Library Design Workshop @ Smith


This morning — a day after I gave a public lecture on library design at Smith College — I led a faculty design workshop. I’ve participated in plenty of design workshops, but I’ve never organized one of my own. I set a few guidelines: no post-its, no play-doh, no infantilizing activities; more focus on values and epistemologies and how they relate to concrete design choices. If I were to do this again, I’d change a few things: e.g., leave more time for group reporting, and separate out — or collapse — the various conceptual “audits” that I asked the groups to do. But on the whole, I think it (not I, but the process itself) generated a really vibrant discussion, helped folks get excited for the forthcoming design process — and reminded them that librarians have unique insights, concerns, and sensibilities that must be heard in the design process.

I’ll offer a little overview of our activities, then post the “official” agenda below.

We began by reviewing a list of potential library user types that had already been drafted by a staff working group. My contacts at the Smith library had broken everyone into teams that mixed up staff from different departments, so each team had front-of-house and back-of-house folks, librarians with different specializations, etc. Each team then chose one of the user groups and fleshed out a user scenario, focusing on goals, motivations, expectations, and limitations.

We then used those scenarios to conduct a series of three audits: first, an audit of the “species of space” the user must access/navigate through in order to accomplish her goal; second, an audit of the moments of “interface” — with media, with library staff, with the building — that the user would experience in accomplishing her goal; and, third, an audit of the “flow of knowledge”: how the knowledge contained in a book or database got from its “container” into the heads or hands of the user.

After that, I asked them to review a little catalogue of library spaces — a partly-serious, partly-parodic redux of the Dewey Library Bureau catalog — and imagine how some of the items on offer in that catalog might open up new opportunities for patrons and staff and change (ideally, improve) the way they offer service. We had periodic group check-ins throughout the afternoon.

What follows is my script — a guide I created for myself — and, noted in italics, the instructional material I excerpted for an agenda I circulated to all participants:


  1.  Plenary: Introduction. 5 mins.

Over the course of the next three hours, we’ll consider how we might design a space that provides the ideal environment for library staff and patrons. We’ll pretend we’re starting from scratch and there are no budget limitations. The tabula rasa approach implies that we’re freed from historical inheritances –ingrained-but-perhaps-less-than-effective or habitual-but-not-so-efficient ways of doing our jobs, bad habits conditioned by a building that may, in some ways, be a bad influence, etc. – but of course it’s all but impossible to erase those precedents. Still, we want to do the best we can to think aspirationally: what kind of space do you need to provide the best service, to satisfy your patrons, and to allow both patrons and staff to enjoy their work? 

  1. Plenary: User Groups. 20 mins.

Our work here will focus on the experience of library users, but, in the process, as we examine how, when, and where patrons interact with staff, we’ll also be considering your needs – staff needs – too. This type of exercise could easily be executed from the staff perspective – in examining workflow, for instance. For now, however, we’ll discuss the library’s myriad patron/user groups – both those the library currently serves and new groups you’d like to attract or see more of. The Library Staff Renovation Committee has already brainstormed a list of users and use cases: Smith undergrads, School for Social Work students, Smith faculty, Five College users, Smith alums, etc., who make use of mediated instruction, general collections, and special collections; who consult with staff; who study alone and in groups; who make media and use technology; who teach; who exhibit their work, etc. We want to build on that list to identify roughly ten diverse user groups who ask very different things of the building, its staff, and its resources. For our purposes, it would be particularly useful to identify groups who are extraordinarily demanding, asking much of the building and its human and media resources; and, at the opposite extreme, those who are relatively self-contained and self-sufficient. Let’s identify ten such groups and say a bit about their demographics (if we can generalize) and purpose for using the library.

Material Needs: chalkboard, whiteboard, or computer (from which I can type groups’ responses) and projector

Brisbane City Library User Scenarios (
Brisbane City Library User Scenarios (
  1. Small Groups: User Scenarios. 10 mins. Break workshop participants into small groups of four or five. Staff will have been assigned to tables.

We’ll then break you into small groups and ask each group to choose one user-type. Your choice could be based on what kinds of service you find most rewarding or frustrating, and of course what constitutes “rewarding” or “frustrating” will likely be different for each of you. I’d advise your group to choose a user-type that likely presents a challenge – a good or bad challenge – because those cases often raise the most provocative questions about how we provide service, and how we design space for that service. We’d like to cover, collectively, a wide range of user-types – but we can also learn from varying perspectives on the same group.

Ask groups to choose user-types, and note choices on publicly visible board or screen.

Now that you’ve chosen your user-type, we’ll ask you to create what’s called a “user scenario,” a tool that user-experience designers – whom we most commonly find in digital design fields – employ in order to understand the folks who’ll be using their tools and technology. These scenarios can be manifested in the form of a narrative, a visual storyboard, a comic strip, a video, and so forth. Of course you’re limited in the time and resources you have here – but you can choose to represent your scenario and whatever form you prefer.

