The small house movement: a model for downsizing a library footprint

Dr Deborah A. Cronau; Joe F.X. Soares; Cristey Gudgeon; Madison Gudgeon
Company Librarian, QML Pathology


When the opportunity arose to reduce the footprint of a one person corporate healthcare library it became clear that little had been written about the positive attributes of library downsizing. Husband and wife, librarian Deborah and architecturally trained Joe, enlisted Joe’s niece, tertiary educator Cristey, and her daughter, interior design graduate Madi to collaborate and examine how philosophies of the small house movement could be considered for the foundations of a special library. The small house movement philosophies, applied to the small corporate library, can result in a functional, yet aesthetically pleasing, space embracing clever design that encourages dual purpose and is not only librarian and library visitor friendly, but also corporately sensitive and empathetic to the environment due to its smaller space and overtly money saving advantages. To some extent this also embraces the minimalist movement, the reduction of unnecessarily expense and consumerism.

The opportunity

The afternoon before the Easter long weekend 2019 the Queensland Medical Laboratories (QML) librarian was approached with the proposition of moving the Company Library to a smaller, much, much smaller room … the selling point … it had a window … natural light!  Given that the “architectural expression and siting” of any library reflects the parent institution (Freeman 2005), moving from a hidden, dull room in the middle of a floor with mismatched furniture and old faded shelving to a crisp new room and the facilitation to purchase anything required, in itself, would speak volumes about the organization, its value of library, and the role of the library in the lives of staff.

A couple of times over the previous year it had been mentioned that at least part of the unnecessarily large space the library occupied would be eventually required for offices.  At that time it was suggested that the library area footprint be reduced and the library retain half the space with offices going into the other half. Wilson and Boehland (2005:280) observed that size can often be viewed as a status symbol with the notion of bigger is better often clouding the judgement of people when downsizing is considered, this may also be true in the commercial world.  But, emotions aside, this would have been an undesirable reduction, and quite claustrophobic given it was a windowless space in the centre of a floor, the physical presence of the library possibly lost due to it just being a doorway entrance among many along an internal windowless corridor, just a room, like any other.

The proposed new space for the library was a small meeting room, a prominent location near a broad entrance foyer at the top of the main staircase leading up from reception.  Near the new proposed library space are larger meeting rooms, and executive and other professional service offices. Moving to this prominently located room, although challenging due to the small space, could promote the library and make it a ‘location’ rather than a room among many, making the exercise certainly worthwhile. That Easter Thursday afternoon was spent with a jotter and a ruler taking measurements and making notes to see just what was possible and weather the library could reduce its footprint to successfully move without losing quality and functionality.

The library literature, or lack thereof

After playing with measurements it was time to do a bit of reading in library downsizing and in small library design to get up to date with what was working, or not, from the experiences of others. In the context of medical, and small special or corporate libraries, it would be difficult given that not only is every special library substantially different but every medical library is rather unique in terms of the mix between onsite type and percentage of use and remote accesses (Nelson 2003:348). This library serves more customers remotely than physically given that the company has large offices and branches spread throughout Australia, it therefore maintained a core, smaller physical library collection with offices and branches having library resources locally located.

There turned out to be very little written about the benefits that come with re-designing libraries into smaller spaces. There were articles written about detrimental, undesirable and mostly unwanted downsizing, much of which involved staff reduction. Most articles related to library downsizing dealt with emotion and personnel management rather than the architectural and design challenges and rewards. Even less had been written collaboratively with professionals, and para-professionals, particularly those external to the organization. The one exception, an article and conference presentation, written and presented with and about collaboration between a librarian and architect during a large, big budgeted, academic library renovation (Schmidt and Wilson 2005).

Considering this lack of specific literature on library footprint downsizing, research was broadened to look at footprint downsizing in general, which lead to considerations of the small house movement. Surprisingly, while much has been written about the small house movement in instructional and expressive terms, “relatively few academic discussions” exist on the positive attributes of footprint downsizing and design (Anson 2014). Academics, Ford and Gomez-Lanier (2017), did however review the literature on the small house movement, and described the field as “eco-friendly” and able to “combat the current waste” through an approach that “encompasses environmental, social, and economic considerations”. If these glowing attributes could be transferred to corporate libraries, then it must be something, as good corporate citizens, special librarians need to consider.

