Wrangling small children on daily errands is a uniquely difficult task — one that’s made especially challenging by the fact that most American institutions have little more to offer parents and caregivers in the way of support than a pile of grimy plastic toys in a corner on the floor. Libraries are, in general, more attuned to the needs of families. Still, it can be challenging for adults to, say, access computers with little kids in tow — something the staff of the Henrico County Public Library noticed and decided to attempt to solve when designing a new building back in 2019. “We kept seeing this problem with parents using the computer,” says Patty Conway, the community relations coordinator for the Richmond, Virginia-area library. “If they have a small child, they’d have to hold them on their knee and really struggle to balance their child-care needs with their needs to use the computer.”
This particular library’s local community — a predominantly Black suburban neighborhood with a high number of multigenerational households — happened to use the computers quite a bit. “They were seeing the highest usage of computers of any other facility in the county,” says interior designer Shannon Wray of Richmond-based Quinn Evans. “And in addition to that fact, they saw families from these multigenerational households all coming to the library together.” Working closely with the library staff, Wray’s team conceptualized a strikingly simple solution: a handsome wood carrel with a work space attached to a play space that can be latched shut to keep small children nearby, occupied, and safe.
The kid-friendly carrels now occupy the second floor of the Henrico County Public Library’s Fairfield Area branch, conveniently located near the children’s section. Each are lined with a simple vinyl cushion, the interior walls decorated with developmentally appropriate activities: a mirror set low to the ground for infants, interactive games for busy toddler hands, and a variety of holes perfect for playing peek-a-boo. To manufacture the carrels, Wray reached out to Michigan-based furniture company TMC, whose pieces she’d specified for other library projects. Since 1998, husband-and-wife team Blake Ratcliffe and Sherri Moore have helmed many custom collaborations with designers with an eye trained toward durability and sustainability — in this case, pairing colorful dyed-wood accents with a nontoxic sealant that can withstand heavy disinfecting regimens. With an open-source spirit befitting a library, the carrel design is not proprietary; TMC offers two versions for sale in a wide variety of configurations and finishes, and Ratcliffe — who calls the design “a real eureka moment” — has been floored by an outpouring of interest from all sectors.
Wray presented the Fairfield carrel to widespread acclaim at a library conference in March 2020, just before the widespread shutdown of public spaces, including libraries, coast to coast. But two years into the pandemic, as parents rigged their own work-from-home setups that have become, in many cases, more permanent than they’d like them to be, the concept resonates much more broadly. The needs of working parents in particular have become acute since the carrel was originally envisioned; Wray says people tell her all the time that they want one for at-home use. But putting these in public also helps intuitively demonstrate that parents and caregivers are welcomed. Wray remembers how, within the first hour the library had opened, she went upstairs and discovered that a mom of two had already set up shop at the desk, right in the midst of the grand-opening party. “Here was this woman at the computer station, working away, taking full advantage, with her toddler in the carrel and her baby in her arms,” says Wray. “It was, for me, the clearest moment of how needed this was.”