At the completion of our most recent library project, The Library Learning Commons at Southern New Hampshire University, we thought we'd take a snapshot of some of the active trends in academic library design today.
Library Central to Campus Experience
One of the goals identified during programming and site selection was to create a building that creates and frames a central open green space on campus. The new SNHU Library Learning Commons is located at the crossing of two major pedestrian circulation routes — one between a residential cluster and academic learning facilities and the other between the new ring road parking and central dining. The building form 'embraces' an oval green space at this junction.
Disparate, Remote Study Destinations
Earlier models for Library Learning Commons tended to provide all learning options in one sprawling space. While this provided direct access to these spaces and simplified user orientation, it conversely tended to provide noisy (or at least all one noise level), impersonal spaces and atrium solutions. At the SNHU Library Learning Commons we wanted to offer users a variety of destination choices with different types of learning environments, some, like the Quiet Reading Room, in the most remote corner of the top floor. Some are deliberately bustling, others more studious, some are technology rich, others more traditional.
Cafe Supporting Social Learning
Most of our recent library planning work (Florida State University, Texas State San Marcos, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, UMass Amherst) and completed projects (Daemen College & Clark University) include a cafe. This inevitably triggers much conversation with campus food service providers about whether a campus can sustain another 'profit center', but in our experience a cafe in an academic library promotes additional revenue without impacting existing neighboring food service locations. The Kimon & Anne Zachos Commons Cafe at SNHU is within sight of the main campus dining facility, so we will see if this trend is borne out. Cafes in academic libraries are sustainable, in part, because they are typically open for much longer hours and can cater to a late night study crowd that would otherwise have no food or beverage options.
Flexible Teaching/Instruction Spaces
There are often conflicting preferences for hardwired furniture that supports plugged-in technology (for the time being at least) and flexible furniture that can be reconfigured on the go, even during a class, to layouts that accommodate varied pedagogical styles. At SNHU we responded to this challenge with three variations on the Classroom/Instruction Room typology.
One space has a conventional layout with fixed tables and desktop PC's. Another has no tables, only chairs with wheeled bases and a generous tablet (Node by Steelcase). When these chairs are clustered in groups of four they form a table-sized surface for collaborative tasks. Laptops dedicated to this room are stored in a recharging cabinet.
The third Classroom/Instruction Room type is a hybrid of the two— tables have wheels, but are wired with pop up outlets and cables that terminate in regular plugs. A grid of floor boxes accommodates numerous layouts. Tables can be unplugged, moved to a new configuration and plugged back in.
* a recent story by CNN suggests that 'wireless power' that can support laptop type power demand maybe only a few years away http://www.cnn.com/2014/03/14/tech/innovation/wireless-electricity/
Wayfinding Signage and the User Experience
The most frequent questions asked at the main service desk are typically about where things are in the library. One of the goals at the Daemen College Research and Information Commons was to provide users with a clear line of sight upon entry to all key library destinations, minimizing the need to ask.
At SNHU the design preference was for program elements to be distributed, so as to establish a range of remote destination options and provide users with choices. This moves away from the central atrium model adopted at Daemen. In order to support user navigation, SNHU Library Learning Commons uses clear, unambiguous signage integrated into the design to ensure self-directed wayfinding no matter one’s location in the library.
Transparency in Academic Libraries
Outside of Special Collections, books have become much less precious commodities in libraries these days. As a result, the brutalist bunkers of the 60s and 70s have fallen wayside to open, transparent, naturally-lit buildings. Coupled with this trend, SNHU’s rural campus fully inspired us to design a building that exposed the variety of study activities taking place inside the library while providing expansive views of the campus and the surrounding wooded landscape from within. We likewise explored the notion of capturing “mysterious” natural light by veiling the underside of a skylight with a combination of translucent panels and a prototype ceiling tile provided by modulararts (http://www.modulararts.com/blocks/designs.html) based on their sculptural screen walls.
To find our photographer Chuck Choi, check out his website here.
Mark Freeman, PrincipalTodd Shafer, Associate