Facilities (Campus Spaces)

Designing Today's Academic Libraries

campus academic library


While academic libraries have been undergoing renovations at a rapid pace through the last 15 years (80 percent of 400 academic librarians responding to a recent survey [see sidebar on page 15] indicated experiencing a renovation since 2000), 39 percent of librarians indicate that renovations are hindering their ability to do their jobs. Perhaps this is because they were only consulted about the renovations 20 to 30 percent of the time, leading to a variety of design and layout issues that make it difficult for patrons to access librarians and for librarians to fulfill their day-to-day responsibilities.

“The purpose of this survey was to facilitate a productive and proactive discussion on the physical landscape of academic librarians’ workspaces,” says Bryan Irwin, AIA, LEED-AP, principal of Watertown, MA-based Sasaki Associates, the architectural firm that conducted the survey. “Architects are being incredibly innovative in library collection and study areas, yet one of the most critical components — the librarians — remain captive to outdated design thinking.”

campus library interior with natural light


LET’S OPEN THIS UP. Today’s academic library designs are shifting from yesterday’s miles of metal shelving and rigid, isolating study cubicles (above) to open areas with moveable furniture to facilitate collaboration.

While building owners and architects catch up on asking librarians what they need in their workspaces, additional changes are taking place in terms of academic library design as the library’s raison d’etre has shifted in recent years. “Today’s academic library is about information and engagement,” observes Irwin, “so the space is focused on bringing everyone together. For as much as the library has evolved, it has returned to embracing engagement and dialogue. To that end, a lot of universities are bringing into the library new neighbors who didn’t used to be there, such as math emporiums, writing centers and tutoring centers to create an end-user engagement with the library serving as home base.”

In addition to services, changes are also occurring in terms of color, light and design.


Academic library color trends to neutral in order to serve two purposes. One is to set a tone conducive to studying and learning. The second is to allow architectural details to take the stage. John M. Olin Library on Washington University’s Danforth campus in St. Louis is a perfect example. Originally built in 1960, the 202,616-square-foot facility is undergoing a second, $18-million renovation to transfer it into a center for 21st-century scholarship by adding extra space for study, exploration, technology and special collection storage. The 45,000-square-foot renovation project is being led by Boston-based Ann Beha Architects (ABA), with St. Louis-based V Three Studios serving as the local associate architect.

campus library interior


“Use of color in this project is based on the old and the new,” explains Leif Hauser, RA, NCARB, LEED-AP, an architect with V Three Studios. “Some original finishes, such as terrazzo flooring in the grand stair, hint at the appearance of the library from when it first opened. In addition, the previous renovation made extensive use of reddish stained cherry wood millwork, white painted wall surfaces and blue carpeting. While the existing finishes are thoughtfully composed, there has been a conscious decision to somewhat deviate from while still harmonizing with the legacy conditions. This includes a neutral base for the palette rooted in grays with flourishes of warm tones for accents. The focus is placed on architectural form and detailing, as well as exhibits and displays. The net effect will be a light, bright appearance.”

Similarly, Munday Library at St. Edwards University in Austin, TX, which recently underwent a renovation and addition, has a subdued palette of muted gray-green, burnt umber and yellow ochre, allowing architectural details such as tall, thin columns and exposed ductwork to stand out. “These are the colors of the Texas Hill Country the building sits within,” observes Irwin, whose firm designed the 2013 project.


Both natural and artificial light are critical to library design to ensure that all areas may be successfully used for formal and informal learning, understanding that different areas within a library require different kinds and levels of light. For example, reading areas that receive no natural daylight may require both overhead and task lighting, whereas a café with natural daylight may only require additional lighting for ambiance.

