Tractability and the Nature of Library Space

Despite forecasts of library obsolescence in the digital age, increasingly students are gravitating to the range of study spaces and information resources and active-use services that a 21st century library can offer, albeit often within a 19th or 20th century building shell.

Two recent engagements prompt this entry. Both assignments dealt with continuing changes being made within campus libraries, one at a mid-sized state university and the second a small private university. Each situation addressed different purposes and contexts, but both lead toward tractable spatial design considerations — economic use of existing space, sustainability.

Tractability is the characteristic of being able to be changed. I am here specifically referencing the mutability of building space. A little forethought can optimize space utility and make reuse easier.

Consider first the spatial nature of library buildings. Libraries are typically configured as open plan buildings. If well designed, they are largely unencumbered by corridors and small partitioned rooms, except where program requirements dictate, e.g., staff offices, individual and group study rooms. So, as largely blank slates, libraries over recent decades have been opportune locations for internal expansion, already built space into which new programs can be started or existing programs sustained and grown. This phenomenon has advanced particularly as developments in library collections management, such as digital access and reliance on consortium borrowing, have reduced the need to store books and journals in redundancy.

One of my case studies focuses on the reuse of library space to accommodate an information technology department, tracing IT’s inception two decades ago occupying a few spaces to its recent evolution and Topsy-like expansion of more space for twice the staff. The other example involves the wholesale creation of departmental spaces – faculty offices, meeting rooms, and teaching spaces. In both instances, essentially blocks of open library space were whittled away to create a number of smaller spaces. Both cases were timely strategic measures to ensure institutional viability in the context of limited capital resources.

Current reassessments for new rounds of reuses suggest some principles for the design and layout of spaces that would minimize reinvestments.

For long-term reuse, it is crucial at the outset to develop a coherent circulation pattern to link to existing building egress routes effectively and to provide for the future creation of additional new spaces. Code challenges need to be anticipated, such as the provision of multiple egress routes and any potential for dead-end hallways where the distance from occupied spaces to exit routes may exceed code limits. A considered circulation framework will enable an area conceived initially for one function to be reconsidered as a possible venue for new occupants, often with little or no renovation. An understandable circulation framework will also enhance a person’s orientation in the building, and ultimately their safety.

Placement of equipment spaces can create barriers; locations of openings and active use spaces can reveal opportunities. In general, people-occupied spaces will be best located near building circulation and egress routes.

In the instance of the information technology suite shown in the accompanying illustrations, a decision some years ago to place the server room opposite the building stairway now presents a blind wall to everyone arriving on the floor from the connecting stairs. This visibly closed-in situation was acceptable (though not necessarily efficient) for IT operations offices and workroom that were then located behind the server space. However, since the server room will remain as the technologists relocate elsewhere, some opportunities may be curtailed. One potential reuse under consideration is a student services area, where visibility and a readily apparent location are decidedly helpful to encourage student access and benefit. Had the IT staff workspace initially been nearer the stairwell, this next conversion would be easier. Now, without some investments to reconfigure spaces, the solution to enhance the visibility of a student services area very likely will depend on clear and concise signage and possibly interior design measures to counter blank walls and highlight the location. The obviousness of visible activity would be preferable.

JKM existing

JKM preferred


Architectural conformation of space provides cues for reasoned reuse. As noted, the broad floor plates of libraries are an easy option for re-adaptations. However, some uses by their nature are simply contrary to the building form.

Specifically, the small and repetitive nature of faculty offices distributed across a large floor area usually results in many interior, windowless rooms and a maze-like circulation pattern. Where it clearly may once have been strategically advantageous to convert a floor or two of a library to departmental space, the perceptual outcome of windowless cubicles is less than felicitous and the library floor loading capacity is simply wasted.

Thus in the second case, capital planning options are being examined to create new space elsewhere on campus for the academic units and then to recoup and open up the library space for the distribution of core collections among expanded student study areas. This phased development model for departmental space has been economically successful for several of my clients over the years. However, when all is said and done, there is generally a collective sigh of relief on a campus when the library’s space is returned to research and study uses.

Ever considering,