How to Design an Academic Library

a wealth of data and analysis for colleges to update their library

“What a school thinks about its library is a measure of what it feels about education.”
― Harold Howe

No longer simply a place for books, academic research, and quiet study, the 21st century academic library is now a social destination, home for teaching and learning, a place of research, and an incubator for bringing ideas to life.

“A university is just a group of buildings gathered around a library.”
― Shelby Foote

Book box, archive, student hub, campus nexus, quiet study area, collaboration space, classroom – today’s academic libraries support students in a myriad of ways. It is a place for people with information in it, not the other way around. With so many potential uses, how do you know how to program and design the right library for your campus?

Consult the Library of Libraries

Jones’ academic library database encompasses more than 85 institutions throughout New England and beyond. The information we have gathered includes general contextual information like campus size, character, makeup and program trends, including detailed seat count and type analyses as well as information about space utilization.

We bring this data to bear on the design and planning recommendations that we make for university clients by identifying their peer group and drawing comparisons. This, however, is just the beginning.

Each institution is unique, of course, so we use this peer assessment as a benchmarking tool and launch point for asking questions about why, how and what the specific needs will be as it relates to your institution.

For example, types of questions include:

1. How distributed are the study options for your students? (some campuses have many, distributed opportunities on campus that offer alternatives for students, others rely heavily on the library --- this will skew seat count).

2. Are there programs not currently housed in the library that have existing programmatic synergy? Would they benefit from colocation?

3. Are there unique aspects to your school that may skew our analysis? For example, at one liberal arts college it is practice to provide a carrel to each senior for their thesis, which leads to an inordinate number of carrel seats.

This balanced approach, in which we bolster anecdotal information and observations with empirical evidence and analysis of peer institutions, resonates with constituents: librarians, trustees, administrators, faculty and students.

Inside Today's Academic Libraries

Libraries are active sites of social engagement, discovery, and knowledge sharing and creation.

These are the key uses driving design now.

Digital Scholarship. We live in a multi-media world, which means campus libraries need to support students’ ability to explore, learn, and produce digital content. Faculty also uses the library to produce content for MOOCs.

Makerspaces have taken on many forms; at their best, they are more than just space and equipment, programmed creatively and appropriately staffed. Great makerspaces offer layers of access—visibility from corridor to activity within; a tinkering table that allows for drop-in, low commitment play for anyone; and deeper, more time-consuming fabrication capacity accessible to more experienced users.

Classrooms are increasingly finding their way into libraries. These versatile spaces accommodate shifts from dialogic to didactic pedagogical modes, and can function as open study space, event venues, or collaborative work environments when not in use as a classroom. Faculty and students alike enjoy access during the extended hours of
operation of the library, which is in contrast to traditional classroom building hours. They are also heavily used by library staff for training purposes and for testing new technologies.

Social Spaces. We know that learning happens everywhere and spaces that promote social interaction strengthen student relationships and sense of community, while facilitating collaboration and the exchange of ideas. As such, we see cafes, lounges, laptop bars, and other in-between spaces as essential to libraries.

Inclusive Approach

For any college considering major changes to its library, these eight recommendations will help set the team up for success.

1 – Lean on all constituents

Throughout the process, we lean on key collaborators. The building committee and library staff typically have a vision of revitalized place of research, learning, study, and socialization that cannot be realized in full without their input. Registrars play a role in evaluating classroom typologies available on campus and where gaps existed, as well as utilization rates. The student body is active in the process, in terms of early surveys, and participating in town hall and design meetings – they are also critical in providing post-occupancy feedback. We expect University planners, facilities teams and administration to push our design team to validate our recommendations with our peer review and benchmark data – we come prepared.

2 – Survey, survey, survey

The value of surveys cannot be overestimated. To get well-rounded representation, we canvas all of the populations that will be served (faculty, student, staff, and administration). Questions are subjected to trial runs and need to be asked in specific ways. For example, we don’t ask people to rate the importance of twenty-five projects. Rather, we may ask them to spend $100 on twenty-five projects. This way you they are forced to create priorities and we can clearly see what rises to the top.

3 – Build time in for technology testing and training

Don’t skimp on the schedule for installing, testing, commissioning, training, and troubleshooting—all of which needs to happen in a dust-free setting after construction is complete. Faculty cannot expect to walk into a high-tech active learning classroom on day one and hit the ground running; they need training!

4 – Pay attention to seat types and allocation

You can have as many seats in a library as there are undergraduates (although that would be a stretch!) but if the blend of seat types is misaligned with student expectations, they will not be used. A diverse blend of seat types is important. It is equally important to zone and distribute these within the building. A mezzanine should not be all a single seat type —all open tables, for example. Provide a diverse blend of seat types, distributed in a diverse manner, but clearly zoned within the building.

