Interpretive Master Planning

Library Design – Interpretive Master Planning for Our New Town Squares (Part 1)

By Jo Ann Secor, Principal, Director of Interpretive Services


In this two-part post, I’ll explore the evolution of libraries in the 21st century and how Interpretive Master Planning is essential in the design and development of these spaces to meet the new and diverse needs of contemporary library patrons.


The excitement of finding a good book is a strong childhood memory associated with my weekend visits to our local library with my father. He would look for Ed McBain and U.S. history books and I would do school research and then look for one or two children’s novels to take home until the following Saturday. I can vividly recall the buzz of the patrons and the staff searching the stacks, sitting and reading and conversing with one another. In recent decades, this communion with books and people appeared under threat. First, with the advent of the internet and then, with the introduction of e-reading, libraries seemed to be on the cusp of becoming a place lost in time.


I joined the chorus of patrons lamenting this loss, yet, even as I have become a user of the e-reader, I, along with many others, still read physical books and magazines and continue to visit my local library. It turns out that the reports of the death of libraries have been greatly exaggerated. Why should this be so? It is that people visit libraries for so many more reasons now than to just borrow a book. The Center for an Urban Future reported on this phenomenon in a paper released in June 2015 entitled, “NYC Libraries by the Numbers,” which opens with the following paragraph:


“In today’s information economy, New York City’s public libraries have become dynamic learning environments with an uncommonly wide range of services and resources. No longer just book repositories, libraries are places where teens can geek out on computers, the unemployed can improve their resumes, and immigrants can learn and practice English. They are community spaces where people are encouraged to share stories and impart advice, where volunteers can donate their skills and teach a class on knitting or film editing. They are platforms for community organizations and neighborhood groups, and resources for budding entrepreneurs and hobbyists.”



Interpretive Master Planning workshop for an educational facility

Interpretive Master Planning workshop for an educational facility





We are both contributors to and benefactors of the incredible evolution of libraries into centers for our communities: early childhood, youth and senior programs abound; demonstrations, workshops, performances and musical events are common; classes in subjects ranging from American History to Zydeco music. How and why has this happened? Because of their innately democratic nature, libraries have become the nexus of the community, the hub around which the community revolves. They are the town squares of the 21st century. It is here that we find the most inter-generational users and truly the most ethnically, socially and economically diverse community of learners and doers.


Libraries need to meet these growing and changing aspirations of their communities from both a programmatic and physical perspective. New library design needs to respond to these expanding interests and greater demands with an appropriate architectural program that evolves from a strong Interpretive Master Planning process, which asks and answers questions such as: Who are our users? What are their interests? How do we want/need to interface with these groups? Clearly having a user-group that includes everyone from toddlers to seniors connotes the need for a solid understanding of how each group navigates the world in order to create the best library experience for them.


Summary diagram from an Interpretive Master Planning workshop for an educational facility

Summary diagram from an Interpretive Master Planning workshop for an educational facility





What does master planning entail and how does it get you to creating a meaningful library design for your constituents?  The process is basically three pronged: 1) Project Immersion and Scope Definition; 2) Programming, Site and Conceptual Planning; and 3) Refinement of Master Plan Recommendations.


The first phase is focused on a deep immersion into the program, culture and vision for the project. While reviewing pertinent documents, plans, reports and surveys, our team is meeting with key project stakeholders for their input. This allows us to begin formulating a needs assessment that is analyzed alongside the Project Team’s parameters, aspirations and logistical concerns.


The second step focuses on creating a preliminary site and facility analysis whereby we integrate our findings into a Preliminary Program Matrix that highlights potential program enhancements and recommendations along with a narrative description of the various key initiatives. Preliminary Conceptual Planning and Design is also begun in the second phase.


The final phase is the result of this collaborative process whereby the critical input from the project stakeholders and our recommendations become integrated in a Master Plan Summary Report that includes key project findings and recommendations, preliminary Conceptual Design, ROM budget and proposed project time frame, recommended next steps and phasing to realize the project. This process and its results will yield a product that the library can use to move the project forward to realization.


Read Part 2 here.