Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians

#165, January 17, 2003

Or why you might want to hire me for speaking engagements or workshops. To see outlines for previous presentations I've done, click on Handouts

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Order My Book

Click HEREto place a direct order for my book, The Quintessential Searcher: the Wit and Wisdom of Barbara Quint

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What IS Ex Libris?

The purpose and intended scope of this e-zine

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E-Mail Subscription?

For a combined subscription to Neat New Stuff and ExLibris, please click HERE, complete the form, and click on "subscribe." To unsubscribe, use the same form but click on "unsubscribe." To change addresses for an existing subscription, unsubscribe from that form and return to the page to enter the new address.

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Highlights from Previous Issues:

My Rules of Information

  1. Go where it is
  2. The answer depends on the question
  3. Research is a multi-stage process
  4. Ask a Librarian
  5. Information is meaningless until queried by human intelligence
  6. Information can be true and still wrong

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Guru Interviews

  1. Tara Calishain
  2. Jenny Levine, part I
  3. Jenny Levine, Part II
  4. Reva Basch
  5. Sue Feldman
  6. Jessamyn West
  7. Debbie Abilock
  8. Kathy Schrock
  9. Greg Notess
  10. William Hann
  11. Chris Sherman
  12. Gary Price
  13. Barbara Quint
  14. Rory Litwin
  15. John Guscott
  16. Brian Smith
  17. Darlene Fichter
  18. Brenda Bailey-Hainer
  19. Walt Crawford

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Cool Quotes

The collected quotes from all previous issues are at

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When and How To Search the Net

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Wanna See Your Name in Lights?

Or at least on this page, anyway? I'd like to print here your contributions as well as mine. As you've noticed, articles are brief, somewhere between 200 and 500 words -- something to jog people's minds and get their own good ideas flowing. I'd also be happy to run other people's contributions to the regular features like Favorite Sites on _____. I'll pay you the same rate I pay me: nothing.

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Drop me a Line

Want to comment, ask questions, submit articles, or invite me to speak or do some training? Contact me at: marylaine at

Visit My Other Sites

My page on all things book-related.

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Best Information on the Net
bestinfo/default.htmThe directory I built for O'Keefe Library, St. Ambrose University, still my favorite pit stop on the information highway.

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My Word's Worth
a weekly column on books, words, libraries, American culture, and whatever happens to interest me.

Subject Index to My Word's Worth at

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Book Proposal

Land of Why Not: an Appreciation of America. Proposal for an anthology of some of my best writing. An outline and sample columns are available here.

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My personal page

SUBJECT INDEX to Past Issues

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Neat New Stuff I Found This Week
January 17: family papers, science fair projects,songs inspired by literature, and more.

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My resume


William H. Whyte. The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. The Conservation Foundation, 1980.
How To Turn a Place Around: a Handbook for Creating Successful Public Spaces Project for Public Spaces, 2000. Reviewed by Marylaine Block

These aren't new books, which are the normal subject for book reviews. They are merely important books, and because they are not specifically about libraries, librarians may be unaware of them. And that would be a pity.

You see, the fact is the kind of non-commercial public space that librarians provide without even thinking much about it is far scarcer these days than information. It's an asset we need to stress more in our marketing.

But we could also afford to look carefully at the public spaces we provide and see how they can be improved upon. These two books -- the classic work by William H. Whyte and the work by the Project for Public Spaces -- show you techniques for measuring how public space is used, which spaces attract users, which spaces repel them, which spaces offer opportunities for people to interact with each other.

