Musings on School Library Design

My mentor is the librarian at Eagle Ridge Elementary in Keller ISD. Our school is currently undergoing many major transformations inspired by professional development at the Ron Clark Academy, a focus on social emotional learning, and a new commitment to integrating the arts into classroom curriculums. These improvements have been funded with grant money, and the library is beginning a transformation process inspired by the world of Harry Potter (Rowling, 1997-2007). Most school librarians, like my mentor, walk into an existing space and have to consider the existing infrastructure, and how they can work within it to make the best use out of their library space. With creativity and a focus on the things that matter most, a librarian can still have a big impact on the form and function of the library.

Factors to Consider in School Library Design

  1. Engagement
  2. Flexibility
  3. Placement
  4. Student Learning & Achievement
  5. Usage & Access

Libraries are a large part of the school’s square footage. The use of the space should be proportional to the it’s size, so the design must be flexible and must purpose to meet the needs and the goals of the community. It doesn’t matter how talented a librarian is or how many amazing resources the library has. If the library isn’t used, all of these incredible resources are wasted. The library represents a large investment of both money and space, and this investment is well worth it when it is put to good use. A strong library program that is accessible and promotes collaboration supports student learning and can be measured by achievement scores (Maxwell & French, 2016).

The best designed libraries are flexible in both the physical space and scheduling. Multiple studies across North America have found that schools offering flexible scheduling increase access, usage, and student performance. In many ways, the mission and the purpose of the school library has changed from a place where students were passive recipients of knowledge –  learning only to read and interpret printed text -to a space for student directed learning across a variety of print and digital media (Maxwell & French, 2016). We now need flexible spaces that allow students and teachers to reinvent the space depending on the goals and purpose of the activity. Increased flexibility leads to increased ownership and and engagement.  My mentor’s library has purposed to increase flexibility by replacing large, heavy wooden furniture with light-weight folding tables and chairs that easily move on wheels.

Libraries should not be isolated from classrooms, but instead placed in a central location, encouraging access and use (Maxwell & French, 2016). The lower school library at Fort Worth Country Day is surrounded by classrooms on three sides, allowing students to move easily and independently in and out of the classroom and the library – making the library a part of daily classroom learning.

In older buildings, the physical location of the library is not something that can readily be changed. In this case, the librarian would have to demonstrate flexibility and the visibility – proactively going out into the building, building relationships with students and teachers, bringing technology and resources into the classrooms and encouraging library usage.

A study by Deskins and Harper (2015), found that high school students identified two types of preferred learning spaces: collaborative spaces and spaces designated for quiet, independent work. Students also noted a need for power outlets for technology. In the same survey, teachers identified a need for technology for student use and an appreciation for both the librarian’s expertise and the flexible library space. Any effective library redesign must take these factors into consideration.

During my observation at Fort Worth Country Day, the librarians shared some of their experiences with similar redesigns to the library space. There were private study rooms for student use, flexible classroom spaces, and two underutilized classroom spaces in the upper school library were transformed in to high school classrooms, allowing for the same flexible access seen in the lower school library. All of the library redesign decisions were made collaboratively between the library, school leadership, and teaching staff as a response to student needs. It seemed to me to be work in progress, as librarians are continuously monitoring usage and access and reevaluating student and teacher needs.

SchoolLibraryDesign
(Lavinia, 2011)

This photo illustrates a beautiful and effective library redesign, similar to what I would love to see happen at Eagle Ridge or in my own library one day. Currently, our library has so much extra stuff taking up valuable space. In the above image, there is nothing extra – only what is truly necessary is there. The furniture is lightweight and mobile. There are large, open, flexible spaces ready to be transformed easily into whatever form the activity requires – similar to the different work zones, identified by Deskins and Harper (2015). There are no large, clunky, and inflexible technology stations, but instead spaces ready for mobile technology. The space has enough division for privacy, allowing for multiple activities to be happening at once. A whole group lesson could be taking place on the large stage area near the front, while small groups could be working collaboratively on the carpeted area, and individuals could work privately in the back room. The space offers division without sacrificing the visibility needed for adequate supervision.

The most important element in school library design, however, is not pictured in the photo. I’ve heard Ron Clark say that the most important factor in the classroom is the teacher. Likewise, I believe that a passionate, enthusiastic librarian is the driving force in the success of the library program. It is the librarian who is charged with the use and management of the space and the resources and the librarian who must purpose to engage students and educators.

References

Harper, M. and Deskins, L. (2015). Using Action Research to Assess and Advocate for Innovative School Library Design. Knowledge Quest, 44(2), 25-32

Lavinia [Digital image]. (2011). Retrieved from https://freshome.com/2011/10/04/colorful-and-appealing-student-library-in-melbourne-by-dko-architecture/

Maxwell, L. and French, R. (2016). Elementary School Library Design: Student Perceptions of a Learning Commons. Children, Youth and Environments, 26(2), 61-82.

Rowling, J. K. (1997 – 2007) Harry Potter [book series]. New York, NY: Scholastic.

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