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By Margaret Sullivan

This article first appeared in the April 2011 issue of School Library Journal

How to Create the 21st-Century School Library of Your Dreams

Library lounge at Cedar Ridge High School in Round Rock, TX

Ebooks, apps, and the web are now a part of your student’s daily lives. So how do you determine the best way to turn your library space into a learning center that’s right for today’s rapidly changing digital world? Take it from me—a longtime designer of school libraries, it’s not easy.

I’ve discovered that the things I used to labor over just five year ago don’t seem as important anymore. For instance, I really don’t worry about how many books you currently have, your space measurements, what wood finish to use, how many students are in each class, or even where the circulation desk should go. They’ve been replaced by more urgent questions. Questions like: What are the tools your students will need, will resources be physical and virtual, what are your school’s learning goals, and how can they be woven into your library?

I’d love to say that I know how to create the perfect school library, one that’ll serve you and your students for years to come. But the truth is, no one-size-fits-all model exists. The bottom line is you’ll have to assess your curriculum and your district resources to discover what will work best for your students. But there are things I can suggest to move you closer to the best space for your students. Here are five design considerations that you should not overlook when planning your dream 21st-century school library.

1. Make sure your space is flexible.

Many librarians—even those in brand-new media centers—are forced into stagnate teaching methods because their libraries don’t have flexible instructional spaces. Don’t let that happen to your library.

Students need to learn how to formulate meaningful questions, appreciate multiple viewpoints, and use a wide variety of resources in their research. Plus, 21st century learners need to demonstrate their understandings in new ways, such as producing their own videos or multimedia presentations. That’s why every school library needs a flexible learning space that supports multiple learning and teaching styles—not one that only accommodates lectures. Not one that assumes you’ll never switch to smaller, wireless technology. Not one that’s furnished with heavy, immovable tables and chairs or, worse yet, built-in workstations.

Learning models are changing, and school libraries need to take the lead. In many schools, collaborative and project-based learning are popular, as well as peer-to-peer tutoring and one-on-one learning. Classrooms are moving away from a “front of the room” mentality and adapting to students’ learning styles. Libraries need to embrace the same logic and change to reflect the way student prefer to learn. Flexibility is vital; traditional library furniture can be cumbersome and make multiple configurations impossible.

Interactive whiteboards, such as the SMART Board 600i, ActivBoard 500 Pro, and eBeam Engage, are just some of the exciting new learning tools librarians are incorporating into their lessons. These new devices let users share information on their laptop screens with teachers and other students, and they’re perfect for student presentations, seminars, distance learning, exploring websites, performances, and, yes, even reviewing lectures. Educators can use interactive whiteboards to make content available to students to review who need additional time or were absent.

When planning a school library, be sure to communicate often and passionately about the librarian’s role as a collaborative educator. Those conversations, coupled with an awareness of learning styles and new technology tools, are bound to spark innovative ideas for interactive learning spaces.

Library lounge at Cedar Ridge High School in Round Rock, TX

2. Remember, you’re not running a book warehouse.

It’s time to stop warehousing books and start merchandising them. Take a tip from Barnes & Noble. Make your books and magazines more attractive (and more visible!) to students by taking advantage of displays, mobile fixtures, signage, and lighting.

Instead of focusing on how many shelves you need, think about how the print collection can enhance your digital resources. Printed books are still an essential tool, especially for beginning readers. And traditional books are a valuable resource that can enrich any student’s learning experience, particularly in subjects like language arts, social studies, art, and history. In fact, print materials remain a fundamental library resource, especially in schools that don’t have a computer for every student.

And while you’re breathing new life into your print collection, don’t shy away from ebooks and digital reading devices. After all, which reading format do you think most digital natives crave? A print book that’s stored in an 84-inch-high stack (classified according to Melvin Dewey’s 1876 system), which requires a stepstool to reach? Or an ebook that can be downloaded onto a Kindle, Nook, or Sony Reader in less time than it takes to find a stepstool? By the way, there is now another ereader alternative—Ectaco’s jetBook, designed especially for K–12 schools.

