Evaluation of Neighborhood Library Redesign Showed Significant Usability Improvements

The Free Library of Philadelphia (FLP) redesigned five neighborhood libraries as part of its Building Inspiration: 21st Century Libraries Initiative. FLP’s goal was to transform these “21st Century” libraries both physically and programmatically to better serve their customers’ needs and further articulate its vision for flexible, functional, and welcoming neighborhood libraries. Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago collaborated with Kimberly Bolan and Associates to conduct a “post-occupancy evaluation,” documenting usability strengths and challenges experienced by customers and staff.

What we did

We gathered several types of evidence in the course of our post-occupancy evaluation. We interviewed library customers and staff about their experiences before and after the renovations. We conducted facility walkthroughs and observations at the five renovated libraries, and at some non-renovated libraries. Additionally, we surveyed 79 staff members and more than 300 customers to gauge satisfaction with the 21st Century libraries and how it compared to staff and customer satisfaction at nonrenovated libraries.

What we found

Customers liked how the 21st Century libraries had become bright, spacious, and inviting spaces. They valued how the renovations strengthened the library’s role as an anchor institution in their communities.

  • Customers expressed overall satisfaction with the renovations, particularly with the expanded access to power outlets and technology and with the enhanced materials checkout and return processes.
  • Customers positively described the libraries’ welcoming feel and felt the renovations expanded how their libraries served as gathering places.
  • Customers reported increased satisfaction with staff assistance, and staff said the renovations helped them deliver a wider variety of programming that engaged many more customers than before.

The evaluation also identified some important design challenges in the 21st Century libraries:

  • The physical layout and location of service spaces limited their usability for customers and staff.
    • Spaces for children and teens were not fully functional.
    • The libraries were generally louder after the renovations, in part due to the open floor concept and hard surface flooring.
    • Library collections, décor, and signage were limited and did not incorporate the unique character of the community and interests of customers served by the libraries.
    • Staff needs and expertise were not adequately integrated into the design process.

What it means

With the 21st Century library renovations, FLP has begun to transform Philadelphia’s neighborhood libraries to meet the changing needs of their customers. We recommend that FLP consider taking the following steps as they approach future renovations:

  • Integrate substantive input from staff, customers, and the surrounding community into individual library design.
  • Further enhance customer experience by adding signage, redesigning service points, and further developing children’s and teen areas.
  • Develop flexible FLP-wide standards for renovation to support a consistent customer and staff experience that also integrates community-specific interests.
FLP Final Report