An industry voice for 21st Century libraries, Margaret “Peg” Sullivan is the driving force behind Smith System’s expanded library furniture offerings. Since joining the company in March as library marketing and sales manager, Peg has worked with Smith System designers to translate student, librarian and administrator needs for flexibility, comfort, mobility and technology integration into what will be a comprehensive library furniture line.

We asked Peg what constitutes a 21st Century library environment, and its relationship to the 21st Century classroom.

How are the furniture needs of 21st Century K-12 classrooms and libraries similar?

Conceptually, the furniture in the classroom and the library has similar design considerations.

Furniture should meet GREENGUARD for Children and Schools Certification. Furniture should be scaled appropriately for the age and size of the students using it so it is ergonomically correct.

In the classroom as well as the library students want to work together or independently. And in both locations there are reasons to create personal, quiet spaces for a student or larger open space for collaboration on projects. Furniture needs to be flexible enough to accommodate either need.

Many classrooms choose to house a small collection of books or offer access to computers. Most classrooms have whiteboards and presentation equipment or large monitors for classroom viewing. These are also furniture considerations for the library.

The difference comes in scope of resources, number of students, their learning objectives, and visibility of the space. The sum of all these issues requires a library to be furnished with its own unique furniture line. The complexity of a library space comes in creating a floor plan that allows multiple classrooms of students to work independently or in small groups. They need to be able to move between print and electronic resources seamlessly. They need instructional space to design information search strategies and the space to execute those searches plus create the content that reflects their understanding. Well designed library programs serve every student in the school so it is a space with high value, high usage which also most express warmth, openness and a sense of the learning community.

When specifying furniture for a 21st Century school library, what are the key points to consider?

Aurora Elementary School Library

A school library can easily be “over” specified. It is tempting to fill the space with heavy tables, chairs, and shelving to the point where it becomes difficult to navigate. The space needs to be flexible. Find out how many classrooms of students will be in the library at one time and how many additional students will simply come in with passes during a period. Allow space for students to move around, reconfigure the tables and chairs as required, and don’t specify chairs that weigh more than the students moving them. In early elementary environments, children like to sit on the floor in groups for storytelling or informal reading. Make sure there is a way to create floor space for spontaneous use. And remember that learning the art of reading is a primary goal in the library, so provide students with a comfortable spot to read.

Put in enough shelving to accommodate the opening collection and about 30 percent growth. Rows of empty shelves are a terrible waste of space, plus, what if shelving requirements decrease over time? Quality library shelving can always be added on if the need surfaces five years down the road. And the emphasis should be on quality shelves; library shelves mostly are rigid with minimal flex. Shelves that flex or require a librarian to annually turn should never be allowed in a school library. Also, know what the seismic requirements are in your region. Merchandising the collection is more important than warehousing it, so specify shelving features that make the collection easy to browse for students of all ages.

Another key issue to remember is that a school library is also a teaching space. Librarians are teachers and you have to provide age appropriate space for them to instruct and work with students.