3. Insist on a strong infrastructure.

Don’t cut corners by under powering your library. A few wall sockets scattered around the room just won’t cut it anymore. Media centers should be tech central, and users need power to support their ever-growing arsenal of electronic devices. Remember to plan ahead, because there’s no turning back. Once the cement floor is poured, your electrical plan is set in, well, concrete.

Limited outlets will also control how a space is used in the future. I’ve visited numerous new libraries where students can only conveniently use computers in one small area of the room. Laptops and handheld devices, visual and audio tools, printers, interactive whiteboards, and multimedia equipment are evolving at an incredibly quick pace—and sooner or later, most of them will need to be recharged. So give your students and staff a break and buy some eight-outlet power sources (like the Smith System I-O Post) that can sit, within arm’s reach, in the center of a configuration of tables or amongst lounge chairs.

It’s also unwise to scrimp on window treatments. New school libraries are awash in natural sunlight, which is a wonderful way to reduce the need for artificial lighting. Natural light truly adds beauty to the immediate environment, enhances learning, and creates an exquisite space for studying. Unfortunately, direct sunlight can also be blinding, wash out computer monitors and screens, and put a strain on your school’s heating and air conditioning systems. To manage sunlight throughout the day, you might want to consider a using Hunter Douglas’s Sun Louvers, which are a dramatic way to filter light, or consider using traditional shades and blinds.

You’ll also want to get in touch with your IT department and school administrators as soon as possible, to explore the best way to incorporate a secure, wireless network or even better a private cloud network in your new school. Take time to listen to their concerns and to establish appropriate-use guidelines but don’t hesitate to push for technology that will expand student access and learning.

A final word of caution: your new library space will fight you every workday if you don’t actively take part in planning its infrastructure. Although that may not sound glamorous, trust me—the rewards are well worth the effort.

4. Don’t sacrifice livability for beauty.

You know those drop-dead gorgeous spaces that grace the pages of interior design and architectural magazines? Well, that’s not necessarily the look you should be aiming for. A school library isn’t just an aesthetic statement; it has to be hard working as well. Guests may walk in and gasp, “Wow, this is beautiful!” But you have to ensure that it’s also an energetic, inviting space packed with students who are busy gathering information and exchanging ideas.

And am I the only person who has a problem with high school “Starbuck” libraries—the ones with a coffee bar, café tables, and scores of lounge chairs? Students hang out there with their friends—before and after classes and during lunch break—to check email, tweet, flip through magazines, play cards, and drink coffee. It is very cool, very social, but how exactly does it prepare them to succeed in college?

These plush, cool environments are often the result of an interior designer who doesn’t understand the educational role of a school library or confuses your space with a public library’s. Some credit can also go to librarians who can’t resist these pristine spaces. After spending years in an overcrowded room with uncomfortable seating, old, beat-up end panels, tables with cracked laminate, and a circulation desk that’s turned into a storage ledge for everything from printers to book displays, the pendulum simply swings too far the other way.

As attractive as these spaces can be, they will be undervalued over time. Even at home, the pristine, living room isn’t used for studying; it’s a nice spot to sit and entertain guests. When people want to study or create something or chat, they head for the kitchen. People use the kitchen table to spread out their work, to be close to others, to watch TV, or see what their siblings are doing. In the kitchen, you can drink a beverage without fear of spilling it on a thousand-dollar chair. The same applies to a school library. It’s a working environment; it should have a lot of “appliances” and space to research, make stuff, and consume a “big information meal.” Now, that’s not to say your library can’t be one of the most attractive spaces in the school. I’ve been in a lot of wonderful “kitchens” that are both hard-working and beautiful.

I’m also not implying that school libraries shouldn’t have comfortable lounge seating. A library should have appropriate seating to support students in all of their learning endeavors. If your library has space for lounge chairs, then include tablet arms on them so your students can use them to multitask.

