Voices From The Past Reflecting On The Future (Number 2): Angus Snead Macdonald, User Experience Pioneer

February 18, 2014, 5:41 pm

I’m providing space this week to voices from the past and highlighting bold speculations about the future of libraries.

Today I want to showcase Angus Snead Macdonald. He was the CEO of a library stacks company that developed standardized shelving. This innovation greatly improved planning since librarians could more easily quantify the physical size of their collections. The stacks were also designed to be lightweight and flexible in order to be moved around and adjusted accordingly.

In 1933 he provided The Library Journal with a vision for the future.

 “In the center of the hall convenient to the entrance, there is a circular receiving and delivery desk equipped with intercommunication apparatus and a mechanical system for conveying books to and from storage in other parts of the building. At either side of the delivery desk is waiting space with restful chairs and lounges.”

Was Macdonald imagining high-density book storage systems? Obviously he doesn’t have all the details worked out, remember, this was 1933, but the concept is there. I find this fascinating because here we have the person who revolutionized stacks predicting what’s next.

Macdonald’s core theme is that library spaces of the future should strive for “homelike intimacy instead of monumental impressiveness” and would aim for “charm not grander.”  He repeatedly uses words like adaptable, flexible, and inviting, and envisions patrons being “impressed with a comfortable appearance” that “doesn’t look institutional.” He essentially describes a commons-like space that is similar to the “reading lounge of a luxurious club” where “tea is served” and “smoking is permitted.” People would gather and talk about new books and current events.

And there is this notion of a multimedia-type of lab:

 “There is a space devoted to a large photograph collection compactly stored in rolling cases. Alongside we find a photographer’s room completely equipped with apparatus for reproducing, developing, printing, and color work.” There are patrons “working on building and landscape models” in a room containing “drawing tables with drafting machines and a pantograph.”

 I’m not very familiar with this era of library history, but Macdonald seems ahead of his time. While much of the paper focuses on details such measurements of ceiling heights, windows, and walls, along with descriptions of furnishing and finishes— the overarching theme is on how people should feel inside library buildings. He challenges the traditional “scholarly” vibe believing that it is off-putting to the average person. Public libraries were trying to appeal to a more mainstream audience and Macdonald advocates for a comfortable environment that welcomes everyone not just “a few book-lovers in the minority.”

 It is clear that he envisions libraries as destinations, not just depositories, aligning with some contemporary thinking. He more-or-less describes the third place concept and outlines design studios and makerspaces using the technology of his day. While he was in the business of selling stacks, he presents himself to be very thoughtful about the user experience as well.

I recommend reading the essay. Fascinating to see speculation about the future of spaces from eighty years ago and some of the language is still in our rhetoric today. He also addresses aspects such as subject experts with PhDs, collection layout (50+ departments), and opinions about the “pause in culture” that was the Great Depression.

@askundergrad could we get this dissertation scanned? The influence of Angus Snead MacDonald and the Snead bookstack on library architecture. Baumann, Charles. Thesis (Ph.D.)–University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1969.

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