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Library ceiling designs that speak volumes

Library ceiling outfitted with acoustic ceiling and wall panels installed by ASI Architectural

When we think of quiet spaces, libraries come to most of our minds. They’re places we work and study, and if someone or something becomes too loud or distracting, we can always count on the librarian to get things back under control quickly.

Well, a lot of science goes into creating a perfect quiet space like a library. With all the pencil scratching, keyboard clacking, and page turning going on, there are numerous noises that should increase noise levels yet don’t. In order to absorb those sounds, the library ceiling, walls, and floors need to be designed in such a way that all those sound waves don’t simply bounce back into the room. They’ve also got to look great.

Libraries of today

Many modern libraries look vastly different than they did just a couple of decades ago. The number of books displayed on the shelves has been minimized as the amount of information available online has gone through the roof. Bookcases and card catalogs have made way for computer workstations and group study rooms. We gather to collaborate in the library, and librarians rarely feel the need to silence people anymore. In fact, many of them welcome a little collaborative chatter to bring life to their local library.

We may use the library differently than we used to, but one thing that hasn’t yet changed is the need for distraction-free areas where we can get our work done. To do that, we need to minimize the amount of noise in the room.

Reducing noise with a great library ceiling

Libraries actually do a decent job of reducing echo and reverberation on their own. Bookcases diffuse and absorb a number of the sound waves that pass horizontally through the space. All those books also add a good deal of mass and density to the walls, keeping sound transmission through the walls to a minimum. Throw up a few fabric wrapped acoustical panels on the walls, and they will do their job quite nicely. 

In a library, the main culprits, as far as reflective surfaces are concerned, are the ceiling and the hard floors and tables below it. Since clutter free floors and tables are necessary for the library to function correctly, let’s look at what can be done to make the ceiling a better sound absorber.

Library ceiling design options for the main space

Each library is unique, but there are some attributes that are common to most. One is the high ceiling. A cramped basement library would get loud in a hurry. It’s also helpful to have room for large windows to allow ample natural light to make its way into the space. The problem with high ceilings is that they allow sound waves to travel farther, creating a perfect venue for echo and reverberation to build. Luckily, there are some great ceiling design options that will help reduce noise and look fantastic.

Coffered ceilings

One perennial favorite design in the world of library ceilings is the coffered ceiling. You can spot a coffered ceiling library by the beams that drop a few inches into the room and divide the ceiling into multiple recessed coffers. This beam and panel appearance works well in both classic and modern design, and it’s actually ideal for spaces like libraries. 

The three dimensional texture created by coffered ceilings promote sound dispersion and helps reduce echo. That means you can hear the people you’re collaborating with more clearly, and you can hear the next group over less clearly. Add some acoustical panels to the recessed portion of your coffered ceiling. You’ll also get the benefit of sound absorption, keeping the room sounding better, and reducing sound transmission from pipes and ductwork and any other sounds that may be going on above the working space.

Hanging acoustical baffles

The same types of acoustical panels available for walls can be suspended vertically from the library ceiling, creating a very cool look that reduces echo and reverberation. Larger rooms with high ceilings are prone to echo and reverb problems because reflected sound waves are able to travel unimpeded across large expanses of space. The way to tackle this is to absorb those waves somewhere along the way.

Hanging acoustical baffles drops acoustic panels directly into the middle of the room, acting as a cutoff from one surface to the next. Going with wood fiber is an eco friendly option that will deliver a great appearance and sound absorbing capabilities.

If your library ceiling height is low, however, you will want to avoid baffles. This type of ceiling really only works in rooms with high ceilings since hanging vertical baffles in smaller rooms leads to obstructed views and bumped heads.

Cloud ceilings

If you’re looking for something that offers unmatched visual appeal, a cloud ceiling may fit the bill. Similar to hanging acoustical baffles, cloud ceilings are generally hung horizontally or at an angle and can be arranged to create patterns and textures that set your library ceiling design above the rest.

Like baffles, cloud ceilings are great options for reducing echo and reverb. They interrupt sound waves as they pass through space and look great doing so. One advantage cloud ceilings have over baffles is that they absorb a good deal of the sound produced overhead, meaning noisy pipes and ducts won’t distract library patrons as they work.

Want the best of both worlds? Baffles and ceiling clouds can be combined to create defined areas within the room and make your ceiling more interesting. Drop your library ceiling light fixtures down through the open spaces, and you’ve got a mixed media piece of art hanging right above your head.

Microperforated panels

In a library, wood ceiling designs are still very popular. If you’ve got a more classically designed library, you may prefer the look of a wood ceiling to that of suspended acoustical panels. If that’s the look you are going for, you can still achieve superior acoustic performance with microperf panels.

Microperforated wood or metal panels deliver the look of hard, reflective surfaces but have tiny holes drilled in them to trap and disperse sound waves rather than reflecting them directly back at us. If you need additional acoustic control, adding the optional acoustic backing will get you there.

Microperf panels are available in dozens of wood species, so you can match your ceiling to your bookshelves or go with something completely different and complementary. 

Library ceiling designs for group study rooms

Since groups rarely migrate to group study rooms unless they want more privacy and fewer distractions than they’d encounter in the main room, treating these rooms may be even more important. Lots of them are separated from the main room by heavy doors and double glazed floor to ceiling windows, so sound transmission is fairly well taken care of. 

Drop ceilings

A popular option for the study rooms in libraries is the drop ceiling. In the high ceilings vs low ceilings design debate, we rarely associate drop ceilings with being good choices for low ceilings, but it can work in these situations. 

Assuming there is no floor directly above the study rooms, you can hang the drop ceiling grid at any height you like, meaning you don’t have to worry about the space feeling short or cramped. Fitting the grid with acoustical tiles will keep your study rooms feeling natural, and you can easily hang your library ceiling lights anywhere you want within the grid.

Microperf panels

If you’re looking for a more upscale look in your study rooms, microperforated panels work great here too. They control the sound in these small spaces well, and the look of natural materials like wood can contribute to a general sense of calm, allowing you to focus on the task at hand.

The reason this type of paneling works so well in rooms where we need to slow down and focus is that it tackles two major causes of anxiety and distraction. Too much exposure to distracting noises not only keeps you from focusing but it can lead to anxiety and stress. The acoustical performance of the panels takes care of that aspect.

Another benefit of using natural products like wood is that people spend most of their time indoors these days, and that disconnect from the natural world has similar effects to those we see from too much noise. Surrounding yourself with the warmth of wood makes spaces feel much cozier and allows us to relax and work in comfort.

Find help to design the perfect library ceiling

If you’re wondering what style works best for your high ceiling library design, it’s always helpful to enlist the help of acoustics and design professionals. They can help you identify the problem areas in your space and help determine which library ceiling design style will leave the room looking and sounding its best.