Start planning your library by listing and prioritizing important activities, desired student outcomes, and be able to clearly articulate the culture you want people to see when they walk into your library. Whatever you do, don’t let the furniture become the main topic of conversation or dictate the space’s culture.

Library learning spaces in Cedar Ridge High School, Round Rock, TX

5. And finally, whatever happened to the great outdoors?

With almost every waking minute immersed in technology, it’s even more important to consider how to stimulate student’s other senses. Whether or not you agree with child-advocate Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods (Algonquin, 2005), which argues that contemporary children are increasingly cut off from nature, it’s obvious that today’s young people don’t spend as much time outdoors as previous generations. That’s one good reason to create an outdoor reading patio for your school library.

Space in libraries is a limited commodity. Creating a secure environment outdoors for students to gather, read, perform, or just relax expands your space significantly. And no, the space won’t be available every day, but the days it can be used will be extremely special. People develop fond memories of class periods spent outdoors in the sunshine, so why not library periods as well? It’s an easy way to relieve eyestrain by looking up and around at nature. Include this possibility when planning your school library both for practical and aesthetic reasons.

Natural sunlight already pours into new libraries and with good window treatments; a wall of windows can frame trees, green plants, and blue sky. Whether you create a reading patio or not, encourage your architects to attractively landscape the area adjacent to your wall of windows, and then reserve the floor space directly in front of the windows for students—not shelving. They’ll enjoy the sunlight, the view, and watching the change of seasons; the experience will enrich their learning.

Color and texture are another way to add sensory excitement to your library. The walls, floor, and ceiling all offer surfaces for bright colors, murals, and artwork. Besides adding some pizzazz, these elements can visually unite different areas in your library or highlight a particular area. Beige, white, and nondescript carpeting has had a monopoly in school libraries for far too long.

End panels with built-in shadow boxes can add more visual interest to the space, or they can become a canvas for creative images. And finally, bold signage, graphic icons, and unique fixtures, props, and lighting can all contribute to making your library a place that students will want to explore with their minds and their senses.

If all of these recommendations are a little overwhelming, I can empathize. Change can be scary—but embrace it. It’s crucial to recognize where changes can be made to improve students’ learning experiences. Don’t wait too long to consider your library’s future—or your students will leave you behind.

Library learning spaces in Cedar Ridge High School, Round Rock, TX

Seven Resources to Inspire You

Bauerlien, Mark. The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30). Tarcher, 2008.
After reflecting on numerous research studies and humorous anecdotes, Emory University Professor Mark Bauerlien arrives at an un-comical conclusion: we’ve produced a generation of students that are extremely ill-prepared for college.

Johnson, Spencer. Who Moved My Cheese? An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1998. A quick read, this simple fable provides thought-provoking insight into how people deal (or don’t deal) with change. It’s one of my go-to books.

Louv, Richard. Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Algonquin, 2005.
Journalist Louv uses a board range of studies to show that kids need to spend more time in the great outdoors—and the importance of nature in children’s physical and emotional development.

Nair, Prakash, Randall Fielding, and Jeffery Lackney. The Language of School Design: Design Patterns for 21st Century Schools. Designshare, second edition 2005. If you’re planning a new school, this is an excellence reference book that combines learning research with innovative design to create some great spaces for kids.

Palfrey, John and Urs Gasser. Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives. Basic Books, 2008. The erudite authors offer an insightful sociological portrait of a younger generation that’s sophisticated in the use of media while, at the same time, often innocent and reckless. This is a fascinating look at the kids who will someday shape the future.

Ravitch, Diane. The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. Basic Books, 2010. The former United States assistant secretary of education provides a bold commentary on educational reform, its failure to improve education, and her insights on what should be done.

Siddiqi, Anooradha Iyer . The L!BRARY Book: Design Collaborations in the Public Schools. Princeton Architectural Press, 2010. With terrific text and stunning images, the author documents a joint effort of the Robin Hood Foundation and the New York City Board of Education to re-imagine the school library and combat poverty through leading-edge design and top-notch instruction.