A few thoughts on young people’s use of library space

At the annual conference of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals Wales (CILIP Cymru), which happened back in May 2016, I delivered a one hour seminar on some findings from my research on young people’s use of library architecture. In order to get a bit of discussion going (see here for the lessons I learnt on seminar organising) I posed a pair of questions and got the room to write down and discuss their thoughts.

  • What qualities of space might young people (16-25) actively seek out in a library?
  • What factors might affect their preferences?

The answers were interesting in a number of ways. There was quite a lot of variance in terms of  semantics, so some people commented on very broad level aspects such as “feeling safe” or “convenience” (in doing so raising the question of what engenders those things), while other people cited more specific needs like “plenty of power sockets” and “enough PCs”.

It’s an interesting question for me because my work lies somewhere between the very general (how you might want a user to feel) and the very specific (what objects a library ought to contain). This is the realm occupied by architecture, which is why I used the particular term “qualities of space”.

When you talk about qualities of space the answers are a little harder to pick out. And I was, let’s not forget, in a room filled mainly with librarians, meaning that although they spend their working lives in library buildings, it’s rare for them to have the opportunity to really engage with architectural possibilities because most libraries aren’t refurbished every day of the week. Librarians’ opinions could reasonably be expected to arise from their dealing with the objects within the library that they can influence (book stock, hardware, furniture etc.) and perhaps also their general sense of what an ideal library ought to be (a safe space, open, free, democratic etc.). It is therefore unsurprising that most of the answers I received were in that general vein. In fact, it was rather pleasing because it reinforced the notion that my work might hold some interest!

Anyway, I will answer the first question in the following ways, in no particular order.

  • Young people (16-25) seek a visual connection with the external or natural environment
  • They seek spaces where they can look out but not be seen by other users or staff
  • They seek spaces that are beautiful (That’s subjective, I know, but most people can tell quality space design when they see it)
  • They seek spaces that have a particular quality or level of noise (not necessarily loud or quiet, but particular nonetheless)
  • They seek proximity to their resources, whether books, PCs or something else

This is only my personal list, generated from conducting walk-along interviews with several dozen young people in three large central public libraries in the UK. Other researchers could no doubt add to or re-frame these points.

And what of the second question? What affects young people’s preferences?

I found two determinants. It is firstly important whether the young person is coming to the library to use it is a second place or a third place social environment, i.e. for work or for informal use. It is secondly important to know whether they are approaching it individually or as a group.

An individual coming to study will want one spatial quality, a group coming to study may want another. An individual intending to use the library to relax will want certain similar to those of the studying individual, but in other aspects their needs will probably differ. Similarly, a socialising group will almost always want an area with a bit of noise in the background, or else they will want total isolation from other library user. This may appear to be a contradiction, but the reason in each case is the same: so the noise of their conversation will not attract attention to them.

Hope that piques your interest, particularly if you’re working in a library, or in architecture. As I mentioned, these are a few thoughts drawn from experience rather than immutable statements of fact, so please add your thoughts.

Have you worked in a public library? How would you answer my questions?

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