Tuesday, November 12, 2013

You Can't Get There From Here: Wayfinding in an Academic Library

Before I get into the meat of this post, there's a word up in the title that you may not recognize, so I want to define it. "Wayfinding" is how we use the physical space and the cues it provides to find our way around; it's also a term used to describe signage systems that help us do just that. And it's a big deal.

I'm sure you're now asking, "but what about the rest of the post's title?" Well... Growing up in Massachusetts, I often heard a joke about a clueless city dweller and a Maine farmer. The joke went something like this:
A Bostonian gets hopelessly lost on a back road in Maine, his map and the directions he was given completely useless. A little ways up the road he sees a farmer mending a fence, so the Bostonian stops to ask for directions.
The farmer stops what he's doing, thinks about it for a moment, then starts [and you have to tell this part in a thick Maine accent which I've left off to help clarity], "You go down this road till you get to the fork where they rebuilt that barn that burned down a couple of years ago, take the left... no, the right at that fork. Hmm, no, that won't work. Tell you what, you go back the way you came for about three miles and turn left at that intersection where they're talking about putting a gas station and... No, that won't work either."
The farmer pauses for a while longer, and then looks at the Bostonian, "You know what, now that I think of it, really, you can't get there from here."
I look at how freshmen interact with my current library, and this has been true of every library where I've ever worked, and it seems like the freshmen are the Bostonians and we - librarians, upperclassmen, etc. - are the Maine farmers. We're friendly and helpful, but sometimes we make things harder than they need to be. The thing is, even the simplest of academic libraries can be overwhelming to freshmen, so we need to do everything we can to make the library as welcoming as possible, including the signage. Redesigning the wayfinding system/signage is something I did at my last job, and something I have slated for the summer of 2014 for my new gig. I've been thinking about it a lot lately, so I thought I'd share.

Here are some things I did with that past project that I'll either apply the lessons I learned in Ohio or recreate here. (This list was gleaned from reading multiple works on the topic that were written by professional architects as well as a couple of articles in the libr* literature.)

  • I spent some time wandering around malls and hospitals. In malls, whether or not the business remains solvent depends on whether people can find their way around. In hospitals, people's lives depend on it. (Yes, this is another instance of me beating the "Get Out of Your Silo" drum.)
  • I also went to nearby libraries to see what they were doing. I wanted to see the kinds of terminology they were using, since a lot of our students were from the local area. I also wanted to see what they were doing right and wrong. There was one public library that had well-designed, sturdy signs, so I sought out the person who'd overseen the project. She gave me some great pointers and the name of their vendor. On the other hand, there was an academic library not too far away that had all sorts of jargony signs. Ick.
  • Since I have a background in disabilities, I knew to research the Americans with Disabilities Act and what it has to say about signage.
  • Something that isn't in ADA but that does relate to disabilities is font. I know from previous work and lots of reading on the topic, that sans serif fonts are legible to a broader spectrum of people. (I'm especially fond of Trebuchet MS, because the a and the o look very different, which is a good thing.) I know fancy fonts are all fancy, but legibility is key.
  • I knew I needed to test new ideas before putting money and effort into creating a final product. One example of this was how we created the new library directory. I would go up to students in different parts of the library and say things like, "I know this may seem like a silly question, but what would you call this room?" Then, when I had a good draft of the list we wanted to use, I did the opposite - asked patrons, "I'm testing something for a new directory. Where in the library would you find [fill in the blank]?" I also checked to make sure that the signs were legible from a variety of distances and angles. Again: test test test!

That list above isn't a cure-all, but it is a good place to start. The best advice I can give you about signage is to be careful, or else you could end up causing this level of confusion:



  1. Reminds me of this video someone made about the University of Michigan's Hatcher Graduate Library/Labyrinth. If you've ever been there, you know this is not even an exaggeration.


    The hospital where I work is very large and is currently in the middle of a major construction project. No amount of signage is going to help, so they have a lot of red-vested volunteers whose sole job is to walk people from place to place. In the library, too, it's better to walk with people (when possible) rather than point.