Universal Design for Library Buildings

by Sharon L. Bostick and Olaf Eigenbrodt

What is Universal Design?

Universal Design (UD)[1] refers to design which seeks to make buildings and environments available for use by everyone in society regardless of age, size, ability, disability or need. Accessibility is not an additional component but integral to UD thinking. UD takes a holistic approach, enhancing access for all without lowering standards. Many libraries and educational institutions use a more specific concept, Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

Seven Principles of Universal Design

Anne-Marie Womack notes on her blog Writing Rhetorics that there are seven principles of UD: Equitable, Flexibility, Simple and Intuitive, Perception Information, Tolerance for error, Low physical effort, and Size and space.

Principles of universal design
7 Principles of universal design, as quoted by Anne-Marie Womack in her blog Writing Rhetorics

How does Universal Design Differ from Traditional or Accessible Design?

With Traditional design, the focus is on functionality for most users, with special arrangements made for special needs. Accessible design provides accessibility as an extra function or feature, with additional support for special needs and is thus partially inclusive. Universal design focuses on accessibility and usability for as many as possible, with special arrangements only in exceptional circumstances. The goal of UD is inclusiveness.

Universal Design and Libraries

Libraries tend to focus on access for all their users and strive to provide for all communities of users. Accessibility is an important and complex issue. There are several UD issues for libraries. Print material understandably limits accessibility for some individuals. Electronic resources tend to emulate print in terms of accessibility. Libraries, particularly public libraries, have target groups with varying abilities. Some academic libraries assume clients have certain information access skills. There is a tradition of “one size fits all” solutions, often led by resource constraints. While new technologies provide the opportunity for libraries to reach out to their varied constituencies to achieve accessible access, there are significant problems. Overall funding may not be sufficient to provide the technologies required and some electronic library resources are not universally accessible.

While there is as yet no comprehensive UD strategy for libraries, there are guidelines for accessibility in many countries, for example, the United States, with its Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the European Accessibility Act proposed by the European Commission.

Universal Design and Library Buildings

Physical library buildings can utilize concepts of universal design. Many countries have specific standards and guidelines for library space. Many municipalities and individual institutions have created specific guidelines. The IFLA Library Buildings and Equipment section has prepared a Post-Occupancy Evaluation Checklist. The ISO standard TR 11219-2012 specifies data for the planning of library buildings. The various standards and guidelines in existence all examine accessibility, way-finding and working spaces but UD is not specifically mentioned.

There are many aspects of library building design related to UD, including navigation and orientation, service desks, shelving, learning and study environments, power outlets, self-service and automated storage and retrieval systems.

Building Navigation and Orientation

Navigation through library buildings can be a problem with multiple choices for means of wayfinding. In both the UD environment and in general, clear and easy-to-read signage with appropriate fonts, icons, colours and size are critical. Electronic guidance systems provide good solutions but libraries may still need overview maps in print.

Service Desks

Service desks may present barriers to users or be important, welcoming, accessible points where UD can function at a high level.


Traditional library shelves are barriers for wheelchair users, those with mobility issues and people who are vertically challenged. Shelving takes up a lot of space in library buildings and accessible shelving requires an additional space allocation of 70%. With increased digital content, many libraries are reducing their open access collections providing new opportunities for inclusion of accessible shelves and re-use of space.

Learning and Study Environments

Traditionally, spaces for learning and study have been monofunctional, modular spaces with highly standardized furniture. Separate spaces were set aside for people with special needs and these spaces invoked non-inclusivity. They were known for rigid design and access. Modern trends are moving toward multifaceted use of space and focus on diverse environments for all stages of learning and study. Users can create their own settings in each layout and furniture is differentiated and flexible. Low distraction, quiet environments are desirable and even necessary to some and collaborative areas for others. Flexible furniture may include tactile guidance and other orientation aids.

James B. Hunt Library, North Carolina State University
James B. Hunt Library, North Carolina State University

Power Outlets

Another example of opportunities for application of UD is in the positioning of power outlets. In the past, power outlets were considered unsightly and placed in unobtrusive locations. The preponderance of electronic devices and the use of movable, flexible furnishings have raised the issue of the provision and positioning of power outlets to primary importance. Library users want more power and they need it located in convenient, safe spaces in a way that will not impede access.

Power can be installed under raised flooring where outlets can be added as needed.  “Power towers” can be in secluded spaces and facilitate use of outlets and USB ports by multiple users. Power supply can be located within library furniture, rendering it stationary. Most libraries provide a mix of power and wiring approaches and are experimenting with newer solutions including wireless charging. The IFLA Library Buildings and Equipment Section blog by Santi Romero posted on September 6 2017 focused on wiring and provides useful examples of UD in practice.


