The importance of the senses cannot be overemphasised. It is the interaction of our many senses that drives our emotions and it is through the sharing of our emotional states that we construct shared identity and community. Any library, public or academic, that ignores the diversity of senses in the experience that it provides, risks losing that sense of community that is at the heart of all great libraries.

The senses are both part of our biological system for survival and the system through which we experience enjoyment and fulfilment. It is not our intention here to explore the underlying physiology of the senses in great detail. The biological complexity of each sense organ and the neurons and synapses that connect it to the central nervous system, combined with the many hormones that create the chemical environment in which it functions, makes for a system of immense complexity. That the central nervous system receives information from all of these organs simultaneously and that the organs are not single entities but present in number – from two to thousands – enables infinite possibility and complexity of ‘sensing’. Add to this that some sense organs are not simply sensors but also effectors, the sense of touch for example enabling fine movement and manipulation, brings a new dimension to the overall system of senses.

Amazingly when planning a new build or redevelopment, at least initially, our attention is focused primarily on the visual sense. As we develop more knowledge about how the other four senses of taste, touch, smell and hearing operate and interact to influence our perception of space more holistically, there is an opportunity to develop an approach to the architecture of libraries that could become even more interesting and appealing. Such potential may enable us to design spaces that relate more closely to the moods, needs and emotional states of those using the library affecting how they perceive each of the spaces created perhaps developing a real sense of connection between the person and the space. The least we should expect if we take a perspective that embraces all of the senses is that we are able to develop more interesting spaces and places in our libraries, with greater diversity, and consequently wider appeal to more people for more of the time they are in the building.

By contrast the most we might achieve is to provide a variety of multi-sensory combinations and permutations in the environments that we create that induce a wider spectrum of feelings. As Ingrid Fetell Lee says in her book Joyful – “we are reminded that we are architects of our own delight”. Through the way we design, configure and dress our spaces we impact that wider range of senses (other than just sight and hearing as is so common) perhaps resulting in a sense of joyfulness, a sense of achievement, a sense of fun and a sense of belonging for those that use the space.

We think the best way to deal with the inherent complexity of this approach is to fall back on ideas about what works, what have libraries (and other organisations and environments) already done that, possibly inadvertently, plays to a wider range of senses? What can we learn from these examples? Can they be extended, combined, reduced (and be more effective as a result), or developed in other ways? And are there opportunities that have not yet been explored? We believe that there is much to be discovered and learned in this topic – that discovery and learning is what is at the heart of the book we intend to publish.

This (nightfall) was the chance for our ancestors to camper about their humble business ……. But to function well in the dark, they had to be very good at using senses other than sight: and in that epoch the mammalian brain evolved along with elaborate machinery for enhanced hearing and smell, their hedge against whatever dinosaurs hunted at night.

Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan (1992) – Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, a search for who are, Random House, Page 344