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The problem is that traditional library spaces are organized around materials, not necessarily the needs of the readers using the materials.

Creating Browsing Neighborhoods

The Library

Upper St Clair Township lies 10 miles south of Pittsburgh and boasts a large, well-used and highly regarded library. However, Library Director Helen Palascak, is the kind of librarian who never becomes complacent, despite running a successful library. Instead, she is forward-thinking and constantly striving to bring new and improved services to library patrons.

The Challenge

Helen realized that the physical messages the library environment was sending to patrons did not reflect the priorities and values of the service. In particular, the non-fiction collection was contained on very high shelving organized in straight rows with narrow spaces between. The effect was rather intimidating – what Opening the Book calls a classic Tombstone Layout.

Helen wanted to explore how smaller collections can draw people in and create spaces more conducive to exploration and creative learning. Working with her staff team, Helen set about deconstructing Dewey. How could a library create more friendly non-fiction neighborhoods of related subjects? Grouped around themes such as Parenting, Create It, DIY Home, Cooking or Health & Fitness, neighborhoods can hold materials from multiple Dewey sections, collecting in one area materials readers might reasonably expect to find together.

The Connection

Helen first came across Opening the Book when she attended a presentation by Opening the Book’s Director, Rachel Van Riel at a PLA conference in Philadelphia in 2013. Helen was immediately drawn to Opening the Book’s philosophy which advocates rethinking how libraries are physically presented and organised to ensure they reflect the needs of the modern library patron. At the conference Helen purchased a copy of Rachel’s book The Reader-friendly Library Service and ever since has used this as a point of reference for planning and rethinking the delivery of Upper St Clair library services.

The Design

Following three years of planning, preparation and presentations, Upper St Clair’s non-fiction library is being refurbished by Opening the Book as a prime example of the patron-centered approach. Dull rows of shelving are banished and replaced by an open, flowing layout which draws patrons though the space and brings books into the eyeline at every turn.

"Many thanks to everyone for all the work you have put into this project which the Township Commissioners have now fully approved. Opening the Book, your design was the critical piece!"

Opening the Book has studied the way people move through library spaces, which way they turn, how far they go, where they stop. We have built a unique bank of research carried out in libraries in different countries, including thousands of observations of patron behaviors and a database of more than 50,000 library patron interviews. We apply this knowledge in our designs to ensure there are no dead spaces or tight corridors of shelving. Instead our layouts offer smooth organic flows which entice people forward with a continuous sense of exploration and discovery.

The Furniture

Upper St Clair has chosen our Performance shelving where bookcases are placed together to make unique Propeller shapes which bring energy and dynamism to the floor layout. These shapes are also perfect for defining each neighborhood.

One clever aspect really appealed to the library team. Although the shelving gives the appearance of being curved, the bookcases inside are actually perpendicular. This is both less expensive in construction and much easier to merchandize so the books look good. 

The partnership between Opening the Book, and Reed Associates has given the library access to brand-new concepts and furniture designs, high-quality manufacturing and local on-the-ground detailed project management and installation support. 


The Outcome

The non-fiction area at Upper St Clair was installed in May 2017.  “The shelving and floor plan you designed has really helped people explore our collection. We see patrons consistently choosing from the front-facing displays.  It's the highlight of my day to wall around and fill all of the open spaces! Another key piece we are very pleased about that although we reduced the size of our non-fiction collection by over 25%, our circulation number this year are very similar to last year’s and in some cases higher.  We also love the high quality materials and construction of the shelving, and, of course, the ability to switch a shelf from full size to paperback size to angled display!  It's all GOOD!”  Helen Palascak ~ Library Director

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