Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

by Inger Edebro Sikström


Being a member of the IFLA Library Buildings and Equipment Section’s Standing Committee is very rewarding. One cannot stop being amazed by the wide diversity of the group with members from so many different countries – Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, Norway, Spain, Uganda, U.S.A. and Sweden. The group dynamics generated by the mix is hard to beat.

The opportunity to meet colleagues from all over the world has been very inspiring for me in my work as a library director in Sweden. As Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”.

What follows is an attempt to summarize some memories and reflections from my five years as a member of the IFLA Library Buildings and Equipment Section Standing Committee. At the same time, I would like to say thank you to each member of the Standing Committee for being a “giant” for me.

Green and Sustainable Buildings – and Organizations

The pre-conference satellite meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, in 2011 was my first encounter with IFLA’s Library Buildings and Equipment Section Standing Committee. The meeting’s theme was: The effect of new technologies on library design: building the 21st century library. Excellent papers on many topics were supplemented by visits to local libraries.

We visited the Hamilton Mill Branch of the Gwinnett Public Library. This library had been awarded prizes for sustainable design that dramatically contributed to decreased use of electricity and water, as well as reductions in other operating costs. The library demonstrated very systematically and pedagogically its environmental thinking through displays and detailed explanations.

Self-service as a Catalyst for Change

At Library Buildings and Equipment Section meetings and conferences, we have heard how focusing on self-service in design contributes to improving the working environment and decreasing operational costs. A lesson learned is that a major element in cutting ongoing costs is to plan for self-service very early in the building process.

While not many public libraries need large robot storage and retrieval systems, I was inspired by hearing how the Miller Nichols Library at the University of Missouri-Kansas City used  self-service in its design and as a catalyst for change in the library’s staffing positions and working methods.

Iconic Library Buildings

While IFLA Section Standing Committees meet annually during the IFLA Conference itself, most Sections also hold mid-term meetings in various locations. The Library Buildings and Equipment Section mid-term meeting in 2012 was held in Germany. At last I obtained the opportunity to see the Philological Library at the Freie Universität Berlin designed by Norman Foster . The library building has a fabulous organic form that is replicated in the design of the circulation desks.

A History to Value and Protect

Libraries have at their core strong democratic values based on everyone’s right to seek and receive information. A contrast to the futuristic Norman Foster architecture at the Freie Universität Berlin was the Library at the Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg founded in 1696. Think of the impact it has had for so many people during the more than 300 years of its existence – a history to value and protect. All libraries have past achievements to preserve as well as new directions to take.

Tried and Tested Functions in New Contexts

Not far from Halle is Dessau, the centre of the Bauhaus movement in 1925, after its beginnings in Weimar through the work of Walter Gropius in 1919. The Bauhaus movement took tried and tested functions and introduced them in new contexts and venues.

Everything is consistent and well thought-out at the Walter Gropius Bauhaus School. One example is the use of strong colours to facilitate orientation in the building. The colours coincidentally are almost the same as the traditional bright colours of blue, red, green and yellow which characterise the Sami people of Northern Europe.

As early as 1925, Gropius designed a unique typeface for all Bauhaus communication. Sune Norgren did the same in 1997 when commissioned to create the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in a converted mill in Gateshead, England.  The use of the letter “B” for Baltic in the Centre’s signage is clever and catchy. It reinforces the message and marks the brand for the Centre.

New Approaches to Learning and Libraries

In 2012, the Standing Committee was invited to take part in a seminar: Designing the Future Library, hosted by the Helsinki University Library, the National Library and the Helsinki City Library. We learned about new concepts for learning and a service design that supports interaction based on diversity and flexibility. Dialogue with customers and stakeholders was emerging as central to an understanding of needs and the basis for determining appropriate design responses.

The IFLA World Library and Information Congress was held in Singapore in 2013 and new insights were acquired.  A visit to the Library in Chinatown found that the inhabitants of Chinatown had created its own vision for the library with three themes: hope, heart and home. The library@chinatown has many audiences. A significant group is older residents, many of whom are grandparents who visit the library while waiting for their grandchildren to finish school for the day. The old and the young frequently do homework in the library subsequently.

Most Problems can be Solved

Anyone who has planned a new library building knows that some things do not always go according to plan. I found the words on a wall painting in the Chicago Public Library very comforting. They were first spoken in the inaugural address of Mayor Harold Washington in 1983.

