Publication Date



Library Assessment Conference, 3 November 2022.


Purpose and goals
The purpose of this study is to investigate what semiotic analysis can discover about how welcoming and inclusive a science library space is for patrons. Semiotic analysis examines the meanings that individuals interpret places as having. It involves the study of objects, which can range from images and words to physical items, and their meanings as individual interpreters understand them (Hall, 1997). We chose to study a science library space because the lack of racial and gender diversity in STEM is a persistent challenge despite the growth in the number of STEM jobs and STEM degrees earned (Pew, 2021).

Design, methodology, or approach
We conducted a semiotic analysis of a science and engineering library to determine how well the signs and signifiers in the space reflect its goals. To that end, we examined how diverse groups of patrons might interpret elements in the space, which behaviors are encouraged and discouraged, and whether the space promotes scientific disciplines to its visitors. The space we investigated serves as a case study highlighting the ways in which library spaces can communicate messaging to patrons of various backgrounds.

Based on our semiotic analysis, the library space’s communication to its patrons succeeds more in promoting science and encouraging desired behavior (or discouraging undesired behavior) than in promoting diversity and inclusion.

Practical implications or value
In keeping with universal design, libraries should provide clear and visible signage for the library itself, as well as its elevators, exits, restrooms, quiet study spaces, group study spaces, and browseable stacks. Libraries should provide gender inclusive restrooms and clearly marked spaces for religious reflection. Libraries can make an effort to choose inclusive art and display artifacts to appeal to patrons from a variety of backgrounds.

Libraries can learn from our findings that library signage that precludes activities frequently performed by patrons should be accompanied by library signage that directs patrons where they may participate in these activities without disturbing other patrons. This will balance the prescriptive, negative messaging in libraries with positive, inviting messaging. Libraries should consider their priorities in terms of safety versus a feeling of surveillance for patrons when designing study spaces. While glass can help library staff monitor activity in the library, glass walls can also lead to a lack of privacy and a feeling of distrust. Likewise, libraries must make decisions between the security for their materials provided by wired glass and theft detectors versus a more welcoming atmosphere of trust.

A science library should be updated with modern, clean, furnishings in good condition to show respect for its patrons and their work. It is important to represent the interests of patrons a library wishes to welcome in a balanced way. A science library should not have a predominance of science items from any particular science discipline it serves, but provide appealing displays from a variety of disciplines representing both the history of science and modern advances. Educational disciplinary displays can incorporate diverse scientists to promote the inclusion of diverse patrons.




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