Libraries as Public Spaces 

The Public Library as space has been in the news a lot lately. That fact has led me to think about how we view the spaces in our libraries, which are always evolving to meet the needs of their community. At one point we could comfortably say that we were all about collections. We connected people to the leisure materials they sought, or to the information they required.

Then we added technology, believing that we were the right institution to provide free access to computers and internet. That in turn morphed into an increase in technical help to the public on their devices and an on-line presence, including downloadable products. While some people choose to use the “virtual” library exclusively, others depend on us supporting the bricks and mortar of our buildings. For twenty years the OLA has been giving out Building Awards to recognize libraries as place.

Because the Haliburton County Public Library has built three new buildings in the past seven years there is a lot of pressure from the funders to make these buildings justify their worth. Though there is a correlation between how many people walk through the door and how much material we circulate, we also view the space as part of our service. That service could be the traditional meeting space, but also can be cool down space in the summer, and warm up space in the winter.


Using Space Differently

Although the majority of our programming is book based, we have started to introduce low staff-involvement programming that simply encourages the use of our space. We now have several active Lego clubs that get accompanied by adult Coffee and Colouring so that young and old are free to gather.  We believe that by encouraging families to come to the Library together, they will benefit in many ways, including finding other interesting things to see and do that make their time there well-spent.

During the Olympics we live-streamed some of the key events as not everyone in our community has access to TV or Broadband. Sometimes people with access just want to watch with other people. It truly does make a hockey win sweeter when you can share it with others. In rural communities isolation is a huge problem and having spaces to gather is essential for mental health. Our programming attempts to be diverse enough to appeal to everyone just to give them an excuse to come into our buildings. I am certain that our Shakespeare Club is just a front for discussing the conditions of the local golf courses, but we are alright with that.

Design thinking, or defining the right problem to solve, encourages use of space in such a way that you reduce confusion for your users. We have recently made most of our bathrooms unisex. We did this for a few reasons, but the most convincing one is to make our spaces more LGBTQ+ welcoming. Why create barriers to using the Library space when we can simply rethink our signage? We want our Libraries to be as safe and welcoming a space for as many people as possible.

Space, Noise, and Respect

One of our biggest complaints is noise, which is usually coming from children participating in their programs.  Although we understand that enthusiastic children can be loud and distracting for some Library patrons, we do not want to dissuade children from having fun using the library or to stop programming. We are going to try something this summer where we place a sandwich board at our entrance indicating the time when the programming might become boisterous so that those who want to avoid it can.

What we can never avoid is people with special needs and we do not want to. Unfortunately we had an incident last year where a young man with autism was chastised, not by staff, but by a member of the public because he was noisy. His sister who was with him that day said to the local paper:

“I think that it is important to build a community and for us all to be respectful and accepting of each other. I just want more awareness that people have different needs and people are going to behave differently from each other and it doesn’t mean that one person deserves to be at a library more than another.”

This quote exemplifies how we see the role of library space and reminds us why we work hard to balance the needs of all people who use our buildings.

Bessie Sullivan is the CEO of the Haliburton County Public Library. She can be reached at bsullivan [at] Trees and Forests is a column about library issues and ideas.

Expanding library boundaries: OCULA Spring Conference

The 2016 OCULA Spring Conference is just around the corner! As lead planner for this year’s event (along with co-planners Fiona Inglis and Chris Landry), I am pleased to provide a sneak peak at the exciting day we have in store:

Creating Space: Expanding the Physical, Digital, and Mental Boundaries of the Academic Library

This year’s theme spotlights innovative uses of library space, drawing inspiration from individuals and organizations working to re-organize, re-imagine, and re-define space for an increasingly crowded world.

Space is a flexible concept for libraries, capable of describing everything from the tiniest gap on the shelf to the virtually endless expanse of the web.  It’s also a term we use metaphorically to describe the mental or emotional space necessary to manage stress and achieve a productive work/life balance.

Instead of trying to pin down one definitive description, this conference intends to explore space from a variety of different perspectives: surveying its boundaries, plumbing its depths and coming to a more holistic understanding of library space by examining its component parts.


We are thrilled to have Jutta Treviranus as our keynote speaker.

