Intimate, relatable and protective: what we can learn from the design of reading spaces for expert readers

Alberto Manguel, the director of the National Library of Argentina once commissioned his own library to house his extensive private collection of books. For Manguel, an expert in library buildings1, the physical and sensory qualities of a library can clearly enhance or diminish the “mental atmosphere that we create in the act of reading” (Manguel, 2009, p. 133). For Manguel, these qualities include, “the distance of the shelves, the crowding or paucity of books”; “scent and touch” and “the varying degrees of light and shade” (ibid.). 

Manguel’s proposition that the design of library buildings might improve or detract from the reading experience is hardly a radical one and may even feel like a commonplace assertion. However, he makes an important point since an attention to the design of reading spaces in schools are often neglected to the detriment of readers. 

In schools, the designed qualities of reading spaces that promote concentration and comfort are not always brought to the fore. That’s not to say that the decoration of reading spaces isn’t thoughtful, beautiful or striking in schools but spaces designed for expert readers, like libraries, are generally quiet havens with alcoves, nooks and half-concealed spaces where readers can settle down with a book and acoustic and visual protection are integral to the design. In schools, this is rarely the case. 

Manguel’s thoughtfulness about the experience of the reader in a library space echoes McLaughlin’s understanding of what it means to be an expert reader, in which “[t]he reading body allows concentration to absent itself from the surround, but the surround persists as a determining but almost invisible background” (McLaughlin, 2015, p. 139). If expert readers, who are able to bring years of concentration to the task of reading, benefit from protected and spaces, how much more beneficial is it likely to be for novice readers to have the same protection? 

An example of this careful attention to detail is the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, which was redesigned by the architect and bibliofile Henri Labrouste in 1868 to create spaces within spaces that were intimate, relatable and protective of the reader’s comfort and concentration within the vastness of the library building. Each of these perfectly planned spaces included the provision of shelving that was modelled on the reach of a hand, an inkstand and a pen holder and a heated footrest to ensure that the reader’s feet were cosy and warm.

This attentiveness to the comfort of the expert reader is something expected rather than remarkable within many academic library buildings. Is it unreasonable to suggest that bringing a similar attention to detail to reading spaces for schools could have a significant impact on beginner readers? One might argue that school libraries are often beautifully designed and incorporate elements of protection and comfort but all too often these spaces are only visited by children once a week to select books from the shelves rather than being the spaces where children do the daily work required for them to learn to be readers.

A crucial step forward is designing specifically for beginner readers in school by recognising and redesigning to minimise the qualities of spaces that can be particularly detrimental to learning to read. In my post Of tides and rock pools, I wrote about the precariousness of reading spaces in schools. By attending to the qualities of the places where readers read and matching them carefully to qualities that can support novice readers, such as visual and acoustic protection, we might make a real difference to these readers. 

Notes

  1. For anyone who enjoys reading about reading, readers and libraries, Manguel’s books A history of reading and The library at night are highly recommended.

References

Manguel, A. (1996). A history of reading. New York: Viking.

Manguel, A. (2009). The library at night. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

McLaughlin, T. (2015). Reading and the body: the physical practice of reading. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

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