Confusion in the Library

I went to RMIT’s Swanston Library today. It confused and annoyed me.

To be fair, the library is undergoing major renovations. But still…

I tried to visit the library two weeks ago. The signs pointing me to the entrance lead me on a path through the back-alleys of RMIT, up staircases and down gangplanks, until the signs stopped in a dead-end of construction work.

I gave up and went to the State Library of Victoria instead.

Today I tried a different entrance. I followed the signs up a staircase, across a large room, and up another escalator. I walked through the anti-theft scanners. And…

…And I still wasn’t sure I was in the right place.

What I saw was a large room with desks in it, and lots of students studying. To one side was a darkened room full of students on computers, with a floor sign saying “Quiet Study Area”. Ahead of me was a scrolling LED sign above a circular desk that said “Ask a Librarian”.


There were no maps. There were no books. There were no other signs.

There are three questions I ask myself whenever I enter a new library:

  1. How do I tell where to go?
  2. Who can help me if I need help?
  3. Where are the loos?

I had no idea where to go. There was a middle-aged woman at the “Ask a Librarian” desk who might have been a librarian, but she wasn’t wearing a uniform and I couldn’t see a staff lanyard. And I had no idea even if there were loos there.

Entering a new library is intimidating. We don’t know where to find things. We don’t know what the rules are. We look around us for clues.

This library gave me nothing.

I know: I should have talked to the librarian. But by this stage I was feeling stupid and embarrassed. I’m an Information Management student, for heaven’s sake. Surely I should be able to find my way around a library?

Maybe if I had a specific goal in mind, I would have asked. But I was really only visiting to have a look around.

You can’t ask a librarian if you don’t have a question.

I pushed forward, through a doorway into the next room. More desks, more students. Still no books. The next room had Darth Vader-inspired pods for collaboration. The next room was yet more desks. Side rooms had a building numbers on the doors, but it was a different building than the one I’d entered through. Was I still in the library?

Angular staircases ran up and down, with no hint where they led to. With no clues to guide me, choices became meaningless.

I found an empty seat at a desk. I sat down and did some work.

Afterwards, I tried exploring again. The building still didn’t make sense. The rooms were all completely different styles and colours. The Quiet Study Area was still plunged into darkness except for the glow of computer screens. I did finally glimpse some books: they were in a sealed-off area with a note in front of it explaining that it would open soon.

I left feeling confused and annoyed.

I get that the Swanston Library is being renovated. But there’s still things they could do to help patrons orientate themselves.

Maps not only tell us where to go, they reassure us we’re in the right place to begin with.

Signage helps us find our way around, and answer basic questions: what’s down those stairs? What’s this room for? They had a floor sign for the quiet study area. Why didn’t they have them for the staircases and each room?

And toilets. Clearly mark your toilets. If I’m going to sit down and study for hours without a break, I need to go to the loo first.

On a happier note, here’s an article about Transforming Norwegian Public Libraries. I particularly like the idea of dividing libraries into four spaces:

  • the inspiration space
  • the learning space
  • the meeting space
  • the performance space



About davidwitteveen

IT person. Zine Maker. Level 0 Library Nerd. Doctor Who fan.
This entry was posted in ideas worth stealing, library nerding and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s