Swooning over signage at the Medfield Public Library

It is a truth universally acknowledged that meetings are (a) boring, and (b) a waste of time. But! That is only true of poorly run and/or unnecessary meetings. I’m lucky that my presence is required at relatively few meetings on a regular basis: my department meets monthly (and we start off with a “lightning round” for everyone to share what they’re reading/watching/listening to), the network committee I’ve been on for the past four years meets quarterly, and those have been my only regularly scheduled meetings.

Now that my tenure on the network committee has come to an end, I’ve joined a new committee that meets every other month (and not at all in the summer, which I’m actually kind of sad about). This is a committee for library staff who plan programs at their libraries, so it’s a great way to gather ideas for programs and get contact information for good presenters. It’s also fun and interesting to hear what’s going on at other libraries, what’s working well and what isn’t. As a really excellent added bonus, most meetings are held at a different library each time, rather than our usual central meeting site, so it’s an opportunity to visit libraries I might not see otherwise.

That was the case with Medfield. “Enter, engage, enjoy,” their website says, and that’s exactly what I did. The staff let us in a few minutes before the library opened, and I darted around taking pictures of everything: their displays, their signage, their collection of “unusual items” to borrow, their seed library, their chalkboard, their amazing murals (not just in the children’s area!).

I created a Google album of all my photos, annotated with comments, but here are a few of my favorite signs, because signage is so important in communicating – not just information, but atmosphere and tone and mood.

Directional signage in main room near circ desk

Directional signage on the main floor, straight ahead from the entrance, near the circulation desk.

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On a computer table on the lower floor, this sign communicates that talking is allowed, and tells those looking for quiet space where they can find it.

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This sign in the teen space made me laugh. Check out a book to save it from extinction!

Study room door sign

This sign on a study room door tells users where to get the key.

Inside voices and walking feet

A sign in the children’s area asks for “inside voices & walking feet.”

I really think Medfield knocked it out of the park: their wayfinding/directional signage is helpful, their informational signage is concise and friendly, and they also use signage to draw attention to unique collections in clear ways. It’s also both consistent and tailored: the directional signage is the same throughout the building, with white (or off-white?) text on a gray background, but smaller signs in each area have some personality that’s appropriate to the area in which they’re located (children’s, teen, etc.).

And did I mention the murals?

TARDIS mural

A TARDIS mural in the stairwell

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R2D2 on one of the study room doors

Do you frequent public libraries? What is some of the best signage you have seen?

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Where do we go from here?: a content audit of library signage

Good signs help library users answer the questions, “Where am I? What can I do here? Where can I go from here? How do I find where I want to go?”-Aaron Schmidt and Amanda Etches, Useful, Usable, Desirable (2014)

Inspired by the idea of a content audit (essentially, an inventory), I went around the public library building where I work and took pictures of every sign. The library has five floors, and I took about 250 photos. I did not include signs in staff-only areas, nor did I take pictures of every single stack end, each of which is marked with the call numbers it holds (e.g. 910-919 for travel books).

Still: about 250 signs, with 100 on the first floor alone. The sheer number of signs is overwhelming, as is the variety: there are a few different “official” styles (gray plastic plaques with white printing; brown text on a cream background in plastic or behind clear plastic), some semi-official styles (laminated or in plastic sheets), and some that are just paper and tape.

The signs serve many purposes, and to some extent they follow Schmidt & Etches’ advice: “Different types of signs (directional, identification, instructional, regulatory, informational) should be visually distinct.” Donors, for example, are acknowledged with brass plaques, whereas programs are advertised on paper in plastic holders, so they can be changed out frequently. However, even the more permanent signage has two different designs (the gray-and-white and brown-and-cream), indicating that it was probably created and installed at at least two different times. The Teen and Children’s areas also have distinct signage of their own – again, not a bad thing, as they are distinct areas of the library.

Laminated sign over post-it over button to open door mechanically

“Please DO NOT bang.” A laminated sign, a handwritten post-it, and the automatic door button itself.

Where do we go from here, with this jumble of excessive signage? Ideally, we’d take a step back and create a “brand manual” for typography/fonts, colors, and logo/wordmark, then create templates for signage, posters, brochures, and the website. (We could even re-design our library card!) Personally, I’d love to see some brighter colors, and I like the idea of using icons rather than words wherever possible; they’re recognizable at a glance (the good ones are, at least), and offer better guidance to more people (especially people whose first language isn’t English, or younger children who can’t read yet).

Do you work in (or frequently visit) a library? What’s your favorite and least favorite thing about the signage there? What other institutions have good signage ideas that libraries could borrow?

