Planning for the Library of the Future: Considerations – Basics

The library of the past may evoke memories of card catalogues, stacks that smelled slightly musty, and the need to tiptoe quietly through the lobby. A librarian probably used a self-inking stamp that made a familiar clacking sound when your book was stamped at checkout. As fond as these memories may be, however, today’s libraries have evolved into light-filled multimedia spaces with a variety of functions. Despite the substantial changes, solid guidelines for library design still apply to the library of the future.

Each library serves a different set of users and a unique library staff. No two libraries should be designed to be exactly the same; this makes for great possibilities for library planning and opportunities for creativity in use and building form.  An inspiring library design starts with a thorough understanding of the goals and vision of the stakeholders, the needs of the community, and the targeted programs the library will offer.

These universal considerations for library planning will be crucial in addressing specific user needs as well:

Structure – loading and structural spacing

While digital media and evolving technologies such as automated materials handling (AMH) systems are reducing libraries’ storage footprints, the need for stacks and shelving still exists. Shelving types and heights have major implications on the design and the quality of a space. The more compact the shelving, the more structure will be needed to support it; for example, standard live loads for reading areas may be 60 pounds per square foot, while live loads for compact shelving areas may be 250 pounds per square foot. A careful stack layout will maximize structural efficiency and help inform the structural grid design. A 30’ grid allows for five double-faced shelving units with 4’ aisles in between.  Perimeter aisles of 5’ are preferred for circulation around the stacks, and near circulation or computer areas. Wider aisles encourage browsing, but will reduce the volume capacity per square foot. Likewise, lower shelves are better for visibility throughout the facility, but will also lower the amount of collection storage per square foot.

Building Systems

The type of mechanical system required will depend on the type of materials being housed. If materials are non-archival, then the systems will be designed entirely for human comfort (both thermal and acoustic performance). If collections are archival, however, then specialized systems may be required in order to address thermal, moisture, light, and other considerations. Remember that deep floor plates may have stacks with different thermal and air flow conditions than perimeter reading zones; one area may need more cool air than the other. Stacks may require plenty of air movement, but preferably without the sound associated with larger air volumes in smaller diffusers and ducts. Designers must also consider how daylighting and direct sunlight play into various use areas of the building and the impact on mechanical system requirements.

Artificial Lighting

LIghting is a critical factor in reading areas, and lighting needs may vary by task and user. Staff work zones may need less direct light and more controlled lighting than reading areas, which may benefit from having various views and daylighting built into the design. In general, it is best to minimize glare at all locations for reading and stack areas.  Avoid direct light whenever possible to mitigate reflectance glare; up-lighting in stacks or reading areas helps reduce overall reading surface glare.  Whenever possible, develop light studies for both artificial and daylighting to determine the best light source, layout and controls for each situation.  Consider the type of reading – lower levels are generally used for more casual reading and higher light levels are preferred for more intense research activities.

 In lighting design, lower overhead lighting reduces energy usage and providing adjustable task lighting at the reading zones helps users control the amount of light according to task and individual needs. Canopy stack lighting can be employed as a flexible and functional light source and create a feature with contrast lighting and surrounding ambient light, though this strategy will typically add some cost to the project. Suspended ceiling lighting should be designed to maximize flexibility in the stack layout.  Aligning linear lights with the aisles is challenging and does not allow for flexibility; crossing the aisles with perpendicular or angled lighting creates additional options and accommodates stack layout adjustments.


Natural light can be ideal for reading and contributes significantly to occupant comfort and enjoyment of a space. Skylights, sawtooth lights, and roof monitors are all great architectural solutions to help bring controlled and diffuse light into the library at all locations.  Controlling the light to minimize glare and solar heat gain is key to success in daylighting.  Controllable shade devices are particularly important for areas that have large glass exposures on the east, south and west facades.  Vertical or other types of sunscreens on the east and west facades will help to reduce the effects of direct sun glare and contrasts.  Light shelves help provide light deeper into the footprint of the building and shade other spaces near the window.


Even with an intuitive, easy-to navigate layout, signage is typically used for helping users identify specific stack areas, community areas, and reading zones.  Where signage is required, the design team must consider the height of stacks, viewing distance, and surrounding visual impacts such as views to interior and exterior spaces, graphics, and other architectural features. Text is typically simple, direct and without serifs.  Color helps to reinforce the identity of specific zones within the library.  In designing wayfinding, it is important to know the users and collaborate with the librarians to help identify the best types of signage – pictograms or text or a combination.  In some circumstances, pictograms may be the best solution as long as they are easily understandable by the majority of the users.  Otherwise, it may be best to use text for clarity.

Though these elements of library design are not the only critical considerations for best library planning practices, they are important factors to address early on in the design process.  Above all, it is vital for architects to get to know the library’s users. Creating opportunities for detailed discussions with the librarians and other essential stakeholders will enrich the design process and ultimately help make the library a successful project.

About Dean

Dean Rains brings over 23 years of expertise in commercial and public projects. An Associate Principal, project manager, and architect, Dean is highly skilled at coordinating the requirements of the various user groups and regulatory agencies and aligning them with the client’s requirements and design vision to deliver a successful project. He brings significant experience in the design of diverse civic projects including cultural, library, and human services facilities in addition to his broad portfolio of commercial work.

Dean is an active member of the professional community, having served three terms on the City of Raleigh Appearance Commission. He has also served on the AIA Triangle Programs Committee, and as a juror for the City of Raleigh Environmental Awards and Sir Walter Raleigh Awards.