The Three Cs of Furniture Design: Congregate, Communicate, Collaborate
Since the library is no longer only a quiet place to read or do research, library furniture has been changing its shape, size, and its ability to reconfigure for new and different tasks. A library might be used for individual study during the day and then open seating for a town meeting in the evening. The library areas of the past were designed for individuals isolated from the view of others and a place that provided its users visual and audible privacy and kept them from distractions outside of the space created within the furniture. Rooms were single use; a reading room, a study area, etc. There is still thought given to grouping areas that function as Quiet Zones or public/common areas more suited for music, speakers, or story times more suited to a noise level associated with large groups.
As computer use continued to increase, computers took up more space in public libraries. This coupled with growth of media "other then books" (DVDs, CDs and audio books) and the shelving for book storage left little area for tables except in study/meeting rooms.
As collaborative projects became more common, tables became larger and, in some cases, groupings of smaller tables were used for ease of reconfiguration. Tables come in all shapes, sizes, "looks", and material combinations. Some are able to accommodate cords, both electrical and data while other table designs don't readily allow cords to pass through them. Cables are sometimes passed through the legs of the table, managed by troughs or bundled to stay neatly tucked under a work surface or along the back of the table depending on the design. There are companies that supply cable management products to manufacturers as well as items that can be bought separate from the furniture. Some cable trays are open, allowing visibility and access to the cables, while others are closed and must be pulled away from the connection in the furniture to change the bundling.
The first thing to consider is how the table is used most of the time. Is it used for study or should it contain convenience outlets for electrical/data cords? How many people will need to use the furniture? Is it an area that requires privacy or will it be used for group study as well? In a training situation does the method of instruction lend itself to a standard classroom or are less traditional instructional methods used? Does each seating position require a modesty panel?
Understanding possible uses will determine the size and shape that best fits the use. Sometimes triangular wedge tables are used rather than the more common rectangular tables. Amoeba shapes began to appear as they allowed many to gather around a table and have easier access to each other. Library furniture manufacturers weren't providing the variety of options that office furniture did and so library designers began to use more commercial office furniture than in the past.
Evaluate library furniture on the basis of cost per space for each person, how easily the system can be reconfigured, as well as how functional the tables are if they are used individually. When tables are separated from the group, it may not be a functional option since people have different styles of working. Some people use minimal paper and space while others need horizontal surfaces available to spread out their papers. Being one of those people that are paper-oriented I am always looking for more workspace.
If the table will have electrical or data cords, how will they connect from the machine to the outlet? Is it on the surface or above the work surface for the user's convenience or placed below the work surface where staffers are the only ones that will have access? In computer commons areas do the cords drop out of sight? There are two reasons that cord management is important. One is an issue of safety to the users; so they won't get caught up in the wires and pulls them away from their connections. The other is visual; whenever you see cords it makes for a less visually impressive space.
Whatever shape the furniture takes in a library of the future, you can count on an increasing ergonomically designed workspace with more options and comfort for the users and staff.
Tish Murphy, Library Furniture Consultant and Author of Library Furnishings; A Planning Guide lives in Phoenix, Arizona. www.libraryfurnishings.com
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