The small house format library

The beginning point of the proposition that a small library footprint format can be based on the small house movement is the fundamental question that Lintz (2015:1) described as an “honest assessment” … “what do I need?” For libraries this is an issue of establishing what the core requirements are, how many meters of shelving are required for the resources held – will weeding of the collection be required, and if so, how will this be done … all the how, when, where, and why type questions of every aspect of the unique situation and circumstances that embody the modern corporate library must be explored and answered, as they would for a home-owner considering a small house. Facts and figures, doodles that become drawings, that become sketches, that become, in our case, formal plans using Revit architectural software are all part of the exercise in determining whether the small house movement philosophies will work for any given corporate library.

The small house movement is a simple and effective way to achieve functionality and style for multipurpose activities, often greener through the space-saving benefits of reduced resource and power consumption. The concept is that items for a house are carefully selected to be multifunctional (Maghribi 2015), reducing the need for larger footprints housing multiple items (Lintz 2015:2). Items not multi-use are often chosen for their compact and/or clever design to reduce their need for larger spaces. The small house movement theory taking place for homes can be successfully applied, using the same principles, to a professional environment for the same purpose and achieving the same space saving and green results. It can be argued that a small corporate library, through careful selection of elements and through small house movement physical design principals can achieve the same desirable outcomes.

The small library footprint format, similar to the small house movement, may be evaluated in terms of physical attributes. Considering the case study, the QML Library in Brisbane, the applicable small house movement features were:

  1. Room layout – This small multifunctional room, first and foremost, is to be used as a corporate library. Furniture pieces, and critical selection of library resources and the way these are positioned throughout the space, creates an intimate yet functional working area. The purpose behind this design is the flexibility to be utilized in a number of ways, whilst maintaining a welcoming and comfortable environment for those using the space.
    The wall-hugging shelving, to maximum height permitted under Australian standards, not only allows for neat and compact storage of all library resources but also maximizes the available floor space for other purposes – it leaves no space wasted.  Lintz (2015:2 – tip 5) in her list of seven tips for small house living, called this “taller is better”. Prior to housing the library, this room functioned as a small meeting room. Due to the layout of the library space keeping furnishings to the edges, it is able to maintain its use as a meeting room if required, current Covid restrictions at four people, with a desk in the centre of the room, spare meeting chairs stacked against the half wall that separates the library and the library office (app.1), it also facilitates access for mobility devices. Ample IT and power points throughout the room enable mobile meeting communication devices, such as electronic white boards, to be wheeled into place against any wall or bay of library shelving if required during meetings or training / education sessions.
  2. Static Furnishings – A second purpose for the library room is that of a workstation, fully equipped with a printer/scanner, desk, OPAC (computer), and of course library resources, everything vital for a successful study session or working day. Subsequent to the library relocation, departments often sent one or two staff to the library to work on educational or document updating activities. The computer desk has a retractable keyboard to once again, maximize the floor space and not impede access behind it (app.2). While many library users have brought their laptop and spread out at the desk, others have chosen to use the library desktop computer, sometimes working on it daily for several shifts.
  3. Portable Furnishings – A modern, minimalist medium sized desk in the center of the room offers an optimal space for small meetings, working groups, or group study sessions. The light timber colour of the desk draws attention to this feature piece of furniture, different in colour to the rest of the furniture but still similar enough due to the metallic coloured lightweight legs to look like it belongs (app.3). Being on wheels, the table is able to be safely, relocated short-term to the wide empty foyer outside the library should the library room be required for meetings of additional numbers in a post-Covid environment.  In the small house movement theories, this is termed a temporary repurposing of space (Nelson 2003:348). The slim-line white chairs tuck in underneath the desk to free up the surrounding walking/standing space when left at the table by users – when not required they stack neatly upon each other and stand against the half wall, below the profile of the internal window separating the public library space from the library office (app.1).
    In addition to the desk, a small trolley table sits under a library shelf, but quickly and easily rolls out to provide a desk return for additional workspace.  This is in keeping with Craft’s (2010) recommendation that, in small design, items should fold into or against walls (app.2).
  4. Primary Colour Selection – By painting the walls and ceiling crisp white, the brightness opens up the space, tricking the eye to believe it is bigger than it really is. This is a useful tool for a multipurpose room such as this, to incorporate a number of elements without making the space look cluttered and confined. Selecting the same colour for the library shelves blends them into the walls without making them look imposing.
  5. Secondary Colour Palette – The contrast to the white canvas of the bright block primary colours in different media – decorative glass vases and the red soft office chair, all brought from the previous library, add a welcome element of colour popping out in space and texture against the white walls and shelving, to add flair and make the room interesting and eye catching. The library resources on the shelves contributing, as if art, further adding colour and texture (app.3).
  6. Art – Small pieces of art, selected in bright colours, make the space feel bigger.  This too was ultra conservative in cost as per minimalist theories reducing expenditure and waste by reusing and/or repurposing. An old pathology calendar provided the free, topical art and the bright coloured frames, purchased for $2 each from a large international chain store (app.4). These frames had been purchased for the previous library room and were able to be easily re-located due to their light, adhesive suitable frames. The other items relocated from the previous room were two lamps. These add variety to the room, and an inviting feeling of comfort, additionally, the ceiling lights may be turned off by customers as they provide amble soft light for reading.
  7. Nature – The introduction of décor like pot plants, introduces nature into the space, or the outside into the inside. It freshens up the room and provides interest and movement for occupants. Far from an optional extra, frowned upon by purists of the small house movement, nature is embraced by them, as it is by many interior designers, plants facilitating positivity and a general sense of welcome and wellbeing, essential in a busy life (Lah 2010). Potted plants were placed on the floor against the hard frames of the library shelves, tall pots were selected with tallish indoor plants to catch the eye and add the perspective of height to the room without causing tripping hazards (app.3).
  8. Natural light – Natural light being known for reduced eye strain, reduced headaches, improved mood, less drowsiness, and fewer mistakes in the workplace. Lah (2010) observed that by ensuring as much natural light as can be incorporated into a design makes smaller space seem much larger. Additionally, Lah (2010) confirmed that the illusion of space is created by large windows. The room was already blessed with large east facing windows. By incorporating a half height wall with window between the main library space and the library office, natural light would be embraced (app.1).

