Designing a Public Library For and With Families

Apr 3 2018

This post looks at how design influences families’ ability to work together in the library. Learn strategies for re-envisioning library spaces from architect Jeffrey Hoover.

When three generations of the same family turned out for a series of community meetings on the future of the Fairfield Area Library in Henrico, Virginia, architect Jeffrey Hoover, of Tappe Architects Inc., knew he had a design challenge on his hands.

The grandmother, specifically, was struggling to find a good spot in the existing building to help her grandson with his homework. Typically, seniors and children split off into different directions in libraries, and most spaces don’t accommodate what he calls “family computing,” a type of co-learning process that is growing, as parents and librarians develop a stronger understanding of their roles as “media mentors.”


Design for Fairfield Area Library, Jeffrey Hoover

These were themes Hoover continued to hear as part of his process of seeking community input regarding the architectural designs for the new branch. He wanted to learn about adults’ and children’s goals for the space “before the first pencil hit the paper.” In addition to the community meetings, he talked with parents of young children as they were leaving story time and met with older students at school.

Hoover’s solution was to put the children’s section and the teen’s section of the library on the same level, upstairs, and to situate an open “family collaborative zone” that can accommodate families between the two spaces.

“This makes it easier for families with children of various ages to keep track of activities, and more apparent that spaces for other adults should be elsewhere, downstairs,” says Barbara Weedman, assistant library director for the Henrico County Library System.

With small study rooms, the new design provides children and youth quiet space to do homework or meet with a tutor while still offering “plentiful activity space for energetic teens,” she adds. Nursing mothers will be able to find privacy, and those with busy toddlers will find colorful, playful décor with cozy places for reading. 

An “architectural response” to families’ needs

For years, libraries have been adding materials or making minor modifications to better accommodate programs and services that involve both children and adults, such as maker spaces. But until recently, there really hasn’t been an “architectural response” to the changing ways that families are interacting in the library and in other public spaces, Hoover says.

The Global Family Research Project’s “Framework to Support Family Engagement in Children’s Learning Through Libraries,” presented in both the IDEABOOK and the new Living IDEABOOK, includes physical spaces as one of the elements of support services that libraries use to encourage family engagement.

A recent report by 8 80 Cities, a nonprofit organization, and the Bernard van Leer Foundation also highlighted how the needs of families and caregivers with young children, as well as those of pregnant women, are now being considered in city planning. “Age-friendly and child-friendly designations are of growing interest globally,” the authors write. The report includes 21 case studies highlighting promising examples, such as “Brain Building Zones” in the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles locations and Growing Up Boulder, which sought input from preschoolers and parents in redeveloping areas around the Boulder, Colorado, civic center.


Fairfield Area Library, Henrico VA

Setting up library spaces for the “best experience”

Working with Richmond-based partner firm BCWH Architects, Hoover still has a few details to work out in designing the Fairfield Area Library, which is about a year away from completion. One issue is what type of furniture to choose that will work in this space designed for families. Most likely, he says, the library will provide a variety of sizes of seating, also recognizing that children tend to prefer reading on the floor or on soft cushions. One strategy he recommends is to gradually introduce new furniture into the old library so patrons can “test-drive” it, administrators can learn what children and adults prefer, and the seating will already feel familiar and comfortable when the new building opens.

Another challenge is to consider the requirements of adults who might need to use a computer to complete a résumé or a job application while also keeping an eye on their children and trying not to disturb others who are working. The new family-computing area will address these concerns. “The idea is to help keep these families together and allow the parents and caregivers to get what they need to get done on the computers, while babies and toddlers can read and play,” Weedman says.

The new design will also allow the Fairfield library to introduce additional family-oriented services, such as the “One Button Studio,” where users will be able to create multimedia audio/visual content for school projects, as well as a versatile classroom space—that opens to the outdoors—for demonstrations and “life skills” activities such as crafting, gardening, and small-machine repair.

The new design definitely features “some new flourishes and improvements for family engagement,” Weedman says. “We want families to have the best experience possible while they are in our libraries.”


Fairfield Area Library, Henrico VA