William H. Whyte set out, armed with cameras, to track the use of small urban parks and plazas. He then mapped the specific amenities and seating available at each park and charted the patterns of use. The questions he asked, and found answers for are these:

  • Where did people sit, and what places did they avoid?
  • How were their movements affected by sun, shade, water, flowers, trees, food, and types of available seating?
  • What kinds of seating did they prefer?
  • How did use patterns change over the course of the day?
  • Did people use the space as single individuals or in groups?
  • What elements of design invite them to move from the exterior into the public space?
  • What moved them to interact with strangers?
  • Would they move out of the path of foot traffic to conduct conversations, and if so, would they move to quieter, more out of the way spaces?
  • How did these small urban spaces relate to the commercial and civic buildings around them?
  • Did they have a cross-fertilizing effect, generating foot traffic and more business, which might in turn generate users of the public spaces?
  • If they were relatively unused, or used for undesirable purposes, did they cause people to stay away from the entire neighboring area?

    Despite the fact that he was concentrating on plazas and parks, not public buildings, many of his findings are relevant to librarians, especially any who are planning new buildings or renovations of their existing ones.

    For example, he found that a plentiful amount of available seating -- formal or informal, chairs or benches or steps or ledges -- is important to people, ESPECIALLY when the seating is arranged for good views and for interaction with other people, and especially when the seating is movable; people like the control that being able to make even minor rearrangements gives them.

    People like wide avenues into public spaces, so they can see what's going on inside them before they enter -- a finding that suggests the desirability of ground level windows that allow people outside to observe the activity inside.

    Not surprisingly, conversation pieces like interesting art works or exhibits or public entertainment move people to interact with strangers. Not surprisingly, amenities like food encourage people to linger and enjoy a moment out of time.

    If you have flowers and ponds and waterfalls and trees, people want to interact with them -- they hate places that offer such attractions and post keep out signs and barriers around them.

    Whyte's work, which is still in print after all these years, offers and documents these insights and more with a rich collection of photographs. He also includes appendices showing how to apply his methods.

    More to the point, after more than twenty years, his insights remain true, according to the folks from the Project for Public Spaces In How To Turn a Place Around, the PPS team offers methods and case studies and before and after photos for turning unloved public spaces into appealing ones. They make clear, though, that the best method for improving a public space is to not make mistakes in the first place; the trick is to work with designers and force them to plan for how people wish to use the space.

    For instance, instead of building an uninviting monolith of a building which you then have to retrofit with a patio/front porch arrangement, as was done with the post office in Montpelier, Vermont, how much better to suggest that the designers incorporate casual, friendly attractive sitting areas inside and out in the first place? Why not have designers attend public forums where they can find out how citizens want to use the space? How about asking designers to see the buildings not as isolated entities, but buildings that interact with an existing civic and commercial environment, and asking how it can contribute to and draw foot traffic from that environment? How about arranging elements that generate activity so that they feed off each other?

    This book (much of which is available on their web site) offers more than theory and case studies; it offers a methodology. Its workbook for evaluating public spaces shows you observational techniques that will help you figure out what makes a public space successful -- and maybe what your users are looking for but not finding in your current arrangements. It gives you a whole range of questions to ask as you watch your current users.

    The nicest thing of all is that improving your public space, both inside and outside your building, doesn't need to cost big bucks. Both Whyte and the Project for Public Spaces highlight small, inexpensive changes that can make a big difference.

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    Cities in America have begun to look more like each other in recent years, and every place is beginning to look like every other place. Stores, buildings and streets are increasingly homogeneous, and traffic dominates our lives, even in small towns. As driving has become the main way to get around, walking has become a lost art.

    Imagine another kind of city -- one in which walking has been rediscovered, and streets and sidewalks invite people to stroll, linger and socialize -- not just move on through. Imagine locally owned businesses with their own character and style...Imagine buildings that aren't interchangeable with those built by some other developer in some other town, but whose look and functins are related to their place. Imagine parks and squares that are the highlight of the city, where the community gathers for its civic, cultural and social functions. These are the types of places that come to mind when we think about a livable community.

    How To Turn a Place Around. Project for Public Spaces, 2000.

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    You are welcome to copy and distribute or e-mail any of my own articles for noncommercial purposes (but not those by my guest writers) as long as you retain this copyright statement:

    Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
    Copyright, Marylaine Block, 1999-2002.

    [Publishers may license the content for a reasonable fee.]