The Library as Labyrinth: A Conversation about Library Space Design

August 25, 2022

Challenging conventional standards is beneficial to any creative routine. It’s what keeps us sharp and attuned to opportunity.

Libraries are among the most sacred and important cultural artifacts in existence. Their immense value, as a constantly growing and evolving public repository for information and stories, is indisputable.

And yet, there’s always room for improvement.

Recently, LSW Principal Brent Young, was given an opportunity to collaborate with Karen R. Diller, Library Director at Washington State University Vancouver (WSU-V), and Sam Wallin, an Analyst and Project Coordinator with the Fort Vancouver Regional Library (FVRL), on a paper that aims to rethink the way information is stored, discovered, and accessed inside of academic libraries.

Their challenge was to bring equity, personalization, and a sense of wonder to the forefront of the library experience, specifically by reimagining the way people move through the space. In dreaming up possibilities, the team landed on a novel concept that has proven to be exciting: the library as a labyrinth.

As a trio, Brent joined Karen and Sam in presenting their idea at the 2022 Research Libraries UK Conference – you can watch the full presentation below.

From Transactional to Experiential

The labyrinth concept would evolve into a wide-ranging (and still ongoing) discussion about ways to reshape what has long-since been an accepted and transactional way of conducting research at academic libraries, which looks something like this:

  • Student enters the library building
  • Goes to the help desk or a catalog
  • Identifies the destination of their desired book or paper
  • From there, they must use their knowledge of the Library of Congress Subject Headings to retrieve the text

This linear way of accessing and consuming information has a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ way that students must learn.

“The information inside of libraries is not always readily available. You have to know what you’re searching for and what you’re doing to successfully locate one book. Students who don’t arrive in school with this knowledge pre-installed are at an immediate disadvantage,” Brent explains. “We’re asking how the library can be friendlier and more open and helpful to students or adults at all levels. If we think about a children’s library, it’s almost entirely experiential - how can we inject that same sense of wonder and welcome to a campus library?”

All Journey, No Destination

Following the intersectional nature of knowledge and context, the labyrinth concept interprets the library as a non-linear path that takes you to special nodes and pockets where useful and different information is curated, contextualized, and readily available. In fact, through varying modes of media delivery (video, virtual reality, augmented reality, QR Codes, et al.) the experience can even stretch beyond the walls of the library and extend across campus and into the community, to departments, buildings, spaces, and landmarks onsite that bring the information to life.

“The idea is to curate information inside a library, bringing the different fields together at nodes where students can see the overlap of information,” Brent explains. “Biology and art are inherently connected. On a design level, we can express this connection by creating a node, where a selection of texts, leading thinkers, and even university staff could help students make headway on their journey.”

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In this conceptual mode, the librarians are pulled onto the floor to play a more active role in curating information and providing engagement, rather than being more focused on work behind the desk at the entrance.

“A labyrinth is different from a maze,” Brent notes. “A maze is a puzzle to solve. A labyrinth is that it’s something that reveals itself to you. And it takes you along a path that is a marked by unique stops along the way, with no definitive ending – the point of the labyrinth is to simply experience it.”

Following their presentation at Research Libraries UK, Karen, Sam, and Brent are continuing to refine their idea of the library as a labyrinth.