Space Planning

Space Planning Toolkit

YRL provides a number of alternatives to assist our member libraries with planning how to utilize their library spaces to the best advantage. Here are some quick resources:

Space Planning Theory
Space planning is the process of determining the most effective use of the space within your library, keeping both function and aesthetics in mind. A library needs to be attractive and inviting, but it also needs to function effectively and efficiently.

Keep your library’s mission statement in mind when planning your space, as it impacts how your space is used. For example, if your library mission is to be an important community centre, your planning of space will reflect that mission by providing meeting spaces and room to accommodate children, teen and adult groups.

Inadequate space is a perennial problem in all sizes of libraries. The goal of good space planning is to make the most effective use of the space you do have. A revised space plan may solve some of the space issues but in some cases, collections may need to be weeded in order to gain space for new purchases of books and other materials.

A simply laid out library where the relationships and access between spaces is clear and logical will be easy for both staff and patrons to use. Follow these basic principles:

  • The square is the most flexible interior space for a library.
  • The space used by the public should be kept open. Walls should not be built except for office, program space, washrooms and utility rooms. Plan for flexibility.
  • Aisles between rows of shelving should be 42” to 48” wide for easy accessibility.
  • Maintain as much open space as possible. Open visual space encourages people to spend time looking at displays and browsing. Aim for between 40% and 60% free floor space.
  • Libraries cater to all age groups and attempt to make all of them feel comfortable. Three key categories are:
    • Children area
    • Youth / teen area
    • Quiet adult reading area
    These three areas should be placed as widely apart in the library space as possible, since they do not mix.
  • From the way the space is arranged, it should be clear what collection/activity should occur where.
  • Signage is a critical part of a functional space. Clear, easily seen signage promotes patron independence and accessibility.

People react psychologically to the spaces they enter, and are drawn to attractive, welcoming interiors. This results in increased patron satisfaction; more books circulate to more people and patrons spend more time in the library. Library staff are happier and more productive, as well.

A library is a very visually complex and detailed interior space where patrons are bombarded with visual images. All this variety comes from:

  • Books on shelves which provide a variety of colour, size and detail
  • Amount of equipment (i.e. photocopier, computers, etc.)
  • Variety of shelving types and other furniture
  • Many colour schemes and materials in one space
  • Varied heights of shelving
  • Tight arrangement of furniture
  • Variety in colour, size and style of signage

Any change that can be made to simplify the look of the space will contribute to its appeal.

Image is the impression people have of your library when they enter, whether it is positive or negative. Use the checklist below to determine the image that staff and patrons have of your library. Following are principles you can implement to improve the aesthetic appeal in your library:

Library Entrance
Create an inviting environment at the entrance to your library. The entrance is where people get their first impressions of the library, see where things are located, and where their emotional reactions to the space occur.

  • There should be space at the entrance for rapid orientation to location of materials.
  • This area should be kept very tidy and organized, with no clutter.

Colour is critical in a library interior. People gravitate toward colour, and it can influence attitudes, behaviors and learning. The proper use of colour can change a depressing, monotonous atmosphere into one that is pleasing, exciting and stimulating.

  • Use warm colours such as taupe, yellow, tones of brown, etc. to create visual warmth and a sense of welcome.
  • Coordinated colours provide a sense of order and control.
  • The largest amount of colour in the library should be warm tones. Accent colour/s can be cool - blues, greens or grays - but in much smaller amounts.

To be safe, library walls are often painted in white or off-white tones. This can be boring, as well as unwelcoming and unattractive. A white wall does not encourage patrons to focus on the books.

When picking colours and materials for flooring, paint, furniture and window coverings, work with a sample of each material. Note how they work together.

  • Try using colour scheme creators from such vendors as or These can be incredibly helpful to select colours that coordinate with an item you cannot change (i.e. carpet).
  • Begin with the largest or permanent finish, it is usually the carpet or other floor covering. Brown tones in a carpet hide dirt and soil best. Match carpeting throughout the space. Coordinate the carpet with other floor finishes.
  • Working with the floor finish, next pick a coordinated paint colour for the walls.
  • Then choose trim colour and the finish/es for major furniture pieces such as shelving and the circulation desk. Wood furniture should all be the same colour.
  • Upholstered items are often chosen to provide the accent colours in a library interior. Upholstered items from commercial office furniture vendors offer the best value in appearance, wearability and fire safety.

Furniture that is chosen for both its long life and its aesthetic appeal contributes to both function and appeal of the library interior space. Furniture and fittings should be strong, attractive, durable, comfortable and accessible. Look for materials that will wear well over a long time and that will be easy to maintain.

Furniture should be selected to harmonize with the colour scheme. It should also be selected to match the design style of the rest of the library. Use as few design styles as possible.

