Designing Libraries with Atmospheric Design

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Libraries, despite their differences in shape, size, and design, all share one similarity — they are keepers of books. They are homes to Dickens and Melville, Einstein and Hawking, Rowling and Avi. They instill wisdom in their readers with their plethora of resources. They nurture readers' souls, allowing them to escape into fictional worlds. But while libraries, with their stacks of books, resource desks, and maze-like aisles, provide readers with information, they also provide an atmosphere, whether bland or exciting. And it is through ''atmospheric design'' that designers help transform libraries from mere repositories of books into delightful literary retreats.

For centuries, libraries have held records, archiving histories full of facts and dates. Private libraries began in the 5th century BC and contained both fiction and non-fiction books. But while most libraries were closed to the public, the Library of Alexandria opened its doors to the “educated” few who wished to peruse its scrolls and materials.

Libraries in the Roman Empire were much more public. These libraries, which contained both a Latin room and a Greek room, were built by various emperors in bids to outdo their predecessors and were created as cultural centers, often times built alongside a popular Roman bath.

But it was in 19th-century England that public libraries first became especially prominent. Soon after those first English public libraries were founded, the New York Public Library opened in 1849, the Bacon Free Library opened in 1881, and the Williams Free Library opened in 1884.

Today, libraries have retained their original purpose — to provide their patrons with information. But what about atmosphere? What does it take to turn a stodgy room of books into an inviting one? There are several design elements involved in creating an inviting library. And according to an article by Chris Rippel of the Central Kansas Library System, libraries could (and should) take notes from their cousin: the bookstore. Read on to learn more.

Creating Atmosphere

Bookstores invite readers in and keep them there for hours. How? Besides offering books, bookstores cater to patrons’ senses: there are the smells (and tastes) of coffee and sweets, jazz music playing in the background, and warm lights that make browsing easy and enjoyable. All of these things create an atmosphere, a relaxed and inviting place. Suddenly, you’re almost…home. And you’d like to stay a while. How then, can libraries create an equally inviting setting for their patrons?


Many libraries smell musty due to old books. To help create a better atmosphere, one in which patrons won’t be deterred from checking out books, try setting cinnamon sticks in vases or potpourri in baskets. One suggestion for librarians: to combat the musty smell of old books, refuse to accept books that smell.


Libraries pride themselves on their quiet surroundings; however, playing music during off-hours or before events can help create an enjoyable atmosphere. According to Rippel, music can “enliven the waiting period before programs start.” The South Branch Library of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library system plays Latino music during its off-hours. Before a reading or presentation, try playing soft music that won’t disturb readers but that will excite patrons waiting for the program to begin.


Rippel suggests that designers “consider variation[s] in brightness. Circulation, reference, and stacks need bright, even lighting. Lower, general lighting, however, is useful for highlighting certain areas.” Other suggestions include small, warmly lit lamps on tables where readers can relax with a book. Highlight book displays with spotlights. This will invite readers to look at displays and perhaps discover books they wouldn’t have normally noticed.

Store Design

The layout of bookstores directs customers from one side of the store to the other without confusion. Bookstores use aisles, or power aisles, to guide readers from section to section throughout the store.

In one bookstore, one power aisle leads customers from the right of the store to the left of the store, while the other leads them from the front of the store to the back. Along each power aisle, displays are created, introducing readers to best selling novels, books that have become movies, and so forth. Libraries, by taking advantage of this system, could help better direct readers to different sections, especially less trafficked ones. And with displays, libraries could also better inform readers of what’s new and what’s popular.

Book Displays

The better the displays, the more traffic the books will receive. When Sharon Baker, who wrote Why Book Displays Increase Use: A Review of Causal Factors, created a book display experiment in three different libraries, she discovered that displays need to be in areas of high traffic. “Books on display near the front desk [were] checked out 300% to 1000% more frequently than books on the shelf,” she writes. “Books displayed at the rear of the fiction stacks [were] checked out, at best, 60% more than books on shelves. Displays on window sills and other isolated areas in the library are a waste of time.”

Try being creative with your book displays. Have colorful signs, have themes — if a book has been turned into a movie, capitalize on that. In the children’s section, display books on animals or create an “If you liked Harry Potter, you’ll love…” display. Display appropriate books when holidays arrive: Christmas books, Valentine’s Day books, Halloween books, etc.

Ultimately, libraries, if designed well, should not only be places where readers seek information, but places where readers can relax, feel comfortable, and discover new ideas and books. By designing libraries with atmosphere in mind, library designers will soon give bookstores the competition they deserve.
On the net:Central Kansas Library System

The British Library

Toledo-Lucas County Public Library
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