Approaches & Ideas for Refreshing Your Library Design

Many libraries find themselves in a position where they need new carpeting, new furniture, have shelving layouts that are not working, inefficient staff desks, challenging sight lines, need to adapt to changing technology, or just want to change their user experience — all on a limited budget. Let’s take a fresh look at how to support your vision for the future and better position your library to meet those needs.

Refreshing your library design is a great opportunity to reconfigure, reinvent, reconnect and redefine your  space.

Getting Started

We like to begin a refresh project by taking a look at what you already have and evaluating your existing space. While doing this, we try to see things through your customers’ eyes and we ask a lot of questions. Can visitors to the library easily find what they’re looking for from the first point of entry and beyond? Is it clear where to go for help? Do your shelves create inviting spaces or do they create walls that block visibility through the building? Which parts of your library or pieces of furniture do your visitors gravitate toward and which do they avoid? Which materials haven’t circulated in the past year? Are there materials that can be put into a feature display to increase circulation?

Sometimes refreshing an entire library space at once is not an option. In these instances, we try to identify specific areas that can be targeted for having a large impact on the user experience with a minimal budget. When approaching a target refresh we like to develop a larger game plan setting goals for an entire library space and prioritizing projects so that we know what will happen next. If you relocate something, what goes in its place? This helps to create an overarching idea for your refresh project as you work to improve each part of your library. The key here is to remain objective, open-minded and remember who you are doing this for. Get creative and put yourself in the shoes of your target user group. If you are working on the Children’s Area, think like a child.

It can be difficult to take on a project like this alone. Once you start thinking about the level of analysis and planning that you’d like to be part of your refresh project, you may want a team to help you develop ideas. Involving your staff could provide interesting input and insights into different aspects of your library. Conducting open sessions inviting stakeholders and users from a cross section of your community or campus could also help you evaluate the deficiencies in your existing space and prioritize areas for improvement. If you are undertaking a larger refresh project, you may want to consider bringing in a professional for a more comprehensive perspective.

Creating Balance

As you move through your building and evaluate opportunities for improvement, consider the balance of spaces that you currently have compared to what your goals are for the future. An easy way to do this is to use the floor plan for your existing space and diagram how much of your space is allocated for staff use vs. public use. How much of your space is devoted to collections vs. seating? What is the balance in size of your adult area compared to your children’s area and teen area? How does your gathering/meeting space compare to the size of your overall public area? How much space is devoted to technology?

This exercise is helpful in identifying deficiencies in your space layout and understanding your library from a different perspective. Every library serves a different community or campus and, in turn, has different needs. Finding your own unique balance is a great tool for moving forward to improve your library space.

Collection Philosophy

Neighborhood Shelving, Warren Heights Public Library, HBM Architects, Photo Credit: Kevin Reeves photographer
Neighborhood Shelving,
Warren Heights Public Library, HBM Architects,
Photo Credit: Kevin Reeves photographer

Let’s take a look at your collection and shelving layout. Are your shelves over-crowded? Can you place materials face-out? Do you have areas for featured or topical displays? Looking to the future, what thoughts do you have for display and browsable arrangements versus traditional stacks? If you have some open space in your stacks you may try using the top shelves for face-out display and see how your customers respond. You could also use or introduce a low run of shelves with tops and display more materials bookstore-style with face-out and stacked books. Experimenting with new ways to layout your shelving can help increase circulation, reduce shelving footprints and reclaim floor space for other uses. Configurations we have tested and found to be successful include lower runs of shelves that are oriented to create alcoves that are highly browsable and often incorporate seating. Libraries often choose to feature topical collections, new materials or periodicals in these areas.

Shelving arranged into “neighborhoods” can easily integrate seating, a radial shelving layout can create an elegant path through your building, and x-shaped shelving configurations create whimsy and a different variation of feature display. Lower shelving heights also improve oversight of these areas. Using what you already have to reinvent your space is a great and low-cost way to test ideas and figure out what works best for your library users.