Jutta Treviranus

Jutta Treviranus

As the founder and Director of the Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCAD University, Jutta has led a number of influential projects addressing the inclusivity and accessibility of digital spaces.  As our user-base diversifies and our presence in virtual space increases, Ontario’s academic libraries will benefit from keeping the experiences and ideas of experts such as Jutta in the front of our minds.

The conference will also feature an impressive line-up of Lightning Talk presenters.  Learn how your colleagues around the province are engaging with library space: 7 minutes…Go!


This year’s speakers won’t be the only ones exploring the concept of space.  We have a number of engaging activities planned that will give all attendees an opportunity to participate.

Physical Space – Employ teamwork, problem solving, and design skills to complete a series of fun and challenging tasks aimed at increasing your awareness of physical space.

Digital Space – Take inspiration from the awesome technology available from the OLITA Tech Lending Library and propose some new digital spaces to solve old library problems.

Mental Space – Wrap up the day with a short, meditative exercise that will put you in the right headspace to tackle any workplace challenges that come your way!


We can’t think of a more appropriate venue to host a conference celebrating space than the Inn on the Twenty in Jordan, ON.  Featuring a beautiful conference room with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the scenic Jordan Valley, the Inn on the Twenty exemplifies the inspiration and creativity that can be drawn from a striking physical space.

Dining room at Inn on the Twenty

The dining room at Inn on the Twenty

And make sure you arrive with plenty of space in your belly.  The Inn’s delicious lunch service is sure to have you going back for seconds.

For carpooling opportunities, please add your information here.

The OCULA Spring Conference takes place Friday, April 29 at the Inn on the Twenty in Jordan, ON.  Visit the conference website for full schedule and details. Space is limited, so register today. And be sure to use the conference hashtag, #OCULA2016.

Jack Young is Digital Projects Librarian at McMaster’s Health Sciences Library. Jack’s work includes research support, e-learning, impact metrics, and staff training and development.  He is a councillor-at-large on OCULA council and is the lead planner of the 2016 OCULA Spring Conference.  Jack can be reached at jkyoung[at]   

Colin Ellard & the Meanings of Space

Colin Ellard is a professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo. His obsession is space … how we navigate through it and make sense of it.

Colin Ellard

Colin Ellard

“I’m fascinated by the many ways that the settings of our lives affect how we think and feel. The stories of our lives can be told using maps—maps of migrations, travel adventures, old neighbourhoods, the insides of our homes, and our social networks. Our relationships with space and place reach into every corner of our lives from the mundane (how do we find our way to the grocery store?) to the sublime (what is it about the space inside a large cathedral that takes our breath away?).”

Ellard was the keynote speaker at the 2015 OLA Annual Institute for the Library as Place. I interviewed him just before he spoke.


Michael Ridley is the Editor-in-Chief of Open Shelf. He is a Librarian and Instructor (First Year Seminar program) at the University of Guelph.


The Language of Space

The spaces in libraries speak; they speak much louder and more consistently than our policies, signs, or staff can, and they always speak in the very specific language of the context in which they find themselves.

Our values and expectations are embedded in our spaces, as are our examined and unexamined assumptions. Understanding how to use space to communicate lets us better express what that space is for, and is the key to helping patrons understand what it is they can do inside a library.

When you see computers in libraries, the vast majority of the time you’re looking at rows of workstations. Partly this is so because it’s efficient. Rows of outlets, rows of cables, wide aisles for accessibility purposes; it’s all very orderly. The computer lab is an early and easy model that works to provide clear access to digital tools and materials. Put computers in an neat and tidy bank, and patrons can scan the room for an empty seat. It made sense for a long time, particularly when libraries were one of the few places where patrons could use computers for free. Things have changed, but our room layouts, largely, have not.

Workstations dictate a particular kind of intellectual labour: individual, independent, typing-based, and quiet. With our furniture and technology, we have framed digital interaction as solitary, and have re-created that solitary experience almost everywhere computers go. One keyboard, one chair, one mouse. Carrels with barriers on three sides. A shallow table with enough room for a keyboard, a monitor, an open textbook, and a set of typing hands. These things reinforce the notion that digital materials are meant to be accessed in private, by a single person at a time.

In the “library without walls” we can access information from anywhere all by ourselves, and the solitary structure of private workstations reinforces and reifies that independence. It’s as if we’re saying that that’s what’s legitimate information gathering and interpretation needs to look like.