Self-service is driving many developments in libraries and includes self-borrowing and self-return of books and technological devices. Vending machines are being used for supplies and food and drink. There are pros and cons. On the positive side, self-service can enhance access, sometimes 24/7. It allows for faster and user-directed library services and frees up staff to be available in other areas. It may be a barrier for late adopters of technology. Self-service kiosks are not inherently accessible and may require intricate assistance and guidance for users.

Major accessibility issues in self-service are shown in Figure 21.  The height and distance of any devices must be considered, along with the position of control or touch panels so that they can be easily reached.  The card slot/scanner and menu prompts must be located so that they can be viewed. Visibility of the book drop and other devices must be considered.  Solutions to some of these issues are shown in Figures 22 and 23. UD has been applied to ensure that machines provided are easy to use, accessible, and have intuitive user interfaces for everyone, including people with vision impairment. The amount of text is reduced and the language used is simple. This approach enhances usability for everyone.

Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems

Miller Nichols Library, University of Missouri Kansas City
Miller Nichols Library, University of Missouri Kansas City

Storage solutions for library materials include automated approaches where books and other items are barcoded, stored in bins and accessed using the online catalogue for identification and requesting of material and robotic technology for supply.  Few libraries use this method of storage exclusively but it enhances access for many,  providing the catalogue is easily accessible for identification and requesting of content – another example of the application of UD. The footprint is smaller and spaces which might be taken up by shelves are available for creative uses.

User-Centred Design and Universal Design

User-Centred Design (UCD) is linked strongly to Universal Design (UD). UCD focuses on designing with user needs, requirements and comfort as the primary focus and often involves user participation in the design process. UCD is very popular in libraries, where awareness of users’ needs is a top priority. Library users are becoming involved in planning processes and the design of services, spaces and digital environments. UCD supports creative approaches toward design thinking and involves and supports all library users. While funding is always an issue, there are many new opportunities to incorporate UCD, facilitate user involvement and extend creativity. UCD provides an excellent opportunity for the application of UD in libraries.

Makerspace, Harold Washington Branch, Chicago Public Library
Makerspace, Harold Washington Branch, Chicago Public Library


Despite the challenges, libraries have attributes that make them a good fit for the application of UD. Librarians are trained to work with different user needs and a varied constituency. Librarians have a strong ethos of service to the public, the community and users in general. Librarians are also early adopters of technology and are accustomed to working with vendors and patrons to be successful. It is time for an international UD strategy for libraries and for the incorporation of UD in professional education and on-the-job training for librarians.

[1] National Disability Authority. Centre for Excellence in Universal Design. What is universal design?  Viewed 11 October 2017

Author details

Sharon L. Bostick is Dean of Libraries at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. She was formerly Dean of University Libraries at the University of Missouri Kansas City, Director of Libraries at the University of Massachusetts Boston, and has held library positions at the University of Toledo, Wichita State University and Oakland University, all in the United States. She has written and presented extensively on information-seeking behavior in university students, on academic and library consortia in the United States and on academic library buildings. Sharon is a member of the Standing Committee of IFLA’s Library Buildings and Equipment section, the co-chair of the American Library Association’s International Relations Council Europe Committee and a member of the American Regional Council of OCLC. sbostick@iit.edu

Olaf Eigenbrodt is Senior Head of User Services and Advisor for Planning and Construction at the Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Carl von Ossietzky Universität Hamburg. He was building consultant to the University library of Humboldt Universität in Berlin and the librarian responsible for the construction of the new central library “Jacob und Wilhelm Grimm Zentrum” and several smaller projects from 2004 – 2009. Olaf is member of the working group for the new ISO technical report Statistical Data for Library Buildings. He is visiting lecturer at the School of Library and Information Science at Humboldt-Universität in Berlin, a member of the editorial board of “BuB Forum Bibliothek und Information”, a German journal for library professionals, and a past member of the Standing Committee of the IFLA Library Buildings and Equipment Section. olaf.eigenbrodt@sub.uni-hamburg.de.


Photographs in Figures 2-3, 5-11, 19-20, 22-23 and 25 were taken by Olaf Eigenbrodt. Figure 21 was provided by Olaf Eigenbrodt. The photograph in Figure 4 was provided by the Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg, Photographs in Figures 13-14, 16-18 and 24 were taken by Sharon Bostik.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s