How does the design of a public library affect the way that all people use it and its services?
One should start by saying that architecture design is one of the most important elements of design of any building including a public library.
In the case with a public library design relates to two different levels of planning and design:
1. Macro level.
a. Urban planning and design.
b. Library location.
2. Micro level.
a. Furniture inside the library.
b. Physical accommodation for the handicapped.
Design of a library embodies a set and coherent set of various organizational principles and objectives that influence a particular complex structure.
While in the past libraries were regular buildings intended to hold large volumes of literary heritage, at present they are being modified to serve various other social needs of existing social groups.
The modern libraries are designed with the ideas of “patterns” as proposed by Christopher Alexander. The patterns are intended to provide ideas for communities on how to construct proper buildings and working environment. The design patterns of libraries cover both political and aesthetic goals. These patterns show how the library can be constructed to provide comfortable and flexible working functional environment for customers who will use the library services.
The library building just like every building needs to be designed according to the following design algorithm (Pointon, 2001):
- Define the building needs. This is where one needs to design the building that would be intended to hold large volumes of books as well as accommodate enough personnel, visitors, and proper support staff.
- Define the social needs. This is where the building needs to account for the convenient location, ease of access, parking lot near by, proper check-in system, computerized catalogues, etc.
- Define the special needs. This is where the library building architects need to think of the proper needs that customers might have including accessible lavatories, entrance, elevators etc.
- Define the budget. Apparently, the funds needed for construction are always scarce, so the architects will need to prioritize the needs to assure that the library gets build on time and provides as much utility to the society as possible.
Speaking about how the design of a public library affect the way that all people use it and its services, I would like to note that design (on a macro level and micro level) play an vital role. First of all one needs to understand that on a macro level, one needs to have the library situated in a place where it would be easily accessible by the potential clients via public transport or personal cars. Typically, libraries are intended for people who cannot afford a certain book (assuming that one can find virtually every book on the market nowadays) so one should assume that these people would want to reach the library via the cheapest and most convenient ways. This is actually one of the reasons why most libraries are located downtown or somewhere in the city centers. Since the libraries are intended accommodate social needs of a particular community, they are located on expensive land in places of easiest access.
As for the micro level of design, one needs to understand that a library should possess all the modern conveniences for the following two reasons:
- Keep the books in the right condition to prevent physical aging and damage to the books. The library needs to possess humidifiers/dehumidifiers, thermostat, etc., to assure proper temperature and humidity needed to preserve the books.
- Attract and retain visitors and customers to use existing library services on a regular basis. The library needs to possess proper temperature, humidity to match the expectations of visitors. The library also needs to possess special reading rooms where in a quiet atmosphere visitors could enjoy reading the books. The library also needs to possess quick and effective database that would make a process of borrowing/returning a book quick and convenient for the customers. The presence of toilets and possibly vending machines is also mandatory to provide convenience to the visitors of the library. Whenever these needs are not met, the no one would ever visit the library even if it indeed comprises important literary works (Gardner, 2002).
The design can be consider “inclusive” only when it meets or better surpasses the user/customer expectations regarding a certain building. In the case with a library, inclusive design would mean the design that allow all users to enjoy all the services that a library is ready to provide. Nowadays, inclusive design is an indispensable of every public architecture design and it basically means universal design or design for all. In simpler terms, inclusive design means design with respect for people and diversity. Inclusive design accounts for “lead users”, and ‘average users’, let alone ‘critical end’ users and creates an architectural facility that accommodates those who need to use the facility the most.
For instance many university libraries although provide other media besides books (like slides, films, tapes, audio, video, web-services) fail to accommodate the demand for these services and thus quite often require visitors to take tapes/videos home or sign up a week in a advance to use these services in the library. Thus, presence of numerous computers, boom boxes, slide-readers, or video-rooms in the library certainly contribute to the overall “inclusive” design.
While in the past libraries failed to meet the basic needs of physically disadvantages visitors, the modern day libraries are created to accommodate these needs. The old libraries install elevators and special ‘disability paths’ that allow access for people on a wheelchair. The modern day libraries also attempt to provide special editions written in Braille language to accommodate the needs of vision-impaired people. Special speakers intended to accommodate the hearing-disadvantaged people are also used and are being implemented in most libraries across the USA. Still I have to add here that the majority of services are still intended for people without disabilities (Jones, 2003).
The modern libraries attempt to assure that all library users are able to gain access to the same level services regardless of disability or special needs, yet they take rather small and slow steps to fully meet these needs. Probably the primary reason why is the lack of proper financing. Creation of accessible paths around the library demands tremendous investments and reconstruction of a library. The introduction of special Braille texts, speakers, or computer input devices (mousse, keyboards, voice recognition systems) to accommodate the special needs people (for instance those who have paralyzed hands) demand not only large investments in equipment but also investments in support team. The lack of financing creates the largest barrier for people with disabilities who want to enjoy all the library services in full.
By looking at a typical library and understanding that a person without disabilities is likely to make a better use of library services than a person with disabilities, one can say that indeed the library designs lead to a certain stigmatization of people with disabilities and special needs. Yet, one should understand that the majority of libraries were created decades ago, when one truly did not care about people with disabilities and special needs and thus did not invest in creating a special design for this target group. The modern day libraries to the best of my knowledge are designed and built in a way to accommodate the special needs and disabilities and also have a potential for future reconstruction and modification. The libraries of the past typically have rigid designs and structure, thus making reconstruction (providing elevators for movement impaired users) might not only be unfeasible but also dangerous since the architecture design did not account for the special needs groups in the first place. Moving libraries to another (accessible) facility would require tremendous expenditures just like bringing the old library building down in order to erect an accessible one. It is for this reason; one can say that it is the libraries of the past that create stigmatization in community in particular and US society as a whole. One is hardly able to do anything with these buildings, since some of them are already old and present historical importance to the society.
Yes, the library (or any public building) design that does not account for the disadvantaged groups of users contradicts with the Disabilities Discrimination Act. Disabilities Discrimination Act prohibits any sort of discrimination based on physical disability or special need of people, requiring all public institutions to take necessary steps to reasonably accommodate these special needs and disabilities. Still, one needs to understand that ‘reasonable accommodation” is a very vague term which certainly is interpreted differently by different groups of people. The final stage of Discrimination Act took place in 2004 when it obliged all facilities to provide reasonable accommodation for people with disabilities and special needs. Still, many facilities failed to transform since they originally were designed in a manner that failed to accommodate people with special needs.
Heritage Act on the other hand was designed to provide proper access to people with disabilities and special needs to the historical places/building of England. For this paper one needs to consider the part (6.2.)1 that speaks about the physical access. This act states that one needs to “preserve historical integrity of English property”…whilst establishing best practice in terms of access” either through “physical alteration or by providing alternative means of access”. Once again, the owners of ancient property when willing could note that they attempt to provide “best practice” yet cannot do certain things if they were to “preserve historical integrity of English property”. Apparently, the ambiguities and the user of terms like “reasonable accommodation” or “best practice” together with conflicting “preserve historical integrity” arguments make it rather hard to implement Discrimination act and Heritage Act across the land especially in ancient buildings that originally were not designed to accommodate people with disabilities and special needs. As one can see there is apparent conflict not only between Heritage and Discrimination Act. By the same token one can find conflict and ambiguity present in each of the two aforementioned Acts.
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