5 – Support social learning

The concept of “see and be seen” so often leveraged in campus centers and other student life settings has made the leap to libraries. What we refer to as “social learning,” or groups of students sitting together, with multiple devices, working on discrete projects, is dominating library space. So much of this generation is about group work, as well as being “alone together.” That is being reflected in the space, furniture, and amenities.

“Bad libraries build collections. Good libraries build services. Great libraries build communities.”
― R David Lankes

6 – Make room for silence

The pendulum has swung about as far as it can toward group work, collaborative study, and social learning. Most libraries retain quiet study floors intermingled with stack space despite the move away from solitary work. More recently, we have started incorporating quiet study rooms, often nested within more open floor plates composed of group work areas.

Despite the shift toward social spaces, libraries are not student centers. They are serious places of research and learning. Research and learning can be open, loud, and collaborative, but it cannot all be that way. Quiet (or silent!) spaces persist for good reason.

7– Create versatile spaces

The pace of technology change and the behavioral shifts it drives means that versatile spaces, easily adaptable from one mode to another while maintaining their intrinsic character, are instrumental to the future viability of the library.

8 – Invest in strategic partnerships

With collections increasingly available digitally, floor space for seating, collaborative work areas, and new “tenants” opens up. In the past decade, as programmatic diversity has exploded, libraries have forged new alliances and partnerships that add vitality to the library, create opportunities for new synergies, and increase the gate count. An explosion of partner programs has emerged within libraries – writing centers, centers for teaching and learning, tutoring centers, language labs, career centers, counseling centers, media centers, general use classrooms, among others --- all pointed toward student-scholar success.

The Jones Architecture Library of Academic Libraries

Approximately half the libraries in our database date from the last decade, and the balance from before that time. This 10-year window gives us a good inflection point that we use to understand current and established trends in library design and planning. Although concentrated in New England, the spectrum of academic libraries that we survey spans the country. Jones’ “library library” captures information ranging from hours of operation, volumes, periodicals, vintage or renovation history to detailed notes on partner programs. Key components include:

People. Our survey spans colleges and universities whose undergraduate FTE populations range from 1,500 to more than 40,000, with an average around 6,000.

Culture. Our survey includes small liberal arts colleges, private schools, public schools, major land grant universities, and military institutions. Each institution has a specific character and sense of place, and it is this rich diversity that can support the vast spectrum of student personalities that populate the American academic landscape. This cultural diversity can drive differentiation and unique conditions within the library that are best captured anecdotally. This is precisely why our methodology is to visit each campus in person so we can witness these conditions firsthand.

Seat Count. A critical benchmark for guiding our design process, we survey the total seat count in the library and evaluate that against the undergraduate FTE population.

Seat Type. More important than simple quantity, the blend of seat types is critical. For example, five hundred seats, 80% of which are study carrels, create a particular character for the library. To that end, we track seven seat types: carrels, desks, workstations, soft seating, open table, group study, and instruction. Shifts in this blend have occurred over the past 20 years. The trend toward more group study, soft seating, and instruction space is now well established, having moved away from carrels, desks, and workstations. Open table study (the classic “reading room” environment) remains a persistent model.

Service Point Administration. Existing library service points were historically distributed --- reference desk, circulation desk, and other specialty functions arrayed around the main floor and entry. Increasingly, we are seeing “super-desks” where the first point of contact for library patrons can answer 90% of the questions that may arise. This cross-trained point person can re-direct more specialized questions to the right librarian as needed. Not only a more efficient staffing model, it also gives clarity to patrons as they go to one place for everything.

On the Horizon

Each institution we work with is unique, and their libraries cleave to the culture of the place. Our database provides a basis of comparison to peer institutions but is not a formula for success on its own. The alignment of the character and needs of an institution with what we are seeing in the marketplace requires judgment, deep discussion, and iteration after iteration. Some things we see shifting in this landscape include: a subtle swing back toward quiet study, new strategic partnerships that broaden resources for faculty and students, a variety of collaborative work environments, digital scholarship opportunities, and development of “sandbox” teaching environments for use by librarians and faculty.


Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) Book Chapter “Leveraging Research to Guide Fundamental Changes in Learning: A Case Study at Kreitzberg Library, Norwich University,” Chapter 13 in Academic Libraries and the Academy: Strategies and Approaches to Demonstrate Your Value, Impact, and Return on Investment, (Britto, Marwin and Kirsten Kinsley; Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries, 2018).