Project aims and background


Public libraries constitute important physical spaces for communities across Australia, in both regional-remote and metropolitan areas, as has been highlighted by the considerable extent to which they were missed during their closure because of the COVID-19 pandemic, despite users’ continued access to their online collections and services (1). In New South Wales alone, during the fiscal year prior to the pandemic, some 34 million visits were made to physical public libraries (2). Across Australia, there are more than 1,500 libraries for community members to visit (3).

The contemporary, 21st-century public library, and its physical manifestation, is expected to perform a multifaceted role that is educational, informational, recreational, cultural, and social (4). Public libraries in Australia are keen to embrace their communities’ diversity and see advancing social inclusion as part of their mission, along with providing equitable access to information and a ‘third place’ (beyond home and work) in which community members can interact with one another in a respectful and safe environment (5). These goals align with the public library ethos more globally (6, 7). While access to academic, research and other kinds of library may be restricted, public libraries are open to all.

Accordingly, public libraries are visited for a wide range of reasons: activities that users value include browsing, reading, and borrowing materials, using the library’s computers and internet connection, attending various kinds of events and clubs, socialising with staff and other visitors, and using the library as a place for study or work. Many visitors combine multiple activities in a visit, and for some visiting the library is an ‘outing’ in and of itself (1). While a broad spectrum of the community visits public libraries, they tend to be particularly valued by some of society’s more vulnerable groups, including children, the elderly, and those with less disposable income (8).

The design of public libraries’ physical spaces therefore needs to accommodate a wide range of activities and purposes, as well as the varied perspectives of different user groups. This can make their design challenging, as well as a critical factor in the overall effectiveness and success of public libraries. The professional literature includes a range of guides and manuals (e.g., 9, 10) that offer various general principles for librarians overseeing new building or refurbishment projects to consider. These include the centrality of the visitor experience, balancing collection and non-collection space, the importance of ‘ambience’, integrating the digital and physical, giving users autonomy (e.g., by incorporating self-service options), and designing for broad societal goals, such as social justice and inclusion, accessibility, and sustainability. Perhaps most of all, given the diversity of user needs and activities, there is an emphasis on creating flexible, multi-purpose spaces.

What these guides do not do, however, is detail the ways in which libraries can leverage their communities in the design process. Indeed, they are noticeably silent when it comes to co-design (otherwise called participatory design), in which end-users participate in the design process itself, rather than merely being consulted on, for instance, what they like about existing spaces or on prototypes put forward by the designer. Our Partner Organisations (the State Library of New South Wales (SLNSW) and the three public library networks of Albury City Council, the City of Fairfield, and Yass Valley Council) are keen to introduce co-design methods into the development of their library spaces and require a tested and verified framework for library design specifically for this purpose. The framework will incorporate sets of activities with the capacity to generate creative ideas and provide community members with a feeling of ownership over the project as a whole, within a culturally safe environment that facilitates ‘co-deciding’ as well as co-designing, supported by effective communication channels and reliable feedback loops (11).


Pioneering the use of participatory design methods for the public library sector, this project aims to develop a framework for the co-design of public library spaces in Australia. Specifically, we will achieve this by:

  1. mapping the challenges of integrating co-design into the development of public library spaces
  2. road-testing the application of co-design activities to the design of public library spaces
  3. identifying the factors that affect the co-design of public library spaces of different scope or scale
  4. exploring community members’ visions for public library spaces in a COVID-changed world.

The outcome of the project will be the principles and tools needed for public library managers to raise the level of community involvement in the development of future library spaces from that of consultation to that of co-design.


  1. Hider P, Garner J, Wakeling S, Jamali HR. “Part of my daily life”: Why users visit public libraries. Public Lib Q. 2022.
  2. State Library of New South Wales, Public library statistics, 2018-19. Sydney; State Library of New South Wales: 2022 [updated 2022
    April 10; cited 2022 July 7]. Available from:
  3. NSLA, Annual statistics 2020-2021. Deakin; National and State Libraries Australia: 2022 [updated 2022 March 25; cited 2022 July
    7]. Available from:
  4. Dewe M. Planning public library building: Concepts and issues for the librarian. London; Ashgate: 2006.
  5. Hider P, Garner J, Wakeling S, Jamali HR. Serving their communities: An analysis of Australian public library mission statements. J
    Libr Adm 2022;62(2):190-205.
  6. Miettinen V. Redefining the library: Co-designing for our future selves and cities. Public Lib Q 2018;37(1):8-20.
  7. Aabø S, Audunson, R. Use of library space and the library as place. Libr Inf Sci Res 2012;34(2):138-49.
  8. Aptekar S. The public library as resistive space in the neoliberal city. City Community 2019;18(4):1203-19.
  9. Schlipf F. Constructing library buildings that work. Chicago; American Library Association: 2020.
  10. Worpole K. Contemporary library architecture: A planning and design guide. London; Routledge: 2013.
  11. McKercher, KA. Beyond sticky notes. Doing co-design for real. Sydney; Beyond Sticky Notes: 2020.