Wandering Eyes and Security

In years past, library security involved locking all but the main entrance doors and stationing a security guard at the circulation desk nearby. The configuration allowed officials to monitor library property and building occupants.

However, libraries have acquired a host of new responsibilities that bring more people into the libraries, and students work and relax in the building differently. The operational change has altered the design of libraries as well as the way design supports security.

Not Just for Books Anymore

During the last 10 years, which saw the rise of the Internet, the role of the campus library has changed. Libraries remain symbols of institutional intellectual aspirations, but those aspirations have expanded beyond books, magazines and microfilm to include all of the information available online in the digital domain — including digital data, print and video information.

At the same time, today’s students learn differently than their predecessors. They are less formal and more collaborative. They recognize the thin, perhaps invisible division between social and academic experiences.

Students do more academic work outside of formal environments. Classrooms, residence halls and student centers offer spaces designed to promote learning via cross-pollination among individuals and groups of people for students and faculty.

Library design has evolved to accommodate collaborative learning processes, becoming a kind of quasi-student center, campus hub and a general destination for activities that go beyond reading and writing.

Flexible furnishings and infrastructure are planned at Ohio State University’s Thompson Library, where students will congregate along the edges to see and be seen.

Libraries offers Internet cafés and meeting rooms, where students can plug laptops into the wall or grab a WiFi connection, sit in groups around tables, and work in concert on projects.

The book stacks have changed, too. The percentage of the building dedicated to stacks has shrunk and closed stacks — except for rare books — are scarce. Many books are warehoused; they remain available, but it takes a little longer to retrieve them.

The books that remain in the library are increasingly stored on compact, automated shelves. By cramming more books into smaller areas, libraries are freeing up space to accommodate flexible, informal people-oriented learning and meeting areas.

Library Design and Security

The changing uses of libraries have forced librarians to create more than one entrance.

The expanded mission of today’s campus libraries has created security challenges. Constrained campus budgets can’t afford to place security officers at each newly opened library door, and with more doors open and less monitoring, the risk of theft is greater.

However, the functional needs of campus libraries and security considerations have a common architectural answer.

Modern library spaces include areas for group study, gathering and socializing, presentations and lectures, special projects and dedicated media or technology areas. Building these kinds of spaces with fewer corridors and partitions eliminates nooks and crannies that create hiding spaces and other security concerns.

Transparency between public and semi-private spaces can reveal a spark of life within facilities.

Glass walls can provide acoustic privacy, while enhancing sightlines and security. Glass can also enclose library staff offices, providing them with the same clear sightlines across the floor. This can greatly reduce the risk of thieves, vandals and others with criminal intentions.

Security Tools and Technologies

Several new architectural ideas are designed to enhance library security.

Libraries are installing low-slung temporary lockers where students can store their things for a short time. This allows them to make errands and do other tasks without packing and carrying laptops, books and other supplies.

Technologies include RFID tags on books, laptops and other library materials, which work with sensors that sound an alarm when an RFID tag passes through a turnstile or other architectural feature leading directly to an exit.

Entrances can be equipped with intrusion alarms that activate when doors or windows are forced open.

Card access control to the library can ensure that only people in good standing with the campus community have access through all of the doors. Systems can be used with smart cards that serve as student IDs.

Most libraries today have used and continue to use video cameras to monitor entrances, exits and common areas with valuable equipment. Although deterrence is a benefit of this type of security system, plenty of people still commit crimes in areas with video surveillance. In that case, video generally proves to be more useful as an investigative tool that can be reviewed after an incident.

However, recent software innovations have produced a new software tool called intelligent video, which can be loaded onto microchips placed inside of cameras. The software triggers an alarm in the security center when certain images or motions are detected.

Airports use intelligent video technology to scan for abandoned packages, to detect fights and to detect people in areas where they aren’t supposed to be.

Intelligent video technology is probably too expensive for use in college libraries. However, its price declines substantially every 12 to 18 months. It won’t be long before intelligent video can improve library security by adding another set of wandering eyes.

Youngmin Jahan, AIA, LEED AP, is a principal with the GUND Partnership. Jahan specializes in academic libraries and learning communities. She can be reached at (617) 250-6800 or yjahan@gundpartnership.com

Christine Verbitzki, AIA, LEED AP, is an associate with GUND Partnership. Verbitzki is GUND’s BIM CAD manager and the firm’s senior educational programmer. She can be reached at (617) 250-6800 or chrisv@gundpartnership.com.