Considering these design categorizations of the small house movement, the QML library downsizing meets the requirements of small house theory and could be considered a Small Library Format; it has, through the use of small house movement elements, created a multipurpose library space, but also flexible and adaptable to a busy, growing and changing company without expense or time-consuming effort (Ford & Gomez-Lanier 2017:403).  As with the minimalist movement, it touches on reduced consumerism, debt, and environmental degradation, and leads to a rethinking of ‘needs’ that can result in less cluttered spaces (Rodriguez 2018:286). It obtains functionality for the desired activities for the room whilst also being stylish and fully furnished for a variety of users.

Design perspectives

The concept of minimalist theory and practice embraces two fundamental principles, these being identifying the essential and then eliminating things that aren’t (Babauta 2010). Babauta (2010) stated it succinctly by saying that by eliminating the unnecessary, we make room the things that are essential and, in doing so, this creates a feeling of space and freedom which can improve thought processes.

Legislation plays a part in any workplace life so it goes without saying it is highly influential in small library design to a different degree than it would in the residential small house movement, particularly in areas such as lighting, air, office floor space, and shelf height. These are issues where, on a corporate scale, building maintenance and managerial departments use appropriate government standards as a guide. These are elements that need to be considered and thoroughly researched from the beginning of the process.

The library room multipurposed – the heart of the Small Library Format

Just as library facilities in the corporate sector are utilized by personnel and the occasional visitor to the company, the various types and needs of library users must be reflected in what the room provides. For some the library space is providing a reading room, a quiet space for an administrative assistant to sit and read on their phone during a break or a corporate visitor early for a meeting to be hosted, for others the library space is necessary for them to access varied, quality sources of academically verified information. Busy corporate library users invest large amounts of time to research topics, reading articles, journals, books and websites, necessitated by their need to problem solve, to advance both personally and professionally, and to meet the requirements of their profession through continued professional reading. To this end, it has never been more challenging to evaluate information as authentic and reliable. With access to a small footprint library, quality core resources and the services of a librarian can provide a far more convenient option, particularly for those inexperienced at resource selection or for those who are time poor. In this digital age, where information is accessible literally at your fingertips, users trying to find quality resources can be overwhelmed with too much data to sift through.

This library has brought together the aspects of varied seating/study spaces to create a space where people are able to work together around the table to discuss and contribute to their work. In the private space, group work can promote healthy working relationships, with easy access to quality academic resources on the nearby shelves that line the walls an arms distance from seating. The librarian is also in close proximity for assistance, as is an OPAC.

The multipurpose space makes it ideal for library users to work collaboratively on projects with nearby easy access to information in the form of physical resources or an OPAC, photocopying and scanning facilities. This quiet room, different in feel and presentation than all other corporate areas, ripe for the concentrated effort required to develop the higher order thinking skills, for working together and conferring, or simply providing a change of environment with some staff relocating for a couple of hours – laptop computer in hand to refresh their day.

This library, while being the physical hub for an information service with its corporate users across Australia, the physical space has, historically, been seldom used by more than one or two users or groups at a time. The old library room had desks but no separated space for the library office and this reduced its appeal with users often apologizing for any disturbance to the librarian, or trying to whisper during their meetings, neither desirable. The new library room, being an old meeting room, has an engaged / booked slide on the door if a small meeting were to be confidential in nature and the internal window and wall between the librarian’s ABC Classic FM radioed office means sound does not seem to travel between the spaces.

