Library Leadership

55. Developing Libraries as Human-Centered Spaces with Jeff Davis

How can we make our libraries human-centered community assets? Find out on this show as I talk with Jeff Davis, Library Planner and Designer at Architectural Nexus.

Jeff believes architecture is about people not buildings. You won’t want to miss this discussion as he shares how an inclusive community approach to designing our libraries can make our facilities achieve great reach and relevance. 



This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. You’re listening to Library Leadership Podcast, where we talk about libraries, and leadership, and speak with guests who share their ideas, innovations, and strategic insights into the profession.

How can we make our libraries human-centered community assets? On this show I talk with Jeff Davis, a library planner and designer at Architectural Nexus. Jeff believes that architecture is about people, not buildings. You won’t want to miss this discussion as he shares how an inclusive community approach to designing our libraries can make our facilities achieve great reach and relevance. Enjoy the show.


Welcome to the show, Jeff.

Jeff Davis:

Thanks, Adriane, it’s great to be with you again


Question #1: I had the pleasure of working with you on building the Glendale Library in Salt Lake City, Utah a number of years ago. In that case we got to build a whole new library which was a lot of fun. But even if our listeners are not working on new buildings it’s important to be thinking about the development of our facilities. Can you tell us about this? 01:08 

Jeff Davis:

That’s a great question. The development of our facilities is really about the people we serve. When we look at how a building is being used we really need to be asking the question, Who is it for, and how is it used? 

I’m an architect, in training so I work with designing buildings all the time. What I’ve come to learn is that architecture isn’t really about buildings, it’s about people. It’s about the people that inhabit those buildings. As we’re looking at how we’re using those buildings in order to plan how we use them in the future, or what our needs are in the future, it’s most important to look at what the community needs are—then how those facilities can be adaptable and flexible as those community needs change.


Question #2: I know that you think of libraries as essential community assets. We all think of them in that way. It’s important for us, as librarians, to understand how to activate these assets for the greatest good. Can you tell us how that works? 02:20 

Jeff Davis:

Again, going back to the focus of people and what are the needs in your community. When we look at how to best use these assets for the greatest good, we need to understand what the needs in that community are. Each community is a little bit different. 

One example is, as we did the design of the Stockton Library in California we found that it was really necessary to create more of a community center for the area, bringing the recreation component in with the library component, which has been done somewhat successfully in other places. They were willing to look at a whole new model where, in order to meet those community needs, they were willing to cross-train staff and make it an actual community center where the boundaries between library and the recreation center really started to become blurred, as it really became a place for the community to gather.  


Question #3: That sounds like a really new way to do things. How is facilities planning different from in the past?03:44 

Jeff Davis:

In the past, in the 20th century, we planned libraries mostly based on numbers. There were a lot of formulas and resources you could use to put together—Here’s what our population growth is going to be, therefore this is how many square feet of facility we need to be planning for. And that varied from place to place. But, there were some rules of thumb and those numbers are still important. It’s still important to understand what your population growth is going to be, and the plan for that. But the result of those types of studies has been that square footage, the size of your buildings has been the focus. 

A recommendation for a large amount of square footage for your buildings has resulted in basically creating these plans that most communities couldn’t afford. Therefore, as we have been brought in to do a lot of facility planning, we found that yeah, they’ve done some great facility plans in the past but nothing has happened. No new buildings have been built, no space has been repurposed for other types of activities. 

And the problem with that, as we’ve really drilled down into the source, is that these plans were so big and so grand that people, community council, city council were not able to allocate the funds in order to do it, therefore nothing happened.

As we’ve retooled things to look at 21st century libraries, now we’re entering the third decade of the 21st century, but we’re still learning how to look at these facilities differently. The new way is to look at a human-centered approach.

My colleague, Margaret Sullivan, many of you may know Margaret with Margaret Sullivan Studios. She’s really developed a great way to look at the human-centered approach where we’re trying to identify what the real needs are. Then we can identify those needs and what we’ve found. Often you don’t need as big a facility as the old way has dictated in the past.

That makes it more affordable, more realistic and also more effective in using the facility to meet the needs of your communities.


Question #4: And, this can work for buildings being built new or also existing facilities being human-centered, is that right, Jeff? 06:57 

Jeff Davis:

Yes, absolutely. The idea is that we’re trying to utilize our space in the best way we can to meet the unique needs of each community. There isn’t a cookie-cutter approach that can be applied across all libraries. There are some commonalities, but each community is different in its specific demographics and its specific needs.


Question #5: So, what’s the best way to move facilities planning, or facilities development forward? 07:28 

Jeff Davis:

I think there’s a lot librarians can do on their own before they need to bring in a consultant. It really starts out at doing what you’ve already been doing, and that’s trying to identify what those needs are in your community. But then, to really try and think about in a new and unique way in which you can meet those needs.

