The Pattern Language of the Library

I am an olds.

When I first started working at the University of Windsor in July of 1999, the first floor of the Leddy Library was largely taken up by stacks of reference books. The largest collection of the library’s private and semi-private study carrels were on the second floor.

Keeping in mind that ideally reference materials are close at hand when one is writing why would our library actively separate reading and writing activities through in its architecture?

I think there must have been a variety of reasons behind why it was decided to place the study carrels on the second floor with the most obvious being that the library was designed to keep activities requiring concentration away from the distraction of people walking into the library and through its space.

But there’s another reason why such a separation existed which is suggested by the fact you can find an electrical outlet in every single study carrel on the second floor at even though the building came to be decades before laptops were available.

The answer is typewriters. Noisy, clattering typewriters.

I didn’t make this connection myself. That insight came from this Twitter conversation from 2014.

While there is a rich conversation to be had about how some of the information literacy practices that separate research and writing as separate processes may have resulted from vestigial practice based on avoiding typewriter noise, I’m more interested in exploring what the affordance of laptops might mean to the shape of the spaces of and within the library today.

The book did not kill the building.

The laptop will change our chairs.

Our print reference collection is now in the basement of the West Building of the Leddy Library. Much of the space on the first floor of the Main Building is filled with banks of computer workstations that we used to call our Learning Commons.

But the perceived need for banks of workstations was waned in libraries. You don’t see as many seas of desktops in newly constructed library buildings. Now the entire library is perceived as a Learning Commons.

The image above that references the Learning Common concept is from Steelcase who design furniture for offices and other spaces such as libraries like GVSU’s Mary Idema Pew Library:

I was recently looking through the Steelcase product catalogue and I was taken by the way that the company makes very clear how the form of their furniture is tightly associated with function.

(If you are a subscriber to my newsletter: in the above video there’s a reference to that theory that I wrote about which suggests that the most comfortable seating is one when you feel protected from the back.)

When I read about their turnstone Campfire suite of products it reminded me of a book I read sometime ago called make space: How to Set the Stage for Creative Collaboration. I found the book on our shelves, took it down and leafed through the book and found this:


While make space makes no specific allusion to A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander et al. I feel it’s almost impossible not to conclude that it must have provided some inspiration.

An except from A Pattern Language: 251 Different Chairs

From A Pattern Language:

People are different sizes; they sit in different ways. And yet there is a tendency in modern times to make all the chairs alike.

From Twitter:

From A Pattern Language

Of course, this tendency to make all chairs alike is fueled by the demands of prefabrication and the supposed economies of scale. Designers have for years been creating “perfect chairs” — chairs that can be manufactured cheaply on mass. These chairs are made to be comfortable for the average person. And the institutions that buy chairs have been persuaded that buying these chairs in bulk meets all their needs.

I particularly like this excerpt from A Pattern Language because I know an example of this very tension. In 2014 I sat in on the 2014 Library Interior Design Award Winners presentation at ALA Annual. There the interior designer being celebrated publicly lamented the fact that the NCSU Library opted for a wide variety of chairs including many that did not match the larger aesthetic of the space. Then the librarian spoke and told us that said chairs were so loved by students that some of them made a Tumblr of them in their honor.

I think we fundamentally underestimate how much a difference a variety of chairs can make in the experience of a place.

For example: this is a science classroom.

Kids come early to get the best seats.

Here’s another example. This picture is of a community bench that the neighbour of Dave Meslin made available for others.

My neighbours cut ten feet off their shrub, and replaced it with a community bench! ❤️

A post shared by dave meslin (@davemeslin) on

A community bench is what I would consider an example of tactical urbanism – a phrase that I like to think I first heard from People from Public Spaces. I am looking forward to reading Karen Munro’s Tactical Urbanism for Librarians: Quick, Low-Cost Ways to Make Big Changes.

I should also say that I’m not the first librarian to try to bring in Pattern Language thinking to how we design our spaces. In 2009 William Denton and Stacey Allison-Cassin explained their “vision of the One Big Library and how Christopher Alexander’s pattern language idea will help us build it.”

In reviewing their talk for this blog post I re-read from their slides this quotation from A Pattern Language:

This is a fundamental view of the world. It says that when you build a thing, you cannot merely build that thing in isolation, but must also repair the world around it, and within it, so that the larger world at one place becomes more coherent, and more whole; and the thing which you make takes its place in the web of nature, as you make it.

I had forgotten that I read that particular phrase – repair the world – in that text.

About three months ago I started a special interest group at Hackforge called Repair the World which is “a monthly meet-up of those who want to learn more about the technologies and policies we can employ in Windsor-Essex to lead us towards a carbon-neutral future and to help our community cope with the effects of global warming”.

For our first meeting, I didn’t do much other than set a time and place, give one suggested reading for potential discussion, and help set up the chairs in the space in a circle for our discussion.

In The Chairs Are Where the People Go, Sheila Heti transcribed and edited this advice from Misha Glouberman:

There’s a thoughtlessness in how people consider their audience that’s reflected in how they set up chairs. You can see that thoughtlessness immediately…

… At a conference, if you want to create a discussion group, you can set up the chairs in a circle, and you don’t need a table…

… Setting up chairs takes a lot of time, but anyone can do it. If you’re running a project and you want to get people involved, ask them to set up chairs. People like to set up chairs, and it’s easy work to delegate. It’s even easier to get people to put chairs away.

Everyone should know these things.