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Designing Better Libraries by steven j bell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Build It And They Will Come

Proposals to build a new library facility will almost always be met with some community resistance these days. Taxpayers who are non-library users will question why they should be required to contribute to a new library building when everyone can get all the information they need from the Internet – and they can get any book they need from Amazon. Even armed with all the data and Pew research that confirm how important libraries are to their communities – and knowing the value a modern new facility delivers – convincing the naysayers is a difficult task. College and university trustees may raise similar questions. New library projects, depending on the funding streams, may cause a tuition increase – something to avoid as much as is possible. The institution must balance meeting its deferred maintenance needs with the expectation it will continuously add an awesome new building. With so many competing demands and limited resources, it’s understandable that plans for a new library will be subject to intense scrutiny.

In municipalities and campuses around the country these questions are routinely asked, and choices must be made about investing in new facilities when it’s not entirely clear if they will meet their potential. It’s the age old question. If we build it will they come? When it comes to library buildings both new and renovated, we know both quantitatively and anecdotally that the investment pays off with significant returns. It’s not unusual for gate counts to quadruple when a new library opens. With new study spaces, new service areas, better event areas and much more, few community members can resist the draw of a better library facility that gives them a far superior experience.

These success stories are found elsewhere in our communities too. When I moved to a new suburb outside of Philadelphia (after 24 years in a house about 15 miles in the opposite direction), my spouse went in search of a new fitness center. There were four from which to choose, one of which was the local YMCA. When we went to check it out it was a pretty tired looking building and space. Although it was the closest, the sad state of the facility put it at the bottom of the list. We also found out why it was badly in need of renovation. The regional YMCA, recognizing it was losing out to area competitors, was already in the early stages of building of a new facility about 5 miles away.The existing building would be obsolete soon enough. For a number of reasons, but mostly owing to the convenience factor, my spouse chose another fitness center. On a few occasions though, we found ourselves driving past the new Y as it was under construction. It was clear this was going to put that old Y to shame.

Fast forward about 18 months and the new Y has been open for business for a short while now. Guess what? They built it and boy, did they ever come. According to a report in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the new Haverford Y quickly became the fastest growing YMCA in the United States:

With more than 20,500 members, it has become so popular that as cars pull into the expansive parking lot, attendants with flags direct them to the few available spaces…the Haverford Y’s membership numbers have far exceeded expectations and surpassed those of Philadelphia Freedom Valley YMCA’s 16 other branches.

Yes, the new building is attractive. Its brand new equipment offers the latest technology. There are three swimming pools so you can always find a lane. It is easily accessed from a major road in a densely populated community. So newness, location and demographics are in the new Y’s favor. But the planners have also designed the experience in a way to attract singles, families and senior citizens. They offer something that appeals to everyone in the community. Administrators at the regional headquarters of the YMCA, seeing the success of the Haverford Y, are encouraged that building similar or even better facilities will get people off their couches and into their neighborhood YMCA.

No doubt all of us in libraryland would be eager to replicate the success of the new Y, but few of us will have such an opportunity in our careers. For the majority who must work with the library they have, it is critical to make the design choices that will provide community members with the best possible library they deserve. When our facilities create barriers that work against this goal, we must work at understanding the needs and expectations of community members, and doing our best to exceed them. It’s unlikely the result will increase usage three or four times beyond what it is now, but with hard work and persistence we can make it a much better experience for our current users – and if each of them tells just one other person about their great library experience it can make a difference.

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