“Light remains a tricky design issue because obviously there’s a push with sustainable design to use as much daylight as possible to minimize artificial light consumption,” notes Hauser, “yet we have to balance that with adequate light levels for reading fine print through a sustained period of time.” John M. Olin Library balances necessary artificial lighting for below-grade levels with ample natural daylighting at the perimeter from expanses of exterior glazing.

academic higher ed library


Munday Library also boasts natural daylight, so much so that the interior is aglow with natural light throughout the day, requiring only minor supplemental artificial light. “The design team calibrated the amount of natural light that enters the building throughout the various times of the day and year,” says Irwin. “Metal fins were applied to the east and west exterior curtainwalls, angled and spaced in such a manner as to allow morning and afternoon sunlight to bounce deep into the building’s core. Additionally, a scrim is stretched below the main skylight that serves to diffuse the harsh mid-day sun entering from above. Finally, a large expanse of uninterrupted glass on the north side of the building — where no direct sun enters — allows in the soft northern light and affords a dramatic view of the Austin skyline.”


“When it comes to design,” says Hauser, “historically, there was a high level of focus on controlling access to the library: one way in and one way out, which protected the physical collection from leaving the library. Now, however, there’s less reliance on the physical collection and greater reliance on digital sources. As a result, library administrators want to break down barriers and allow students to freely enter and freely circulate the library. They’re shifting their focus from protecting absolutely every last article in the collection to allocating resources to protect irreplaceable special collections. That has design implications in terms of creating main streets in libraries where students are free to use the space as an extension of exterior campus circulation paths.”

acadmic library interior bridge


WE’RE HERE FOR YOU. A major issue facing academic and research libraries — and librarians — today is what should their role be in the changing academic and technological landscape. An important aspect of academic libraries, however, is to design for the mission of the library, not the personalities of the library staff. The design must both allow for and facilitate interaction between library patrons and staff, while at the same time accommodating technology and remaining flexible in the changing teaching and learning landscape.

When complete in 2017, Olin library will feature such a design via a major pedestrian circulation path through the building. “Instead of having a singular control point closely guarding access to the entirety of the library’s holdings,” Hauser describes, “the campus community is invited to freely pass through the library.”

Irwin similarly notes that he sees library design as an opportunity to promote community: “Stairwells and circulation paths are celebrated as design features because they help emphasize a sense of movement and engagement and they support the spontaneous meetings that occur on stairwells and in corridors. So there’s a lot more focus on those elements.

“You still need to offer students and faculty the opportunity for individual contemplative thought,” Irwin continues. “I believe that learning is about toggling back and forth between individual contemplative thought and engagement to test ideas. It raises the question: How can design support both ends of the spectrum?”

At almost 47,000 square feet, Munday Library presents as a central space that enhances and catalyzes interaction around technology and group learning. Student interactions, research and inquiry all happen within sight of one another and are supported by a variety of study spaces. The central location of the commons, where all student services are organized, makes it a catalyst for programs and initiatives. A bridge on the second floor (home of the general collection and the Writing and Media Center) visually connects the two floors.

As the academic library settles into a new balance of physical and electronic collections, quiet study and social gathering spaces, hopefully architects and building owners will include librarians in the design process so that the facilities also enable them to effectively serve their patrons.


Sasaki’s library survey uncovered a lot of information about why many academic library renovations miss the mark. For example, when renovations are made, librarians are often on the end of receiving changes they considered low priority: they saw cafés introduced 11 percent of the time, when they prioritize this change just three percent of the time. Meanwhile, shelving was removed 18 percent of the time when only one percent of librarians said the removal was important. These changes have major impacts on librarians, forcing them to try to fit their roles into the physical spaces that exist.

Another example is librarian access to patrons. Currently, regardless of workspace type, 59 percent of librarians stated that their workspace is hidden from the public eye, making it difficult for patrons to know where they can get help and forcing them to rely on technology-aided access. Further compounding the problem, 25 percent of librarians stated that, through organizational restructuring, their access to patrons has further decreased.

To read the survey, visit librarysurvey.sasaki.com.

This article originally appeared in the issue of .