We no longer need to define computing this way. Doing so is holding us back.

With the rapidly declining price of computing, and the explosion of smart phones and tablets, technology has come to play a radically different role in the lives of our patrons. Our spaces need to reflect this new reality. Every time we add another row of workstations, we are saying three things:

this is not the place where you can work with a partner or a group, keep your head down and work quietly, and we’d prefer it if you’d use our computers, not your own.

This generally isn’t what anyone in libraries means to say, but that’s what the furniture says. It’s what the single mouse, the centered keyboard, the single chair, and the walled carrel say.

UTM Students

UTM Students

What can you do to make space speak to your openness to conversations, sharing and puzzling over materials with classmates, the use of personal devices, and to ongoing collaboration? How can you make spaces designed to be consultative and collaborative, making the latest tools available to patrons, and where staff can help and patrons in a comfortable and organic way? As we approach full digital saturation in our lives, we are finally as a point where we can stop stuffing rooms with monitors and keyboards in order to simply make digital material available.

We can make room for people again.

We can bring back roomy tables that let patrons spread out. In spaces where staff help is required, we can make the tables higher so that staff don’t have to crouch over to engage with patrons. With a good wifi signal, chairs on casters, and power for laptops and phones, you’ve created an information commons more flexible and more personalized than any we’ve created so far. The screens and keyboards, if required, come in with the patron now.

At the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM) Library, we have twice as many devices on our wifi network than we have bodies in the building. Our patron’s laptops, tablets, and phones are all part of our ecosystem. We can encourage their good use by accepting them, making room for them, and making it plain that we do.

When we bring install computers in library spaces, we need to do so in ways that visually implies how we mean them to be used.

Adding a large monitor to one side of a table naturally breaks the workstation model and creates a unique collaborative space for groups. This is an experimental space at the UTM Library designed primarily for instructional technology staff to consult with faculty. We found that pushing the screen back and making it shared with wireless keyboards kept us from seizing control from our patrons seeking help, and instead turned the experience into a collaborative one with shared control. These spaces have been embraced by groups of studying students. Digital material is a natural part of the process, but doesn’t dominate. It merely adds to the toolset available. This layout uses the pieces of the workstation, but bends them out of shape. The important part of this study group is the students, not the screen.

Computers can take on pretty much any shape and size, depending on what we need them to do, and what kind of message we want them to project. Rather than think of computing as empty devices devoid of inherent meaning, we need to let the form we choose match our expectations of our patrons and our specific needs. If computers are meant to be public portals to things like a library catalogue, there are plenty of examples of devices that meet that need, but fit more seamlessly into a physical environment than keyboard-driven workstations do.

Square One Mall & Marks and Spencers

Square One Mall & Marks and Spencers

Touch screens are cropping up everywhere. Because they don’t have keyboards, they don’t automatically read as computers at all, and they don’t clearly belong to whoever is holding a mouse. Many libraries add keyboards to their new touchscreens on the off-chance that a patron might prefer it; there is kindness behind the impulse, but the presence of a keyboard breaks the language of the device is trying to speak and sends it right back into workstation territory.

Museum of London

Museum of London

A flashy alternative is beaming digital material onto surfaces using an interactive projector. This removes keyboards and monitors altogether, letting digital material literally become part of the furniture. Spaces like these are so far removed from a standard workstation that the embedded rules of computing no longer apply. Groups of people easily approach them, and interact with them as a group. And no one reaches for a mouse.

While computing devices become increasingly ubiquitous, it may seem counter-intuitive to suggest that we need fewer screens in libraries. But it’s not fewer screens at all. It’s actually far more. But they will be more varied, more personalized, more tailored to the tasks at hand, more sensitive to the variety of patron needs and to the modes in which digital material exists, and there will be a different one in every pocket. But we will cease owning and controlling all of them. Relying on patron-owned devices presents us with an opportunity to provide new computing spaces that aren’t found anywhere else, that are shaped to support new ways of integrating technology into learning and sharing, and help seamlessly foster collaborative activities.

A well-shaped space that meets the needs of patrons says what every library wants to say: we understand, and we’re here to help.

Rochelle Mazar is the Emerging Technologies librarian at the University of Toronto Mississauga, with an academic background in history and theological studies, and an interest in all things collaborative, digital, and disruptive. Contact her at rochelle [at]