Apr 18, 2017
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THEME: Learning

Ceci N’est Pas Une Bibliotheque: Multisensory Environments in Libraries

“The future of architecture will be soft and furry” – Salvador Dalí

Surrealist artist Meret Oppenheim’s Object, 1936. One’s perceptions of objects and spaces may not be the same as your own. Image courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.

An outlandish proclamation by the Surrealist artist Salvador Dali  . . . or is it?  If by “soft” he meant a malleable place that we can touch and feel, a place to imprint our personal interests and make our own – then  perhaps not. If by “furry” he envisioned architectural space much like a living being: changing, growing, shedding, itching, and otherwise evolving with us – then perhaps not.

Will libraries be soft and furry? In many ways they are like warm, cuddly children; familiar and comfortable, yet changing before our eyes into someone we cannot yet fully imagine. They are no longer the temples of books protected by an army of gatekeepers. Nor are they the sole purveyors of access to information, as many of their services have been usurped by the information economy that we constantly tap into through the ubiquitous mobile devices we all carry. And yet, the library of the future remains a palpable place that is in increasing demand and more relevant than ever.

Library. The very name connotes particular values that have proven to be remarkably enduring. And although the values associated with libraries have endured, library buildings and the institutions they support are constantly evolving. Of course, a public library is more than a building or even a social institution. Public libraries represent our shared faith in the ideals of an educated democracy and the opportunity for self-improvement. They are real places where beliefs are shared, values debated, and new knowledge is created. They are our community kitchens for generating ideas and experimentation. And perhaps most importantly, they represent open access to all.

Rendering of the future Route 9 Library in New Castle County, Delaware. The library will include a space to regulate disruptive stimulatory noise to encourage concentration.

This notion of access not only includes open source digital data, analog materials, and physical accessibility, it also embraces an increased acceptance of neurodiversity –the idea that neurological differences like autism and ADHD are the result of natural variations in the human genome. Rather than a pathologized condition, science suggests that it has always been a stable prevalence throughout human history. In the spirit of inclusivity, could libraries offer spaces for those challenged by multi-sensory integration? Could there be a place where individuals can control environmental inputs – a sort of spatial equalizer that allows one to dial sensory frequencies up and down to match one’s personal preferences?

Imagine a place where a child with autism could regulate disruptive stimulatory noise to concentrate on learning to read. What if a person with Alzheimer’s disease could trigger memories and arouse speech through focused combinations of integrated senses? We are currently planning such a space in the Route 9 Library in New Castle County, Delaware. The library is conveniently located along the I-95 corridor, and autism specialists are convinced that parents and therapists working with children on the autism spectrum will drive an hour or more to access the facility. Rarely is such a room publicly available. This will be the first such installation within a public library. The design was developed in partnership with Autism Delaware and Flaghouse, a provider of sensory stimulation products and modules.

A Snoezelen Room is a therapeutic environment created for the express purpose of delivering high levels of stimuli to patients with dementia. A private room displays optical illusions with combined lighting effects, aromas, colors, textures and sounds to stimulate a person’s olfactory, auditory and gustatory systems.

Situated in a quiet nook between the library’s STEM lab and an immersive story-time “bookatarium,” the library’s sensory room will host tunable visual, auditory, tactile, and proprioceptive (that is, one’s own perception) stimulation modules that are controlled by the user to tailor the space to his or her preferences. Patrons immerse themselves in modulated light ropes, choose from a library of sounds, activate illuminated bubble tubes, or submerge themselves into a vibra-ball pit, where they can feel low frequency sound in perfect syncopation with auditory and visual stimuli. Interactive surfaces respond to touch as one drags one’s hands through virtual water and watches the floor ripple in response.

As dynamic incubators of creativity, libraries are no longer comprised of passive rooms, unresponsive and inert. Leaving behind the one-size-fits-all programs of the past, libraries are leveraging technology to provide more personalized library experiences to patrons and their customized ways of learning. The future library will be an experiential place. Spaces will be alive. They will remember our preferences, capture our ideas, suggest resources, showcase our products, and modulate to meet our sensory preferences. While we cannot say what the future library will look like, it will be a living, breathing place with a heartbeat. It will react to our touch. Respond to our call. And, it may very well be soft and furry.

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