A word about furniture donations to the library… Don’t use discarded household furniture. It looks out of place in the library, making the library look tired, worn out and make-do rather than efficient and professional. Old furniture and equipment give a library the wrong image!

Circulation Desk

  • To allow for effective supervision, the circulation desk should allow visibility to all parts of the library. Should parts of the library not be visible from the desk, consider installing security mirrors or closed circuit security monitors. Clear sightlines make for staff efficiency and assist in general security.
  • Because the circulation or service desk in a library is a prominent feature in a library space, equal attention should be paid to its effective function and its visual appeal.
  • A modular circulation desk, with components that come in a variety of configurations and heights, provides the most flexibility.


  • Purchase commercial open-stock metal shelving. It will last a lifetime and, if you need to add shelving, you will be able to match it to what you already own.
  • Carpenter built shelving is a false economy. It will not last as long or be as adjustable and strong as commercial metal shelving.
  • Shelving layout should be clear and logical, allowing for a systematic sequencing and an ordered location of collection types. Signs help, but order comes through clear organization and good design.
  • End panels on library shelves are important. They tidy the space by hiding the clutter of metal shelf ends, as well as providing useful signage and display space. If the shelves in your library do not have end panels, consider adding them.

Neatness and Order

  • A critical aspect of the appeal of an interior library space is the neatness and order in which the whole space and all of its elements are kept. Untidiness makes a poor impression on everyone. Space may be at a premium, but tightly packed shelves and furniture make a library look confused, messy and uninviting.
  • Neatness, order and good organization allow the patron to focus attention on the material and collections in the library.
  • One very important aspect of neatness in a library is the way the shelves are maintained. That is because, for the most part, the books on the shelves are where the patron interacts with the library. Clean (dusted), orderly shelves say to the patron that your library values its customers.
  • Shelf read and put books and shelves in order on a regular and consistent basis. For example, staff could take turns shelf-reading for half an hour every morning.
  • To avoid clutter on the walls or bulletin boards, keep the number of posters to a minimum. Rather than displaying many posters at once, put up one, and change it every week. Once something has been posted on the wall for 2 or 3 weeks, people don’t notice it any more. Evaluate posters: Why are they there? What do they add to the core business of the library?
  • If there are notices posted around the library, take them down, put up a bulletin board, and re-post them. Write a bulletin board policy that allows items to be posted for a maximum of 2 weeks and enforce it.
  • Organize the circulation desk for maximum usage. Eliminate what you don’t need. Have a place for everything, and everything in its place. Label drawers and shelves if necessary.
  • To minimize clutter, rather than putting post-it notes on computers and around work spaces, keep and use a coil ring notebook beside your computer.
  • Once a year go through all drawers, closets, storage spaces, etc. and purge unused items in order to free your library from clutter. Dispose of unused furniture, computers and other equipment.
  • Remove handwritten, old, inappropriate signs.

Library Interior Design Checklist

Use the following checklist to evaluate the aspects of your library’s interiors that give your patrons, your community and your staff their image of the library.

Please answer Yes or No to the following questions

General Impressions of Your Library
_____ My library is welcoming. It says, "Please come in!"
_____ Is my library attractive?
_____ Are the colours used in the library coordinated and attractive?
_____ Is my library neat and tidy?
_____ Does my library look like an interesting place to visit?

Main Entrance
_____ Is the main entrance attractive and clean?
_____ Is the main entrance welcoming, inviting people in?
_____ As I look into the interior of the library from the front entrance, does it look interesting?

_____ There are no small printed signs or handwritten signs posted around the library.
_____ There are no post-it notes surrounding my computer screen.
_____ Are bookshelves tidied, so books look neat and orderly?
_____ Is the library space planned, so that furniture arrangement doesn't look messy and confusing?

_____ Do the displays show off library materials so patrons are attracted to them?
_____ Are all displays neat and tidy?
_____ Does my library use end-of-range displays?
_____ Does my library have an interesting display that captures patrons' attention as soon as they enter the library?
_____ Are bulletin boards kept attractive, neat and tidy looking, so they draw patron attention?

_____ Is there is enough light so that a senior patron can read small-print titles on book spines or on CDs?
_____ Can staff do reading or computer activities in the library for extended periods of time without eyestrain?
_____ Patrons have never complained about the amount of light in the library.

_____ Are the colours of the walls, floor, shelves, furniture and window coverings coordinated?
_____ Are the colours used in the library warm and welcoming?
_____ Does the colour of the walls help focus the eye on the books and materials?

_____ Are the signs in my library easily visible to patrons of all ages?
_____ Do the signs in my library use the same style? (i.e. sign size, print style and size, etc.)


Number of "yes" answers ___________/25