Service Philosophy

Service Point, Anythink Commerce City, Humphries Poli Architects, Photo Credit: Paul Brokering photographer
Service Point,
Anythink Commerce City, Humphries Poli Architects,
Photo Credit: Paul Brokering photographer

As staffing levels change over time, it is important for your library to remain flexible. We have seen libraries test a variety of solutions in this situation: relocating service points to improve sight lines, consolidating fixed service points and integrating the use of a mobile service point that can be located as needed during peak hours. However, the main theme has been to reduce the size of service points and encourage staff to move around the space with a home base to which they can return.
One new trend is to have collaborative service points where a staff member and library user can work together, both being able to view a computer screen. This has been accomplished by placing both the staff member and user on the same side of a small service point or at a table-style service point with chairs facing each other and a monitor located perpendicularly so that both people can easily see it.

Rethinking the large, fortress-style service desk and going with a more up-to-date concept that is approachable and easy to find can open up floor space to be repurposed from staff to public use.


Wear and tear on your interior surfaces and furniture can provide a great opportunity for change beyond new finishes and colors. Many refresh projects start out with the need to replace carpet. Leading to the big question — does everything need to go back in the same place?

Replacing your carpet is a huge opportunity to re-evaluate your existing space and layout. Take advantage of this chance to have some fun with your space and test ideas for shelving layouts, seating areas, technology, etc. Experimenting with a variety of configurations and patterns will help you find out what works best for your library.

Beyond the carpet, tired furnishings provide a great opportunity to punch up your space either by reupholstering a few pieces, or by replacing them entirely and going with something new to refresh or update a specific area of your library. Move things around and see how that impacts where your users decide to spend time.

Faded and dated color schemes also provide a great opportunity to enliven and refresh your space. If you have a neutral color palette in your library, consider using color to create feature areas highlighting a materials display, new technology, your children’s area entry, service points or really anything that will resonate with your users. Changing wall colors, materials or textures is a great way to add interest to a space and give it a completely new feel.


Entry Experience
What do people see first when they walk into your library? How can your entry experience be more welcoming and dynamic? Consider organizing your own kit of flexible display pieces for refreshing and rearranging your entry. This kit could include mobile display units, short and low runs of shelving, tables for bookstore style display, even some seating. The goal is to be able to use the kit to reconfigure and change the user experience to keep it fresh and inviting. Selecting pieces that allow you to feature materials face-out and are easy for you and your staff to move will help you think outside of the box while experimenting with different ideas.

Day-lighting & Views

All libraries have windows but daylight doesn’t always make its way into the building. Consider the location of your windows and determine if there are any obstructions. Stacks are often the culprit in this situation. Reconsider the orientation, layout and height of your shelving or find ways to incorporate seating or display to eliminate the barriers to your daylight.

Incorporating Technology

Retrofitting Tables for power access, Euclid Public Library, HBM Architects, Photo Credit: Eric Hanson photographer
Retrofitting Tables for power access,
Euclid Public Library, HBM Architects,
Photo Credit: Eric Hanson photographer

Refresh projects usually include integrating technology more seamlessly into the space. Facilitating technology is often as simple as providing access to power and data. Power outlets for mobile devices are one of the most requested items in a refresh project and depending on how your building is wired you may have a few options including: accessing under-carpet wiring, adding power drops from the ceiling and down columns, or if your budget permits, adding a low profile access floor. A low-profile access floor is a very flexible solution for creating a technology focused area in an existing space. Retrofitting your tables for power access also creates seating areas that are more suitable for library users with mobile devices.

We hope that we have provided some background information that helps you think about some ways to refresh, reconfigure, reinvent and redefine your library space. What may have started as a maintenance or upkeep project is an opportunity to reconnect with your users, community or campus to reposition your library for the future. In the end, we try to create a variety of spaces so each of your users comes to the library because they have their own favorite spot.


Janet Nelson

Janet Nelson

Janet is the former Director of Library Engagement and Solutions at Demco. She managed and developed relationships with key industry leaders to understand changing library trends and services.