You probably feel comfortable in your own library – it’s familiar, friendly and safe. You know what to expect and where things are. Of course, it’s not perfect and you’d jump at some replacement furniture if somebody offered it but you’re a realist and times are hard. And anyway it seems to work pretty well and the regular patrons who stop to chat never complain.

This sort of easy complacency is very common in libraries. We tend to live with what we’ve got and this results in a mish-mash of furniture styles and colours, accumulated from different times and places. Some people think this contributes to the down-home friendly feel of libraries but it can also be an excuse for untidiness and a real turn-off for new patrons coming in.

The truth is that the physical environment sends messages about your service whether you want it to or not. You can’t abdicate this responsibility. The question is: are you in control of the messages you are sending? Or is the environment quietly giving opposite messages to the ones you would like to give?

It’s great to dream about a complete refurbishment and starting all over again but you may not be lucky enough to get that kind of opportunity. Instead of waiting for the day which never comes, use our top tips for making your library more reader-friendly right away.

1. Check out the first impression

Stand at the entrance – what do you see? According to the latest eye-tracking research in the UK, the view in the door is the most important in tempting customers inside stores, much more important than the view of the windows which are at the wrong angle to the person moving along the street. Can you see books to tempt you already or are they far away behind a sea of instructional notices? If the first impression is one of control barriers and check-out desks, can you mitigate that with some book display on the desk?

First impression: book display at the staff desk

2. What’s in your best spot?

Brands in stores pay for display space at different rates as some locations will perform better than others. Where’s the top spot in your library? It’s usually an area a bit in from the entrance - not right at the doorway as people are still adjusting to coming in. It’s a space which you have clear views of as you approach. It won’t be right next to the staff desk as it needs enough room to linger in so people don’t feel squashed, in the way or hurried to move on.

Once you’ve identified the best spot, what’s in it at the moment? I have visited a lot of libraries where this valuable space is occupied by the photocopier! Even worse, it’s sometimes the location for the Book Sale. Community-minded libraries are quick to give over their best space to anyone else who wants it – displays from other council departments or voluntary organisations. Copiers, booksales and partner displays are all fine things to offer but they don’t need your best space. Move them further back in the library and reclaim your best space for a fantastic book display.

3. Remove clutter and hide necessary work processes

How many empty carts are sitting in your public spaces? Try to change staff practice to use fewer carts more efficiently. Don’t leave carts and crates blocking aisles and through routes – tidy them away.

Tidy away carts, crates and boxes

4. Put books in the eyeline at every turn

Check sightlines as you walk through the space and angle your book displays so they face the direction of customers walking through.

5. Turn single books face-forward on the shelves

It’s much harder to keep library shelves looking good than it is bookstore shelves. In the bookstore, if books are sold, more are unpacked to fill the gaps. In a library the number of books on the shelf is constantly fluctuating as books are checked out and returned. This leads to some libraries keeping large parts of their shelves empty, in case there is a sudden rush of returned books. Other libraries have the opposite problem of shelves packed so tight, customers find it hard to free the title they want to look at.

Left: Empty shelves. Right: Crammed shelves.

Opening the Book Feature Fillers solve this problem and can be moved from shelf to shelf to make a constantly changing display.

Reader-friendly shelves.

If you are interested in learning more about reader-friendly book displays, take a look at Opening the Book’s online training courses. More than 10,000 library staff have used our online courses to change the way their libraries look.

If you’d like to debate the ideas in this column, or make suggestions for what you think will work best in your libraries, please email me on