Most of our problems can be solved. Some of them will take brains, some of them will take patience. And some of them will have to be wrestled with like an alligator in a swamp

Wall plaque in Chicago Public Library

I have learned so much from my membership of the Standing Committee of the IFLA Library Buildings and Equipment Section. My colleagues have shared their ideas with me. I have seen buildings from all over the world. I have been able to apply new approaches to my own professional practice. I have stood on the shoulders of giants.

Author details

Inger Edebro Sikström has worked in school and public libraries in Sweden. She was Director of Public Libraries in Umeå, Sweden from 1996 until her retirement. Under her leadership, the libraries received many awards.  These include the Swedish Library of Talking Books and Braille’s Amy Prize in 2010, a United Nations Public Service Award in 2008, a European Public Sector Award in 2007 and the Union of Baltic Cities Cultural Prize in 2007. Inger has been Vice-President of the Swedish Library Association from 2007-2012 and a member of the IFLA Library Buildings and Equipment Standing Committee from 2011-1017. Inger is now retired and working with her father’s collection of photographs from her hometown. Together with her husband, Inger is documenting the town’s economic and social development after the inauguration in 1891 of the railroad connecting the capital city Stockholm with north Sweden. Inger can be contacted at

Acknowledgements: Photographs by Inger Edebro Sikstrom.

The Critical Role of Outdoor Spaces for the 21st Century Library

by Traci Engel Lesneski

Outdoor Space and the Library

Libraries serve as critical community partners. They evaluate current and future needs and proactively through service provision fill gaps in the community fabric. They sometimes fail to capitalise on a key asset in their toolkit: the outdoors. Library buildings have historically made use of their surroundings to underscore the significance of the building, focus on the attributes of the location and enhance the “place”, beautifying the environment. Libraries of all types and size and in all climates and locations can use their outdoor spaces to enrich the way they fulfill their missions and to serve their communities more effectively. By focusing on the outdoors and virtually turning the library inside out, libraries can increase their available real estate and provide a wide range of benefits to users.

Southwest Regional Library, Louisville, Kentucky, USA, features curving paths and an infiltration basin bridge, providing opportunities for visitors to understand the surrounding environment.

Encouraging Healthy Lifestyles

Design of libraries can encourage healthy living both inside the library and outdoors. Sit-to-stand worktables are prevalent in staff workrooms and becoming more common in public areas. For lengthy library visits, these types of workstations can help get the blood flowing and prevent back and neck issues. Libraries can promote the use of stairs instead of elevators by making stairs easy to find, more convenient to use and even fun. Unique features such as literary quotes on stair risers, and treads that play music when stepped on, can motivate users of all ages groups to use the stairs.

Ensuring a sound relationship between inside the building and the outdoors has many health benefits. For example, studies have shown that a visual connection to the outdoors increases focus and productivity for library users and provides a sense of well-being. Spaces with access to natural light have rejuvenating benefits for both library users and staff. Providing safe, attractive exterior spaces for staff and visitors extends the focus on wellness.

Libraries in urban locations can ensure their inclusion in the routes of walking tours for tourists and locals, thereby encouraging walking by the community and marketing of their services.  Programming for adults and children can feature outdoor activities linked to community exercise classes. Signs and marketing outreach can highlight the benefits of being active. Some libraries offer secure, covered parking for bicycles and by this means promote their use.

Locations with large areas of green space can host community gardens and support the consumption of nutritious, non-processed local produce.  Well-lit walking paths and convenient connections to surrounding parks and pathways are popular amenities for many libraries. Weather and climate need not be barriers to using outdoor paths. Covered pathways in hot or wet climates facilitate use particularly with inclement weather. The sharing economy has increased borrowing of various items. In cold climates, why not include snowshoe or ski rentals at the library to encourage participation in outdoor activities? The possibilities are limitless.

The xeriscape-designed garden outside the Sahara West library and Fine Arts Museum, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, invites visitors to enjoy strolling the library’s location before entering the building.

Saving the Planet

Human health is inextricably linked to care of the planet Earth. The library is a highly visible community entity. It can create within the community an awareness of the need for conservation of the environment and provide details of potential improvements through such activities as composting, water conservation, and ecological best practices. The Ramsey County Roseville Library, Minnesota, USA, has a children’s garden featuring an above-ground cistern that collects rainwater from the building’s roof. A spigot on the cistern gives children access to the water, which they can collect in library-provided buckets to water the plants. When a rain event causes spillover, the water travels in a series of visible streams with displays that explore the operation of the water cycle. Vistas of exterior sustainable features from inside the building also serve to raise awareness of ecological issues. The positioning of the Roseville Library’s rainwater collection system within view of the children’s lounge area allows the library to showcase water conservation activities in all weathers.