Covid has to, of course, be mentioned in any such consideration of space and usability these days. The library space, being in Queensland, is one person in the library office and four permitted in the library space. Being a library where most users are remote, this didn’t prove to be an issue but, for the foreseeable future has reduced its capacity and its viability for some groups and purposes; but that is to be said of many room sizes regardless or singular or multi-purpose.


Space, described in Star Trek as “the final frontier” and still an area we need to explore.  Space is a strategic resource to corporate life on two levels, one of which being the benefit of functionality of workspace adding value by increasing efficiency, the other most notably is that it provides both communication and separation opportunities to “maximize individual and group creativity” (Vischer 1996). Part of securing the library footprint in the corporate world and ensuring continued existence is to be smart in the use of physical resources. Just as as discards lists are both a green weed and a promotional tool – corporate libraries may need to consider their real estate as a small house and adopt the smart space theories contained there-in, to ensure the physical library space continues to exist and the corporate librarian isn’t relegated to a professional in an office only serving information needs remotely.

The debate as to what is essential in the workplace, a library, or a home could be highly personal, highly legislative, and even highly subjective. Professionals, their legislative and experiential knowledge of their profession and their organization must be a starting point and the trust of management in those they employ, and respect for their experience and willingness to ask questions and research for the right outcome for what is nearly always a unique corporate situation cannot be downplayed. Wilson and Boehland (2005:284) observed that “building small is not easy” because it requires more of a comprehension of the exact and anticipated needs and requirements the space must fulfil. This is the same be it a small house or a small library.

Increasingly, corporate libraries are struggling to get their share of real estate, both as businesses expand in size and staffing without building expansion, and with many physical resources being substituted for online access resources. How much stock is placed in the prestige of grand space, does it necessitate a paradigm shift in the corporate, specifically the corporate library world? Is a mind-shift required by many to embrace the “small house movement” philosophies in all aspects of life or is it, more likely, a case of what is possible and feasible for each unique home, or corporate, situation? Harking back to where this paper started in the comparison of the residential to corporate small footprint life, it comes down to Lintz’s (2015:1) direction to make an “honest assessment” … “what do I need?”


Anson, A. (2014). “The world is my backyard” : Romanticization, thoreauvian rhetoric, and constructive confrontation in the tiny house movement. Research in Urban Sociology, 14, 289-314.

Babauta, L. 2010. On minimalism.

Craft, L. (2010) In Japan, Living Large in Really Tiny Houses. NPR. Retrieved 3 February 2021, from

Ford, J. ; Gomez-Lanier, L. (2017). Are tiny homes here to stay? A review of literature on the tiny house movement. Family and Consumer Sciences Research Journal. Jun. 394-405.

Freeman, G.T. (2005). Library as Place: Rethinking Roles, Rethinking Space. CLIR Publication No. 129. Retrieved 22 February 2021, from  

Lah, K. (2010). Ultra-Small is Beautiful for Japanese Homeower. CNN. Retrieved 3 February 2021, from

Lintz, C. (2015). 7 big lessons from tinyt houses 7 big lessons from tiny houses seven : Small homes require you to live more efficiently. Darily Herald : Arlington Heights, Ill. 20 Aug 2015:1. [Proquest Central]

Maghribi, L, Wakatsuki, M., and Defterio, J. (2015). Tokyo’s Big Idea: Can Micro-Homes Offer a Housing Solution? CNN. Retrieved 3 Feburary, 2021, from

Nelson, P.P. (2003). Current issues in the design of academic health sciences libraries : findings from three recent facility projects. Journal of the Medical Library Association. 1(3):347-51.

Rodriguez, J. (2018). The US Minimalist movement : radical political practice? Review of Radical Political Economics. 50:2 286-96.

Schlipf, Frederick A; John A Moorman The practical handbook of library architecture : creating building spaces that work. Chicago : ALA Editions, 2018

Schmidt, Janine and Wilson, Hamilton (2005). The dream team: sharing architect and librarian skills to ensure library design excellence.

Vischer J.C. (1996) Optimizing Occupancy : Strategic planning of the Organization-Accommodation Relationship. In : Workspace Strategies. Springer, Boston, MA.

Wilson, A. and Boehland, J. (2005). Small is Beautiful: U.S. House size, resource use, and the environment. Journal of Industrial Ecology. 9(1-2):277-87.

HLG Newsletter
Winter 2021

%d bloggers like this: