Space Planning: Elmhurst’s Experience

by Mary Beth Harper, Director, Elmhurst Public Library

One of my favorite things to do is walk around the Library and see how people are using it.  On any given day, I’ll see the obvious: reading, studying, working, and browsing.  But what I’m also seeing regularly are people having meetings, either formally (in meeting and study rooms) or informally (sitting in the café and using the Kids’ area to meet with other moms while kids play nearby).  There are also people who meet for a weekly game of chess or dominos.  Then there are the creative groups who knit together or quilt.  It’s very inspiring to see all the different ways patrons use and embrace their library.

This brings us to the issue of space planning and meeting the ever-changing needs of our patrons.  Elmhurst Public Library renovated the Adult Services Department about a year and a half ago.  There were several issues that we were attempting to solve by reconfiguring. Those issues included:  providing patrons with more study rooms or small group meeting rooms to meet increasing demand, giving the teens a separate space, increasing face-out shelving for a better browsing experience, and providing more seating for both work and relaxation.  We also felt it was important to add digital media labs because they are no longer novel spaces in libraries but have become the norm.  It was amazing to see how quickly patrons took to using the new spaces.  We thought we might be educating our patrons about digital media labs because media labs were truly the only “new” service that was added.  The other spaces were extensions of what we already had.  But alas, our patrons proved once again that they are agile and open to new and exciting services.  People are using the labs, on average, 120 times a month for a myriad of reasons.

The planning and construction phase of the renovation went fairly smoothly.  Like anything else in life, nothing is perfect but our staff and patrons adjusted well to dust, noise, and altered spaces.  Communication is key to keeping both groups informed.  Information helps reduce confusion while generating excitement.  Providing talking points and informational bookmarks for staff helped them to pass the good news on to patrons.  Being able to explain why we were doing what we were doing was very important.  When you can provide your patrons and staff with clear reasons as to why you are renovating, and talk about how the new spaces are going to benefit them, it’s hard for people to object.

I’m happy to say that the Adult Services Department renovation was a major success and we are moving on to other areas of the Library. We are currently installing a 3500 square foot makerspace in the basement.  This project has been the most thrilling of my career thus far.  Staff is so enthusiastic about this creative/crafting/tinkering space and patrons have been inquiring regularly as to the progress. Whenever I talk to someone about the makerspace their eyes light up and they get that “wow” look on their face.  Based on checkout statistics and program attendance, we know that our community is embracing the DIY movement and when we tell them that they will have access to expensive creative technology in a community space, they are thrilled.  The Makery is scheduled to open in springtime and we won’t have any trouble staffing the space.  It should be a fun place to work.  I also predict that our patrons are going to love the Makery.

For the children’s librarians reading this and asking, “What about the kids?”: Do not worry, we are working with architects right now on space planning for the Kids’ Department.  Again, because of changing usage patterns and increasing demand, we need to provide a larger play literacy area, a more dedicated middle school space, and more seating to accommodate all the kids and parents who regularly flood our Kids’ Library.  These are good problems to have and we are happy that we need to renovate because of usage.  Whoever says that libraries are a thing of the past, hasn’t visited the Elmhurst Public Library.  I’m sure the same is true at your library. Libraries continue to embrace change as it relates to the needs of their communities making them essential spaces in today’s world.

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