Over the last couple of years the local shopping centre has been undergoing a facelift, a big extension. There is some really great stuff happening and it will be exciting to see the finished result. New shops, a link up to the local railway station making it a little safer to travel and some great new eating and coffee shops too.
One stage of this development opened to the public in the last couple of weeks. The new shops are lovely, new, bright, airy. A fresh feeling about them. it’s a nice pleasant feeling to wander and see the changes, to see what some of the new retailers are.
One part of this new opening is the new library. I was looking forward to this development. I am quite a fan of libraries. They tend, mostly, to be havens of quietness, escapes from the hustle and bustle of the noisy shopping centre, a refuge from the sensory assault of noisy environments and multiple strands of communication, buzzing fluorescent lights, crowded unpredictable walkways.
This new library is a three level building, the actual library occupies the middle level. The local council has a business hub space on the top floor, the bottom floor is a mix of an art gallery space, some areas for sitting to read or chat with friends complete with power to tables to plug-in devices to charge, and a cafe space.
On seeing this new library space I felt positive and quite excited about it. I went to visit it on the weekend with two of my three girls. We travelled the stairs to the middle floor to check out the library space.
It’s all over the place. Shelves running in all different directions, no clear defined service space where you can find the library staff to assist you as necessary, but rather scattered little desks. Seemingly a lack of order in the organisation of the library resources.
Some lovely spaces to sit and work on your device of choice, including what looked like a couple of lovely little haven spaces enclosed little hubs with a central table and seating around it. Some comfortable chairs to relax and read, wi-fi access in all areas, some good old-fashioned tables and chairs for the traditionalists, like me.
I felt I could pretty much live with the chaotic layout with the quality of the facilities. I thought to myself, okay, I can live with this, this could be my new haven space to work, complete with good coffee right downstairs.
Oh how wrong can one be.
What do you think of when you think of a library, I wonder?
Perhaps I am getting old but I think of almost silent spaces, where other people’s concentration needs are respected, and if not enforced by fierce librarians. Rows of tall shelves well-ordered and labelled full of books. The click clack of shoes on the floor, and the absence of chatter and unnecessary noise.
Oh how times have changed. It seems the desire to be modern, aesthetically and architecturally novel seems to trump the concept of functionality of space for the users.
I went for another visit today. I took my eldest daughter with me, both armed with laptops and ready for some quiet solace. We started with a coffee together in the downstairs cafe. Nearby was a group of women meeting for coffee, enjoying the company of friends, chatting and laughing together. Nothing wrong with that of course, except for the cavernous reverberation and amplification of those voices to the extent they were bouncing around my head with ferocity.
I briefly thought to myself. Well this is certainly not going to be a quiet space here in the cafe.
We enjoyed our drinks and made our way upstairs. I found a home in one of the aforementioned pods. Set myself up, popped on my noise cancelling headphones and fired up the laptop. My daughter found a place at a table and did the same.
It was now that I discovered that the true failing of this wonderfully aesthetically pleasing new building. The stairs that link the three levels run pretty much up the centre of the building, in an open channel. Creating in a sense a chute. A chute that seemed to draw every sound from the bottom of floor of the building and push it up to leak with seemingly amplified volume into the space of the library.
I sat dumfounded and amazed that sitting in this pod, with my noise cancelling headphones on and some quietly soothing music playing that the voices of those happily socializing women were as clear to me, or perhaps clearer than they had been when I had sat drinking a coffee two tables from them.
A persisted, hoping it would quiet, but alas, the next phase of the morning was the toddler story time. This occurred on the other side of the floor to where I was situated. And again the noise of this reverberated around the room making it near impossible to concentrate on the work I was attempting to do.
Clearly no autistic people were consulted or considered in the design of this great new building. Clearly the idea of this modern space and the look of it are far more important to those running the project than if the building is fit for the purpose it is to fulfil.
I don’t consider myself a stick-in-the-mud and don’t think that the totally silent library is necessarily a practical thing in the modern tech world we live in, but, this situation is quite ridiculous.
I consider my auditory sensory issues to be fairly mild in comparison to many other autistics, yet it was unbearable to me. I can’t imagine the overloading experience it would be to some of my friends. Likely meltdown or shutdown inducing.
I share this story of my day, to ask, how do we manage to ensure that neurodiversity and sensory sensitivity could be considered in the design phase of projects like these. There are so many places where we the sensory assault is very difficult to manage. Isn’t it perhaps time that autistics and sensory sensitive people were considered.
What is the way forward here. How do we stop this from continuing to happen and more and more places that were something of a haven for autistic and sensory sensitive people are wiped off the face of the earth.
I would contend too that a sensory haven for autistics is also going to be a pleasant space for non-autistic people to take time out, take a break from hustle and bustle of shopping and errands, to sit and do some work or reading too.
I look forward to hearing your points of view on this.