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Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners Resource Guide Collection

MPLCP Library Building Programs: Wayfinding

You can't get there from here

In the field of architecture, the word wayfinding refers to how people orient themselves and find their way around a building. One of the primary ways designers helped people with this in the past was the use of standard building type conventions. A hundred years ago, almost every public library was organized the same way. A new patron could immediately locate what they wanted, because the layout and organization of every library was similar.

Now, many designers want their work to be unique and memorable (therefore unconventional). The visual and organizational cues used to guide people are not always intuitive. In The Library Renovation, Maintenance, and Construction Handbook, Barclay & Scott state:

It is too late to undo 60-some years of uncoordinated library architecture in order to impose conventions that would make any given library space as familiar -- and, therefore, as usable -- as the average shopping mall or supermarket. What libraries can do, though, is employ the tools of wayfinding to make library buildings as intuitive to navigate as they can possibly be. Designing a new building is, of course, the ideal opportunity to consider wayfinding issues and devise clever, even elegant, solutions for allowing library users to successfully navigate spaces and collections. For existing buldings, remodeling and renovation projects provide great opportunities to remediate wayfinding problems that tend to become increasingly worse as a building grows more crowded and as existing spaces are repurposed for uses and collections nobody could have imagined back when the building was first on the drawing board.

The most common wayfinding tools include design, color, and signage. Your architect, your interior designer and your signage designer should all work together to create a simple, easily understandable navigation system.

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign

One of the most undervalued and misunderstood systems in a library is the signage system. When original signs fail to dispel confusion, staff often add more and more printed or even handwritten signs, scotch-taping them to walls, equipment, and even other signs. The resulting chaos becomes wallpaper to the eye and is almost never effective.

A good signage system requires careful thought and organization, along with a deep knowledge of the building and the people who use it. Library administrative and front-line staff must work with signage designers to create an effective and attractive scheme.