Katyayani Singh
Katyayani Singh / Projects / Chicago Public Libraries

Reforming adult learning at Chicago Public Library through design thinking.




This project was designed in the studio elective Social Innovation Studio at School of the Art Institute of Chicago under the guidance of George Aye.

This project was conducted in collaboration with Bethany Sharp, Chiara Montinola, Hyojin Im, Annie Leue and Michel Gantous

Our objective going into the project was on improving adult learning at Chicago Public Library with a special targeted focus on the needs of four branches of CPL: Lozano, Roosevelt, North Pulaski and Humbolt Park.

Our approach to the project focused on human-centered design — a problem-solving process grounded in empathy and iteration. The research process involved site visits and interviews with library workers and patrons. Our findings were organized in an observation+interpretation manner, wherein we took notes of patron’s actions in the libraries and tried to tie them to their root cause. This primary research data was then looked at through a structured manner of analyzing and considering these experiences. Multiple observations+interpretations let to an overarching theme, which in turn led to an insight and a ‘How might we?’ question brief.

The final culmination of this collaboration were three different concepts of possible ways to improve adult participation in the library, which were all prototyped and tested at their respective CPL branches.


Our Focus:

How do adult patrons interact with the library?
Can we identify patterns and meet them where they are?
How can we improve these interactions?


Observation (from interview with branch manager at Roosevelt CPL): “I wish people would ask all kinds of questions more”


Essentially, “help me to help you.” She has the desire to help, but patrons need to express what they need help with.

Observation (from interview with branch manager at Roosevelt CPL):
“It takes a while to make yourself not feel intimidating.”
People want to learn but some have had negative experiences with school or authority figures. While librarians try their best to be accommodating, these past experiences are hard to overcome.


Even if librarians have good intentions and the desire to help, outside factors can affect their relationship with their patrons.

Observation (from interview with branch manager at Roosevelt CPL):
Any time an adult patron has to ask a librarian a question, they feel as though they’ve already failed because they’ve had to ask for help.


There is a social/cultural bias against asking questions.

Children of Spanish-speaking adults occasionally have to translate for their parents in order to communicate with library staff.


There may be a language barrier preventing some patrons from asking more questions.


INSIGHT: Due to social stigma around adults asking for help, librarians wish more patrons knew that answering questions is a key part of their job.

THEME: Being afraid to ask questions.

HOW MIGHT WE foster an environment where people feel like they can ask anything?



We drew inspiration from other interactions where people ask questions, looking at whether they encouraged questions, or deterred them. A good example of this was call for assistance buttons in various big box stores where store employees meet you in the section you pressed the button in. The final ideas that were prototyped included:

Signs in the stacks with a lighthearted tone to increase approachability.

A special table for people with questions where they can wait while the librarians tend to other responsibilities.

A ‘Question of the Week’ section on the bulletin that takes questions of varying difficulties asked by patrons that the librarians helped them with. This to raise awareness on the kind of questions patrons can, in fact, ask the librarians, understanding that different questions may involve different levels of discomfort.



●  Flags could be useful in the Cyber Navigator section.
●  People can continue to work while waiting for the Cyber Navigator to approach.
● One question frequently triggers an avalanche of questions from other patrons.
● One patron said that she had no trouble asking questions so she didn’t find either prototype useful.
● She believed that the librarians can’t help her with her questions.

● One patron said that the posters seemed more helpful. 
● Most of his questions were about finding books. 


● Flags may potentially being a useful improvement for patrons seeking to ask questions.
● However, more testing is needed in order to test prototype design and usage.
● Model could easily be adapted to fit different branches.
● Perhaps the focus should shift to informing patrons of what kinds of questions they can ask.