marketing libraries, desire lines, metaphors like water

On Twitter, Andrea Snyder (great lunch companion, btw) pointed me to a post on marketing libraries, from which the following struck me:

A major point he made on signage was that, if you have to put up a sign to say what something isn’t, that indicates a problem elsewhere.

(Side note: second time I’ve seen serious ruminations about the talk referenced in this post. Now I wish I’d been at it. Oh well.)

Anyway, this quote reminded me of a story that Lisa Hinchliffe told in her keynote at the ACRL/NEC spring conference this year, about her experiences as head of the UIUC Undergraduate Library. (A great talk, lots of things to drool about even beyond the obligatory nerdcrush on UIUC.) Students kept coming up to the reference desk and asking if they had any graphing calculators people could borrow, and the desk kept saying “no”. And she heard about that and said, uh, how much do they cost? ($100, ish.) So — why not? A few graphing calculators: a few hundred dollars; the ability to say “yes” to patrons: priceless.

It also reminds me of my experience as a commuter cyclist. The roads, duh, are basically designed for cars, as anyone who’s ever navigated them by bike or foot can tell you, which means you will occasionally — at some intersections constantly — encounter even generally law-abiding cyclists doing all sorts of crazy stuff because there is simply no reasonable way to get from point A to point B. (I’m looking at you, intersection of Mass Ave and the bike path in North Cambridge.) Sometimes you will encounter signage telling bicyclists where not to be (don’t ride on the sidewalk, don’t lock your bike to this rack, etc.), and it is always a dead giveaway that bicyclists are doing their damndest to use the infrastructure (which they have a legal and, I contend, moral right to) but have no safe or convenient way to do so.

(And look, I’m that rare and priggish sort who really will follow the traffic laws. I’ll stop at the red lights when no one’s coming. Cross my heart. But there are no provisions made for cyclists crossing that intersection, even with a bike path on both sides. Seriously, people. Work with me here. I’m trying.)

And as long as I’m riffing on the free-association here, it also reminds me of desire lines. You know that quad you’ve all seen, surrounded by useful and probably monumental buildings, laid out with some sort of landscape-architect’s-dream pathways that no one ever uses because they bear no relation to the directions people go? And so there are worn-brown trails through the otherwise-green grass, breaking the landscape architect’s heart, because, really, you need to have a direct route from the building with all the library science classes to the building with the library? (Looking at you, Simmons.) Those are desire lines. They’re the evidence of where people go, what they really do, where they need to be, etched out for you. They are not eyesores. They are free evidence, telling you what to do.

And you can ignore them and rage against them and criticize people for refusing to follow the paths you’ve laid out for them, or you can move with it (isn’t there some kind of Zen metaphor about water that applies here?) and create a world that moves in harmony with the world.


3 thoughts on “marketing libraries, desire lines, metaphors like water

  1. I never understood why quad designers etc would try to guess what people wanted. Seems much simpler to have the big open green space for the first few years and then pave the major “desire lines” in year 3 or 4…


  2. Based on some things an architect friend has said about her experiences with mentors, I think there’s a prevalent attitude in the profession that their job is to shape people’s tastes. It may not be sensible, but it is more gratifying to the ego…


    1. Yeah, I have inferred the same thing from my admittedly extremely limited knowledge of architecture; I have limited patience for it. (Have you read Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn? It shaped a lot of my thinking in this arena.)


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