Information Architecture at the Seattle Central Library

Alex Long  

January 15, 2007

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On New Year’s Eve, I visited the Seattle Central Library and discovered a brilliant example of how form follows function. Designed by celebrated Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, the library is the physical embodiment of well-planned information architecture, with its attention to user needs, strategic grouping of information, and clear navigation all integrated with cutting-edge design.

Koolhaas and his team strategically organized the space around its functions and uses. The old library’s collections were scattered across many floors, interspersed with multiple meeting places, administrative offices, and a learning center. Sometimes you had to go up several floors to continue searching the stacks for books you wanted. It was confusing. In the new library, users can ask for information on one level, hold meetings on another, relax in the Living Room, or browse the multiple-level Book Spiral.

One of the more interesting examples of the library’s organization is the Mixing Chamber on the fifth level. In the Mixing Chamber, you can get your questions answered by librarians who sit at desks under what look like several airport flight screens. These screens track real-time library data, like the total items in circulation and recently checked-out books, and are a case study in information visualization. The Mixing Chamber functions like a search engine, in that you can retrieve information by either talking directly to the librarians or by sitting down at one of the 148 (148!) computers and searching the catalogs or the web.

The architects also made it very easy to navigate the building. They consistently applied bright colors and large labels to help you get around. Chartreuse escalators cut across each floor; ruby red Lucite walls identify meeting rooms; oversized section titles (e.g. Fiction) designed by Bruce Mau are clearly visible from a distance; and a large Dewey decimal system is printed on the floors. You can literally browse the stacks by following the numbers like breadcrumbs.

The non-fiction collection located on the sixth through ninth levels is not only linked by escalators, but is built in one continuous spiral with a gradually ramping floor. The inspiration behind this Book Spiral was pure usability for staff and visitor alike. They wanted to allow the collection to grow without staff having to constantly move books and media up and down floors. And meanwhile visitors can wander up and down the spiral without thinking.

More than just the Book Spiral, the entire library demonstrates Steve Krug’s first principle of usability: Don’t make me think. You don’t have to worry about where you’re going or how to get there. And you won’t find yourself trapped in an out of the way room. The library is open and spacious throughout all eleven levels, and you have clear visibility of the other levels above and below you.

To top it off, the library blends modern architecture with green design. The building’s profile looks like an uneven stack of cards made of glass and steel. Its translucent structure and cantilevered platforms allow light to cascade down through the floors. It feels inviting because of the windows, the light, and the open spaces. Koolhaas used recycled wood for the floors and heat saving gratings for the ceiling. He also brought the landscape inside with plant images on green silk-screened carpets. Comfortable red foam chairs sit atop the carpets, making the bottom floor Living Room a great place to relax.

Sure, it may not appeal to everyone, but you can’t argue with the architects’ commitment to user-centered design. The overall effect is stunning. It’s such an inspiring landmark that there are probably as many gawking admirers wandering the floors as there are actual users. I know because I was one of them. If you ever get up to Seattle, I highly recommend checking it out.