Don't be shy, pep up your shelf life

May 26, 2006

A simple but 'beautiful' colour-coded system is taking the wrong turns out of library navigation. Harriet Swain checks out a scheme dreamt up by a dyslexic student that is unlocking knowledge

A dyslexic design student is not the obvious source of a challenge to the Dewey Decimal System, which has brought order to libraries across the world since the 1870s. But Jason Healey's dyslexia inspired him to make the library at the Arts Institute at Bournemouth more user-friendly for everyone.

Healey developed Universal Access by Design in 2003 as part of his final major project for an undergraduate degree in graphic design at Bournemouth.

His system was recognised with a Best New Blood award from the educational charity D&AD, which aims to promote good design and advertising.

The system was put in place at the institute's library at the end of last year. It involves using colours and symbols rather than numbers to represent the different sections of the library.

At the end of each book stack are large panels bearing the symbol and a block of colour relevant to the subject of the books on the stack, plus a short description of the subject in sans serif type to make it as easy to read as possible. Other panels dotted around the library provide a key to the symbols and colours. A magnetic strip running along the bottom of each shelf is also colour coded. Numbers are necessary only when it comes to distinguishing individual volumes.

Healey's aim was to promote browsing, even among those who would usually find it difficult, such as those with vision problems. He says his system makes it simple for students to identify sections relevant to their course in different parts of the library or different floors.

"When you walk into a library, it can be quite daunting to see a sea of books with white labels," he says. "I wanted to make it easier for people with disabilities and get a library to open up the book culture further afield."

Julia Waite, librarian at the institute, says that it was impossible to introduce the whole of Healey's plan, which would have replaced numbers altogether, because of the quantity of books and the work it would have entailed, as well as the reluctance of those accustomed to Dewey Decimal Classification. But she was interested in the idea of using colours and symbols to "get people to the right part of the library without using numbers".

Having three different ways of directing people to the books they need - colours, numbers and symbols - means there is now a method to suit most people.

She says it has made life easier for library staff who can direct people to "the orange section upstairs" rather than "shelfmark 7.914". She also expects the system to make induction for first-year students easier.

Staff will be able to tell borrowers which colours and symbols they are most likely to need for their courses. "One of the big advantages of it is that it is a much more friendly way of getting to know the library for new students," she says.

Some academics have also admitted that they find the new colour-coded system easier than numbering, and like the way it is easier to tell when one section begins and another ends.

Waite submitted a bid for funding jointly with Donna Blanche, the disability officer, and received a grant from the Government's Aimhigher initiative, which promotes wider participation in higher education. Once a pilot had been completed, which resulted in very positive student feedback, she also had the enthusiastic backing of the principal and deputy principal.

Even then, the new initiative almost failed to get off the ground - getting strips to mark the shelves in 14 distinctly different colours looked a near-impossible task. Eventually, they were able to draw on the knowledge of a company attached to the university through its Enterprise Pavilion, which suggested and sourced magnetic strips.

While the new system has simplified signing in the library, it has also improved its look, Waite says. "The panels at the ends of the bays have really lifted the library," she says. "They are very distinctive from a distance and look completely different from what you find in most libraries."

Blanche praises the new system for "its simplicity and its beauty". In focus groups, dyslexic students and schoolchildren have commented that it was so simple that they could not understand why everyone else was not doing the same, she says.

Different departments at Bournemouth have now adopted some of the colours and symbols in their literature.

The library is exploring the possibility of linking the new labelling system to entries in the library catalogue. It is also considering making the symbols raised to help those with sight problems. And Waite has been asked to submit articles on the project to the Chartered Institute of Library Information Professionals and Society of College, National and University Libraries.

Healey says that although he is pleased that the library took up his ideas on signing, he had hoped it would adopt other suggestions in his project - for example that library staff with different expertise should also have colour-coded badges. He says he is constantly adding to the design and is planning to promote it in libraries elsewhere in the UK and overseas.

"I have created a system that doesn't discriminate against people's capabilities, creating universal access for all," he says. "It effectively unlocks the knowledge in the library."

Further information

Universal Access by Design,


If you want to try something similar:

It should make life easier for everyone - not just those with disabilities

Don't be too radical - keep existing systems alongside

Make sure colours and symbols fit the particular environment of your library

Get the backing of senior staff

Realise it will take longer than you think

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