That may be partnering more with other organizations. Libraries are great at partnering with organizations. But, how can you partner in a new way, or in a more collaborative way? How can you really zero in on those?

For example another discussion we had on that Stockton Library, and as we were doing the Fresno Library master planning as well, there’s a lot of agriculture in that part of California. We had discussions about, How can the library provide some support for the needs of teaching children? And, How can we connect that to future workforce issues?

One of the ideas that came up was, What if we taught programming classes in the library with the idea that they were programming droids that are going over crops and inspecting them? Because there’s a lot of technology being infused into that industry. It could be a way to look at how a drone might be integrated into something that their parents, or people they are working with, but also teaching them new skills.


Question #6: That is so fascinating. I know when you and I worked on the Glendale Library we had a very young school-age population, so we were designing for school-age kids coming in after school. You also talked about a rec center being involved, so it sounds like there’s a lot possible in buildings. So, what are the results of doing things this way, of really looking at our communities and seeing what they need 09:47 

Jeff Davis:

The result of really looking at it from this new direction is that we are bringing our communities together in a more unique way. Like you said when we were working on the Glendale Library, it was a young school-age population. We really focused on how that could bring the community together. Even in the site selection for that library, where it was located next to two different churches that were different denominations, just a block away from the middle school and elementary school, and on the edge of a neighborhood—really gave it this opportunity to be a gathering place. 

In looking at that from a human-centered approach it needed a front porch where people could gather and see each other as they came through the community. Actually from one of our public outreach sessions, we had blocks that kids were playing with. We were engaging them in different ways. A scheme started to develop that was this curve. We used that curve as a front porch that brought people in from the community.

As we try and look at this from how we move from planning our facilities and creating these spaces for these interactions to happen, sometimes that’s the most important thing,  just getting people together. Because when we get people together, great things happen.

Just on a side note, given our current situation with COVID-19 and social distancing, we have seen a lot of libraries doing extraordinary things to get resources out to the community. I really think this is a point in time where libraries can see things through a different filter, especially the staff to see things through a different filter of, What are the community needs now? How do they see the community differently given this life?

We’re currently working with a library system that has a library that’s in the same building as a food pantry. Even before the pandemic, they started to see an increase in the food pantry use given that housing prices were going up and it was cutting into lower income budgets being able to buy groceries. They were already working with that food pantry to address those issues. And now as our new situation has risen, that’s a partnership that has allowed them to jump in and participate in Meals on Wheels and other things to make sure that the needs of the community are met while we’re somewhat isolating.


Question #7: Definitely. Librarians across the nation are thinking outside the box and people like you help us make things possible. So, it’s really incredible. I remember those sharing processes as we were going into the Glendale building, getting all those kids together and listening to what they had to say. It was really fun. It’s not only, like, educational and helps us design new places for people, it’s fun. Do you have any anecdotes of how the design enables the kind of impact we’re trying to make? You’ve given quite a few examples, but anything else? 13:43 

Jeff Davis:

Another example I could share would be the Millcreek Library that we did for Salt Lake County. It started this idea of bringing people together. Originally, as that project began, as we looked at facilities planning, they were looking to put a library, a rec center, and a senior center all in the same site. But, the potential for different buildings. 

We were able to bring all of those together to create one facility where we had the senior center, the rec center, and the library. But something really great that happened is, we were able to find a way to create a common space for all the groups. And, there were shared spaces between the groups as well. Which really starts to bring the community together.

It was a cafe that also operated as the food service for the senior center that we were able to do that. It was based on a model by Café Mather’s out of the Chicago area where you have to work out all the federal, financial pieces of the meal programs for seniors, and make it possible or other people to purchase food there as well, in an anonymous way that doesn’t let others know if you’re one that is on a meal program. It’s really working into the weeds on making sure that things like that can happen, that have allowed a place like a cafe that now grandparents are coming to the library with their grandchildren and they’re able to go and do their senior center pieces and their programs that can cross-pollinate between the two, and there’s recreation. So, it really becomes a family-centric, or community-centric place.

But you have to get into the details to make it work because there are a lot of cafes that have been tied to libraries that have not been successful. We see them as these empty spaces so you have to get into the weeds on the details to make sure it’s something that’s right for your community.


Very sensitive and a very responsive design, which I like a lot. I remember when we talked to the kids in the neighborhood of Glendale they were like, We want monkeys at the library. We were thinking, Do we need a playground, what do we need? But just giving people what they need to come together in those spaces is amazing. 

Question #8: Is there anything else? 16:36 

Jeff Davis:

Just another example that comes to mind is as we’ve been doing facility master planning it’s been really interesting as we’ve been able to reach out to different facets of the community. I think it’s important when I say that to recognize that we just don’t ask the community to come to us, but that we have to go out to the community—out to where they are already at in order to gather the right information. 