Consider your hypothetical user’s goals, motivation, expectations, and limitations. Describe the particular tasks she has to accomplish: a particular research problem or course assignment, or even a social goal – e.g., to study with friends.

While it’ll be most helpful to devise a relatively “realistic” scenario, I also encourage you to keep in mind various “extreme cases” (e.g., involving patrons with very specialized needs, or patrons unsure of how to articulate her needs, or patrons who are difficult to work with) – and maybe even throw a few “extreme” situations into your scenario. Speculating on the extreme, even if such cases or instances are anomalous, can help us to consider how flexible and accommodating our services and our spaces need to be to support even the most demanding patrons. 

(See’s Scenario tips and Brisbane City Library’s scenario development process)

Instructions: Above instructions projected via computer and distilled on a hand-out with examples

Material Needs: For me: computer + projector to share assignment and sample user scenarios. For groups: paper + markers at tables; large tablets on easels

User Research, via Coroflot (
User Research, via Coroflot (
  1. Small Groups: Audits. 30 mins.

Now we’ll ask you to revisit your scenario in order to create a series of audits, each of which represents an opportunity for design to intervene and potentially make things work better. This exercise will draw on your classification and cataloguing skills.

First, we’ll ask you to catalogue all the different kinds of rooms, foyers, and passageways; the programmatic areas; or what Georges Perec calls the “species of space” your patron might pass through and spend time in in order to accomplish her goal.

Second, we’ll ask you to catalogue all the moments of “interface” – with the building and its on-site resources, with staff, with library technology – that incrementally brought her closer to achieving her goal. This might include accessing the library catalog from her dorm room or phone, consulting with a librarian via a live chat, accessing a wayfinding kiosk in the building foyer, using an augmented reality app on her phone to navigate the building, chatting with a librarian at the service desk or a librarian who’s roaming the floor, consulting a map of the stacks outside the elevator, accessing an electronic periodicals database via a computer in one of the library labs, making use of specialized machines in a maker-lab or visualization studio, checking out books at the circulation desk or via a self-service machine, etc.

This list of interfaces should help you with the third audit: a “knowledge audit”: think about how the student’s desired “goods” – both material and intellectual – get into her hands or head. How do books get from where they’re stored (perhaps off-site) into the student’s hands? How can a student enter the library with a vague research topic, and leave with a pile of pdf’d articles on a thumb drive – along with a good sense of how she’ll approach her term paper? How can faculty member enter with an amorphous plan for implementing a new multimedia assignment in his art history course, and leave with a solid lesson plan and an understanding of how the library’s special collections and labs can support his students? How can a visiting scholar optimize her use of Smith’s special collections during the single day she’s able to steal away from her own campus to do research? Consider also potential bottlenecks and snafus, moments of confusion or frustration.

What technological tools (e.g., catalogues, displays), delivery systems, front-of-house and back-of-house staff are needed? Consider both human and automated service – and the hand-offs between those various service providers. For now, you can imagine these services being provided in a sort of “non-space,” like the Matrix. In a sense, you’re conceiving the map without its territory. In our next step, we’ll consider the concrete configurations of spaces or screens where those services or provided.

(See more on library “service design.”)

Instructions: Above instructions projected via computer and distilled on a hand-out with examples

Material Needs: For me: computer + projector to share assignment and sample user scenarios. For groups: paper + markers at tables; large tablets on easels

Service Design (via
Service Design (via
  1. Ten-Minute Break 
  1. Plenary: Groups Share Scenarios + Audits. 30 mins.
  1. Plenary: Kits of Epistemic Parts. 10 mins.

Now we’ll think about all the spaces and instances where and when librarians can intervene in the design process in order to promote the creation of an environment that lives up to your library’s Vision and Mission Statements – that supports research, inquiry and exploration; that optimizes the “flow of knowledge”; and that facilitate critical, self-empowered engagement with the library’s resources and services.

I’ll then distribute to each group a catalogue of library “kits of parts” (see below!), each applying to a different dimension of library experience: service points, seating, interfaces, etc.

  1. Small Groups: Furnishing Knowledge Flows. 30 mins.

I’ve given each of you a Library Bureau 2020 Catalogue – a re-launch and re-branding of the old Dewey library supply business. I’d like for you to choose at least one item from each of the seven sections, and consider how integrating that feature or service into the library would alter your user scenario and aid or impede the “flow of knowledge.” You can be constructive or destructive in your choices: you might choose items that would make the building work better, or one that would intentionally undermine your work or frustrate your users. In either case, we can learn something about the power of material conditions – of architectural, interior, interaction, and other modes of design – to shape user and staff experience, and to support or undermine your mission.

Material Needs: For groups: paper + markers at tables; large tablets on easels

  1. Plenary Discussion: Wrap-Up. 30 mins.

Groups share their designs and discuss their epistemological and phenomenological implications. If we’re pressed for time, we’ll focus on surprising revelations or instances where teams discovered that a new configuration would improve upon current conditions.


And here’s the little Library Bureau catalog / kit of parts I created for Steps 7 and 8:



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