By Shea Betts, MLIS student (McGill University) and Concordia Student Librarian

Even in an age of intensive off-campus library use, communal spaces such as reading rooms can encourage study (Gayton, 2007). Although the availability of electronic library resources allows users to access much of what they need from home, many users come to reading rooms for the communal experience of engaging in serious study alongside their peers (Gayton, 2007). These rooms offer a sanctuary from the distractions of the outside world, in which users can study or read (West, 2004). According to West (2004), the design of reading rooms reflects the organization of the human mind, and can have a profound effect on the thoughts of patrons. Some rooms may inspire browsing, wandering, and daydreaming, while others are conducive to more orderly thought processes (West, 2004). Physical space can have a profound impact on how we study.

The reading room has undergone drastic changes since its inception. Libraries initially had small desks connected to shelving units that were perpendicular to the walls (Skelton, 2014). Once users had their book, they sat at the desk associated with the particular shelving unit from which the book was selected (Skelton, 2014). Open reading rooms, such as those adopted by the Bodleian Library at Oxford, arose in the early seventeenth century, eventually becoming a standard feature of academic libraries (Skelton, 2014). These open reading rooms allowed the user to sit anywhere they chose, and encouraged exploration by allowing readers to choose books from multiple disciplines (Skelton, 2014). The popularity of open reading rooms has lasted to the present day, and is evident in some of the world’s most recognized academic and public libraries. By the time of its completion in 1911, the New York Public Library’s reading room was the largest in the world (The Sun, 1911). These spaces have consistently inspired the members of the public, authors, and scholars who frequented them.

New York Public Library Main Building, Main Reading Room

New York Public Library Main Building, Main Reading Room, Photo by Wally Gobetz (Creative Commons)

Settings for quiet contemplation, research, reading and writing in the library are undoubtedly popular. According to Freeman (2005), most students consider the reading room their favourite area of the library. These rooms allow students to work individually in a communal atmosphere, while reducing the distractions of daily life. Reading rooms serve a valuable role in the library environment, not only by providing havens for silent study, but also spaces that can inspire.



Freeman, G.T. (2005). The library as place: Changes in learning, patterns, collections, technology, and use. In Library as place: Rethinking roles, rethinking space. Retrieved from

Gayton, J.T. (2008). Academic libraries: “Social” or “Communal?” the nature and future of academic libraries. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 34(1), 60-66.  doi:10.1016/j.acalib.2007.11.011

Skelton, K. (2014). The malleable early modern reader: Display and discipline in the open reading room. Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 73(2), 183-203. Retrieved from

The Sun, 1911, retrieved from:

West, W.N. (2004). Reading rooms: Architecture and agency in the houses of Michel de Montaigne and Nicholas Bacon. Comparative Literature, 56(2), 111-129. Retrieved from