As we’ve been gathering information from different parts of communities it’s been interesting to see how sometimes we get feedback that we don’t expect. I think in the library world we all have some preconceived notions of how we respond to the community. But, when we get something that comes back that maybe we don’t expect, then we’re, I think, not just obligated but it’s an incredible opportunity for us to then think of new ways in which we can engage them in finding out what their needs and interests are.


Right. That is so important. I also think it’s interesting to think about how to communicate as a librarian with someone like yourself who’s been involved in many of these projects. I mean, sometimes do we come to the table with too many preconceived notions? Is it better to stay open and have those conversations? 

Question #9: Are there any tips you can share about that communication process? 18:22 

Jeff Davis:

I think it’s always good to bring to the table, when you’re working with a consultant who is looking at facilities master planning, all of your thoughts and ideas that you’ve developed over time. But at the same time, to be open to new ideas. As you do that it allows us to understand the resources you have and where you’ve been. Then, as we look at the community to find what these new opportunities are it becomes something that is really critical.

As we communicate, it’s really important for things such as your strategic plan to seamlessly work together with your facilities master plan. Because your facilities are a resource, or an asset that can help you accomplish your strategic plan. If you have a strong strategic plan that is something you can prepare to use together with the facilities master plan. But it’s really important to be able to talk about these things. I would encourage you not to forget and just go into it blindly. But bring all of the stuff together, and then look at how you can repurpose some of that as you move forward working with your consultants.


Question #10: That’s super helpful, thank you. Do you have a favorite book or resource, if we’re starting to plan, we’re starting to work with folks, is there something we can refer to that will help people effectively engage in the library design process? 20:27 

Jeff Davis:

There are a lot of books and resources out there on the topic of library design and facilities planning, but as we look at 21st century libraries, even though we’re moving into the third decade of the 21st century, we’re still kind of on the cusp of learning how to do it this new way that is more feasible financially, and looks harder at the community and what those needs are. There aren’t a lot of resources. 

When I went through the Harvard Library Design Executive Education Program years ago, there were books and websites and a lot of information that we could go through to do that data and number crunching that I talked about earlier. We still look at that and do that, but the resources for looking at it from this human-centered approach, I really think that we’re looking to our community as a resource to understand.

One resource that we’ve utilized a lot as we’ve done this is called, The SEED Network. It’s a public outreach process that you can actually get a certification for in public outreach. You may have heard of the Public Interest Design Movement where architects, designers, and building planners—most of the public doesn’t get a lot of input on the spaces that they’re in. SEED stands for social, economic, and environmental design and it puts together a framework in which you can start to reach out to the community in a way that allows you to go to them instead of just asking them to come to you.

We often send out surveys or we hold a public meeting and ask people to come to it, or we engage people who are coming to the library. But, we’re missing a lot of people. We’re missing the people who are working two or three jobs, but their kids are always at the library. They don’t have time for things like that. Where are they already going? Are they going to soccer games on Sunday mornings? Are they going to a community fair?

I know at the Glendale Library that was our most successful public outreach—when we went to the Unity Fair and had all kinds of people from all kinds of different backgrounds and countries, and languages that came together to give us input. We had to have tools where we could engage people even with different languages. I think there were over eighty languages, Adriane, in that community that were spoken.

So we couldn’t just bring translators for all those people so we had to have a lot of visual tools. But as we go out and reach out to them, that really becomes our main resource.


That was an incredible event and very visual, and so much wonderful feedback we got from the folks in that community. And the library turned out beautifully, and it means a lot to everybody still, to this day. So, it was a good project. 

Question #11: Jeff, I know that you work a lot with libraries and librarians. In closing I wanted to ask you what does designing libraries mean to you, personally? 24:39 

Jeff Davis:

For me personally, it comes back to people. I said in the beginning, architecture is about people, not buildings. To dig even deeper into that, for really my whole career I’ve had a mantra of, remember people. That’s what libraries mean to me and that’s really why I’ve ended up in the library world is because libraries mean so much to so many people. 

They provide these resources and opportunities no matter what stage of life you’re in, or what situation you’re in. It’s a way to really reach out and help people. My interest in library planning and design really comes back to the center of my soul of helping people. That’s where I get my motivation and it’s what gets me up in the morning excited and ready to go.


That’s fantastic. Thank you for all that you do and, thank you for being on the show. It’s been fun talking to you.

Jeff Davis:

Thank you for the invitation.

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You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Adriane Herrick Juarez. Our producer is Nate Vineyard. More episodes can be found at, where you can now subscribe to have new shows delivered right into your email inbox. You can also find the show on Apple iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you for listening. We’ll see you next time.

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