmental Considerations

Ø Temperatures may be raised a couple of degrees in some buildings this summer to reduce energy costs; but it can be disastrous for library collections.

Temperature and humidity must be controlled to avoid the development of mold in areas where books and other paper materials are stored. For libraries, that means the entire facility.

In addition, special collections may include brittle historical materials and archives that are intended to be retained in perpetuity. A separate system of environmental controls, including continuous humidity monitoring, is required for optimum preservation of such collections.

Receiving and Housing Collections

It may seem that nearly everything is available on the Internet, but contemporary libraries must be designed to accommodate the thousands of books and other physical materials that are added to library collections throughout the year.

Ø The library should have a loading dock designed to accommodate tractor-trailer deliveries and forklifts, as well as a ramp for smaller deliveries using hand trucks.

Note that the loading dock will not be very useful unless the site plan includes an access road to the library that accommodates tractor-trailers.

Include a secure non-public area where library staff can receive, sort, and physically process materials. A service elevator in the secure receiving space ensures that loaded book carts do not compete with library users for the public elevators. Equip the elevator with a keypad to prevent library users from avoiding the theft detection system and exiting the building through the receiving area.

Ø Library floors must bear twice the weight of typical office space; standard full-height shelving requires the floors to be designed for a load of 150 pounds per square foot; if compact shelving is in the plan, floor load requirements double to support a load of 300 pounds per square foot.

Ø Ensure that finished ceiling heights are adequate to accommodate 90-inch tall shelving with sufficient clearance to meet local code; usually a minimum of 18 inches is required between the top of the shelving and the ceiling.

Flexibility for Future Opportunities

Ø Spaces should be as free of columns and load-bearing walls as possible.

Libraries constantly evolve to improve services in support of teaching, learning, and research. Open spaces make the inevitable changes, such as expansion, reorganization, or deployment of equipment, a bit simpler.


Environmental sustainability is an explicit goal on many campuses that is manifested in construction and renovation projects in a variety of ways.

Ø New construction may take advantage of the newest green design approaches such as the use of sustainable materials and the incorporation of energy efficient systems and fixtures.

Ø Older libraries may retrofit facilities by updating HVAC systems, replacing lighting with energy efficient fixtures, installing occupancy sensors that automatically switch lights off when a space is unoccupied, and setting printers to two-sided printing. Before moving to two-sided (duplex) printing, consult with faculty to ensure they will accept duplex printing for assignments.

Ø Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) is a program that promotes and certifies environmentally sustainable design, construction, and operation of buildings.

LEED certification requirements for facilities are organized into six areas:

These are intended to reduce energy consumption, reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and promote the use of sustainable materials.

LEED certification requirements have been widely adopted by public agencies, including colleges and universities, as a standard for new construction and major renovations. The American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) and the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) have incorporated LEED into their sustainability efforts.

The LEED Green Campus Campaign is specifically geared toward higher education and “aims to increase accessibility to LEED for educational facilities and campus development, support student leadership and advocacy efforts, and promote sustainability in curriculum” (www.usgbc.org/DisplayPage.aspx?CMSPageID=1904).

Building on Common Ground

Libraries remain central to teaching, learning, and research, and represent a significant investment of an institution’s resources. The success of library building projects begins with a planning process to ensure that the planning and design team works from common ground: a shared understanding of project goals, library operations, trends in teaching and learning, and the issues common to library design.


Cain, D. & Reynolds, G. (2006, March/April). The impact of facilities on recruitment and retention of students. Facilities Manager, 54-60.

Carlson, S. (2009, April 17). Campus Officials Seek Building Efficiencies, One Square Foot at a Time. The Chronicle of Higher Education, A1, A18.

Fox, B. (2008, December) Keeping the “eco” in economy: Public and academic buildings combine for 213 projects in 2008. Library Journal, 36-48.

LEED Rating Systems. U.S. Green Building Council. Retrieved June 16, 2909 from www.usgbc.org/DisplayPage.aspx?CMSPageID=222.

Whole Building Design Guide. National Institute of Building Sciences. Retrieved May 24, 2009 from http://www.wbdg.org/design /academic_library.php.

Additional Resources

AASHE. The Sustainability Tracking Assessment & Rating System. Retrieved June 17, 2009 from www.aashe.org/stars/index.php.

ACUPCC Implementation Guide: Information and Resources for Participating Institutions. v. 1.0 September 2007. Retrieved June 16, 2009 from http://www.presidentsclimatecommitment.org/pdf/ACUPCC_IG_Final.pdf.

Designing Better Libraries, a blog covering design thinking as it applies to libraries, has an “Instructional Design & Technology” section that is particularly useful for thinking about library spaces and the user experience in libraries http://dbl.lishost.org/blog/

The Learning Commons Model: Determining Best Practices for Design, Implementation, and\Service, by Susan McMullen, Spring 2007, reports on 19 academic information commons and includes an extensive bibliography. http://faculty.rwu.edu/smcmullen

Learning Spaces, edited by Diana G. Oblinger, is an e-book available from Educause that addresses many aspects of design http://www.educause.edu/LearningSpaces

Library Consultants Directory Online http://www.libraryconsultants.org

OCLC Perceptions of College Students 2006, is an eight-page summary of data regarding perceptions of libraries and library resources from 14- to 17-year-olds. http://www.oclc.org/reports/pdfs/studentperceptions_part5.pdf

Society of American Archivists http://www.archivists.org

The Chronicle of Higher Education database of campus construction data http://chronicle.com/stats/architecture/architecture_table.php?type=Library

Whole Building Design Guide from The National Institute of Building Sciences, has a wealth of recommendations about the design process as well as specific technical information in its Academic Libraries section. http://www.wbdg.org/design/academic_library.php

Designing Better Libraries, a blog covering design thinking as it applies to libraries, has an “Instructional Design & Technology” section that is particularly useful for thinking about library spaces and the user experience in libraries http://dbl.lishost.org/blog/

Learning Spaces, edited by Diana G. Oblinger, is an e-book available from Educause that addresses many aspects of design http://www.educause.edu/LearningSpaces 

Society of American Archivists http://www.archivists.org

The Chronicle of Higher Education database of campus construction data http://chronicle.com/stats/architecture/architecture_table.php?type=Library 

The Learning Commons Model: Determining Best Practices for Design, Implementation, and\Service, by Susan McMullen, Spring 2007, reports on 19 academic information commons and includes an extensive bibliography. http://faculty.rwu.edu/smcmullen 

Whole Building Design Guide from The National Institute of Building Sciences, has a wealth of recommendations about the design process as well as specific technical information in its Academic Libraries section. http://www.wbdg.org/design/academic_library.php


Library Issues: Briefings for Faculty and Administrators (ISSN 0734-3035) is published bimonthly beginning September 1980 by Mountainside Publishing Co., Inc., 321 S. Main St., #213, Ann Arbor, MI 48104; (734) 662-3925. Library Issues, Vol. 29, no. 6 © 2009 by Mountainside Publishing Co., Inc. Subscriptions: $84/one year; $144/two years. Additional subscriptions to same address $26 each/year. Address all correspondence to Library Issues, P.O. Box 8330, Ann Arbor, MI 48107. (Fax: 734-662-4450; E-mail: editor@libraryissues.com) Subscribers have permission to photocopy articles free of charge for distribution on their own campus. Library Issues is available online with a password at http://www.libraryissues.com


last modified:

July 2009


Produced by Mountainside Publishing Co., Inc.