I had never heard the term "post-occupancy evaluation," or POE before I read an article by Jeffery A. Lackney and Paul Zajfen in the Winter 2005 issue Library Administration and Management. Which just shows how clueless I am in this area, since there's been at least one book on the subject and people tell me that these two authors have given really good programs on the subject at library conferences.
Well, now I know what POE is, and it is apparent to me that I've been doing it all my professional life, although certainly in a sloppy, unorganized way. You probably do it too, although I'm sure more efficiently. Not only have I evaluated all the library buildings I have been closely involved in during the planning and building processes in my library system, but, like you, I have had opinions about libraries I have visited. Generally speaking, I have not been very happy with the buildings I "built," even though, truthfully, I can blame some of the failings on the architects. Of course, I generally picked the architect.
In the article the authors evaluated three libraries: a public-college library in Palm Desert, California, a branch library in Flushing, Queens Borough, NY, and the newish Salt Lake City central library. Here's part of the "Conclusions" paragraph:
"These three case studies demonstrate the application of POE to increasing scales of projects, each with its own contexts and constraints. Despite these clear differences in scope and scale, several, identifiable themes have emerged regarding the programming and design process, environmental conditions, service functionality, and the accommodation of customer needs from which all future library projects can learn.
"At a general level, the three case studies illustrate the need for today's public library to balance a variety of facets in the planning and design process. They must project an appropriate and intended image of the public library to the community, one that balances both progressive and traditional notions of what a library is. They must address the growing and changing needs of customers, without sacrificing the functional needs and requirements of the library staff; take full advantage of the benefits of natural daylight without creating heat gains, glare, or damage to book collections; and create a spatial openness that provides not only views and enjoyment, but also supports successful orientation, navigation and supervisability. They must meet new community demands for a more socially informal library, while not alienating the more traditional culture of quiet study that must coexist with this new customer culture."
Well, that's all very well, but specifically, what do they mean? Re-reading the article, and adding what I have learned from my own experience, I would pay attention to the following (not necessarily what the authors would recommend, though):
Don't get too modern for the public to swallow for the exterior of the building. Although I don't know myself what that means. So far the really, really modern Seattle Public Library has had good reviews, at least from architects. It would be interesting to hear what the users say on a POE after a couple of years.
Provide really good signage. It's my experience in looking at many libraries that few really provide enough signage. Of course, there are still going to be people that don't read signs.
Architects really, really love glass, and plenty of it, but the problems connected with large areas of glass are not only many but difficult and expensive to remedy after the building is built. If it's horizontal, it's likely to leak, and get dirty, of course. If it's vertical, you have glare and heat.
Have adequate workrooms for the staff. Of course, no matter how big, they are not big enough, but I see what seems to be an anti-staff attitude on the part of building planners and architects, much of the time.
Provide a really good and infinitely adjustable heat and cooling system adapted carefully to the building and all that dumb glass you'll probably end up with. Both the staff and the public will be more comfortable. Yes, I know that different people require different temperatures, so you really can't win on this. But provide temperature controls that aren't hooked to anything, so everyone can "adjust" the temperature to their heart's content. Hard to keep the secret, though.
Have a quiet study area walled off by glass so that those who prefer a "traditional" library can enjoy the place. Of course, quiet has to be enforced, which means keeping out little kids and bunches of loud-whispering teens.
Have a coffee/snack bar and let people eat and drink in the library. (Horrors!) That will create a "socially informal" atmosphere, I guess.
Make all shelving amenable to merchandising, rather than storage, a Ia Barnes and Noble.
Have convenient bathrooms. The POE for these three libraries all mentioned bathrooms, which, as we all know, are a real pain almost everywhere. The more bathrooms you have the more vandalism occurs. And the safety issues - homeless, drug dealers, etc. - apparently go with the territory in some libraries. I don't know that the whole bathroom question is completely solvable.
On the subject of safety, I was amused by reading one comment in the article. Those of you who may have visited the Salt Lake City library remember the use of interior glass. This is what the article says:
"Another aspect of safety is the psychological safety associated with the dramatic glass-railing staircases and glass elevators. Staff mentioned the stress of acrophobia of many visitors attempting to use these staircases and elevators, who from time to time require escorting."
I'll bet the architects never thought of that. Bridgebuilders might. I've heard stories of people really afraid of driving their cars over long, high bridges over water. Sometimes - not always - that gives me the willies too. And I understand that the bridge people have to do some escorting, too.
This whole business of POEs is really interesting. It occurs to me that those responsible for new construction, such as architects, library directors, building consultants and the like, should be required to do a POE a couple of years after construction is completed and the building is in use. While some things, like exterior appearance, cannot really be changed, others can and should. Most library administrators enjoy touring the buildings recently occupied by other libraries, and that's a sort of POE, I guess. Probably the best thing to do is to hire a building consultant, but that certainly isn't perfect. I'll bet all three of the libraries mentioned in the article had building consultants.
Copyright BCPL Foundation Mar 2005
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