Updated 9/22/15: Here’s another great piece from Aaron Schmidt’s UX column in Library Journal, Positive Signs.” In it, he talks about accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative in library signage. In other words, don’t tell people what they can’t do, encourage them to do what they can.

Library design ideas

I like organization. I fell hook, line, and sinker for that unlikely de-cluttering bestseller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. At home and at work, I appreciate clever storage solutions and neat display ideas. One of the perks of having a library be your workplace is that you can go and look into other workplaces: What sort of shelves do they have? What kinds of signs and wayfinding tools? What do their websites look like, and how well do they work? What services and tools do they highlight – programs, readers’ advisory, e-books? Is there a lot of natural light? Does the artificial light make sense? How many back issues of magazines do they keep, and how do they store them? The questions go on, and most have observable answers. Even better, libraries are a sharing culture: you like how we do X? Go ahead and borrow it!

The Flexibility in Library Design session at MLA this year was one of my favorite sessions at that or any conference. (Presentation slides can be found in the MBLC Resource Guides Collection.) Some ideas in that presentation required rebuilding from the ground up, or major renovations, or otherwise big expenses which, in the world of public libraries, require much advance planning and advocacy. Other ideas are so simple, easy, and low-cost that they could be done in a day.

Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, building facadeThis presentation was still relatively fresh in my mind when I took a trip to Pittsburgh and visited the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (the main library) and the Squirrel Hill branch library. I admired both libraries’ welcoming atmosphere, and how they had incorporated their history into their new designs (the Squirrel Hill branch was renovated in 2005). An "ask a librarian" sign hanging over a reference desk at the Squirrel Hill branch library

I noticed that the signage was consistent across libraries (I assume this is also the case at the rest of the branch libraries); for example, red oval signs that read “ask a librarian” hang over reference desks, and red oval “customer services” signs are posted above or hanging over circulation desks. This consistency means that any patron of any branch library can walk into any other branch and be greeted by something familiar. The language, too, is friendly: “ask a librarian” instead of “reference,” and “customer services” instead of “circulation.” Reference and circulation are familiar terms for library staff, but not necessarily for those who use libraries, especially first-time visitors.

An easel whiteboard with CLP events written on it in different colorsSpeaking of walking into a new library, one of the first things I saw at both libraries was a simple whiteboard on an easel with that day’s events written on it. This is a low-cost idea that raises awareness of what’s going on at the library; even if you didn’t enter the library to attend a program, you’ll still see that interesting things are happening there. At my library, we’ve been debating an electronic screen that would show that day’s events as well as upcoming ones, but have been stalled because of the expense and the logistics (we can’t mount things on our old stone walls, and we don’t want cords running across the floor). But a whiteboard easel? That I think we could do.

As for more expensive ideas, I admired a few design decisions they’d made. At the Squirrel Hill branch, overhead lighting is positioned parallel to the stacks, and between them, shining light directly where it’s needed so that people browsing can see the books.

Comfy brown leather chairs and standing lampsAt the main library in the reference area, overhead lighting is supplemented by lamps on the tables, which people can turn on or off as desired. In a comfy seating area at the main library, standing lamps can be positioned as needed, in addition to overhead lighting and natural light from the windows. With the chairs, the lamps, and the travel guides along one wall, this section has the feel of a nice airport lounge.

Chalkboard with "your favorite things" promptAn easy interactive idea in the new books section of the main library: chalkboards. Library staff (presumably) writes a prompt, and patrons respond. This makes for a friendly atmosphere (though, as Jane Austen would say, I am not insensible to the potential for rude language to appear on public chalkboards), and reminds me of the opinion polls common now to coffee shop tip jars (“Which is the cooler superpower, invisibility or flight?” “Which are you more afraid of, failure or spiders?” etc.). It adds a little personality and sense of humor to the space, and encourages participation. Interactive elements have proven popular when we incorporate them into library displays at my library, and this one doesn’t involve covering tables with butcher paper or cutting up little slips of paper: definitely a win.

Lastly, the teen areas: in both libraries, the teen area was clearly marked by bright green overhead signs (“TEEN”), and the entrance to the area had a sign on an easel or stand that declared the space for teen use only, with a caveat in smaller print: “Everyone is welcome to browse materials in this space anytime.” This sets a clear boundary, while not being too forbidding to kids moving out of the children’s collection into YA, or to adults who like to read teen books.

Overall, I was impressed by the big and little things the two CLP libraries I saw had done to make their spaces useful and welcoming. There are more pictures on Flickr.

What are your favorite library design ideas? Please share in the comments.