Space for Creative Programming

Library programmes include creative and practical activities for users. Students of all ages and disciplines are increasingly called upon to create projects involving hands-on experiences as well as information access and use. Some “making” activities are messy.  Others require considerable space for their execution or natural resources. Some creative approaches incorporate analogue and digital techniques. The growth of the makerspace movement within libraries has brought with it new reasons to be outside. The library can become a hub for creative activities both inside and outside. In some instances, all that is required is the simple dedication of space. Others require access to power. Urban libraries with limited space can put sidewalks, footpaths, balconies, patios or verandas to use. The visible use of external spaces to passers-by encourages further interest in the library and reinforces its role as a relevant and up-to-date community asset.

“Maker” activities spill out onto the sidewalk at the Madison Central Library, Wisconsin, USA.

Respite and Relaxation

Libraries have traditionally been places where people have sought solace, inspiration, rest, relaxation and rejuvenation. Project for Public Spaces (PPS) ( )  is the central hub of a global movement connecting people to ideas, expertise, and partners who share a passion for creating vital places. The project describes great public places as accessible, clean, attractive, safe and comfortable places that support activities, where people of all ages meet each other. If the library offers a variety of outdoor options (shaded, sunny, private and communal) and a strong outdoor Wi-Fi signal, diverse groups will use external seating areas for work, meetings and project work, as well as reading and contemplation.

A reading porch outside the Hennepin County Library in Maple Grove, Minnesota, USA, provides respite and a space for reading and reflection.

Community Fun

Does your library building have a large nondescript exterior wall? The Tulsa City-County Central Library used the wall of a parking garage to create an outdoor screening room in a garden space. Other libraries build patios outside multi-purpose rooms, allowing receptions and meetings to spill outdoors on fine days. Snowman-building competitions or art “make-offs” can bring a community together. The library occupies a unique place in society, and connecting with community members on a purely fun level buttresses the perception of the library as a safe place for all and a significant asset to the community.

Moviegoers enjoy an event in the garden at Tulsa City-County Central Library.

Generating Energy

Outdoor spaces are increasingly being pressed into practical service as society demands extended sustainability from public buildings, involving energy regeneration and some return to the environment.  Technological advances including photovoltaic (PV) panels and wind turbines are becoming more commonplace and creating a greater awareness of the importance of renewable energy sources. Libraries can add an element of fun by outfitting green roofs or outdoor patios with bicycle energy farms to help staff and visitors burn energy (and calories), while creating electricity to power an aspect of the library, such as laptop charging stations.

Photovoltaic (PV) solar panels on Madison Central Library’s green roof.

Feeding Inspiration

Libraries fuel inspiration through a wide variety of resources inside the building and through Internet access. Inspiration for patrons can also come from outside the building. Outdoor spaces can feature public art, offer serendipitous encounters and encourage community interactions. Amenities such as Madison Central Library’s LED wall pique the interest of artists and passersby, promote interaction with the building and create new understandings of what it means to be a central community asset. Public art installations, such as those created by Candy Chang, artist of the wildly successful “Before I Die” project engage the community in many different ways.

Outdoor spaces and activities can be used by libraries as leverage in service delivery as well as the design of the building. An inventory of outdoor assets will lead to new and exciting discoveries about their potential use in service and outreach to the community.


Author details

Traci Engel Lesneski is Principal & Head of Interiors at MSR Design, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Traci has led dozens of library projects across the United States in her 20+ years designing libraries and learning spaces. Her belief that smartly designed buildings improve lives ensures that her library designs are beautiful, functional, and sustainable. Recent examples of her work include the award winning, dramatic re-imagination of the Madison Central Library, Wisconsin, and transformation of Tulsa City County  Library’s  Central  Library, Oklahoma. Traci speaks regularly at library conferences and she is the author of numerous articles and papers about library design. Traci is currently chair of the ALA LLAMA/BES Architecture for Public Libraries Committee and Secretary of the IFLA Library Buildings and Equipment Section Standing Committee.

(An earlier version of this blog was originally published for Demco Interiors)