Is there any educational space that screams “outdated!” louder than a boxy, boring lunchroom, library or foyer that’s living in its past-century purpose? Probably not.

This explains why architects and designers are scrambling to create new hybrid spaces called learning commons and library commons. Though similar in many ways, there are differences. If you’re new to these concepts, here’s an overview on each space – what it is, what it looks like, and its role in 21st century education.

Learning Commons

What it is?
A learning commons is a place where kids migrate between class and after school. It’s a place where kids want to be (and be more comfortable than standing around their lockers or sitting in hallways). But it’s not just about hanging out — or zoning out. These areas are natural environments that foster student collaboration, as well as personal study time.

Its educational purpose
But how can one space allow groups and individuals to stay on task without distracting or hampering each other? The answer is planned learning zones that help isolate activities. For example, a collaboration zone is dedicated to project learning and group discussions. A social learning zone is dedicated to student interaction, and an individual study zone provides space for quieter activities, like individual study and research. A well-designed — and furnished — learning commons can accommodate all learning (and learning styles) simultaneously. For administrators, learning commons help maximize a building’s footprint.

What it looks like
To visualize a physical model for a learning commons environment, think about the last time you were in a coffee shop or computer/technology store – the kind of place where kids feel relaxed, yet receptive and energized. You probably observed kids playing with devices, enjoying beverages and snacks, discussing, learning, hanging out and being themselves. It’s this type of environment educators want in order to foster similar types of camaraderie and collaboration.
Establishing a learning commons can be done through new construction, renovation or reassignment. For an existing school, the learning commons is usually located in a former common area of the school, like a foyer or computer lab. Any open expanse or spare space is prime real estate for a modern learning commons – and a way to optimize space for future use. Without question, flexible, mobile furniture configurations and power stations are essential to making the space work.

What makes it successful
Obviously, learning commons must be tailored to the student age group, for example, elementary students need different supervision than teens. Wendell Brown, a design architect and project manager with Earl Swensson Associates out of Nashville, offers ten characteristics of a successful learning commons. Though his list directed to a college campus, many aspects apply for younger students:

    • Flexible area with movable, soft furniture that can interface with technology so that students can create their own spaces
    • Open area that is inviting to students
    • Available food, preferably café style with coffees, juices, sodas, light snacks or sandwiches
    • Late hours
    • Available marker boards for brainstorming
    • Help desk
    • Private, acoustically separate spaces for tutoring and counseling
    • Outdoor space with patios or verandas
    • Available seminar rooms/study rooms
    • Ample, available power for recharging mobile devices 1

Library Commons

What is it?
Learning commons and library commons are similar, but not interchangeable. The library commons typically lives in the space formerly occupied by the traditional library. It’s designed to attract students and make them want to research, collaborate and interact. Then it provides the tools for them to put everything they’ve learned into final form. It’s an experience that parallels today’s workplaces.

Its education purpose
Like a learning commons, the library commons has collaborative, social and individual zones, but it has one added element: an area dedicated to media and graphics production – the modern resources needed to include graphic and media elements in projects, papers and presentations.

Thomas Sens, a principal with BHDP Architecture in Cincinnati, provides his opinion on the purpose of the library commons in discussing library design trends:

“The commons has become the heart and soul of the academic library … a blend of computer technology services and classical library reference and research resources. It serves as a hub for students to gather, exchange ideas, collaborate, and utilize multiple technologies.” He goes on to say,” Today’s commons break many of the old rules of library behavior. In the commons area, nobody hushes students who want to talk, food and drink is allowed, collaborative behavior is encouraged…” 2

That said, libraries are certainly not abandoning individual study carrels or quiet zones. Spaces where students can research or study independently without distractions remain as important as ever (especially for introverted learners).

What it looks like and what makes it successful
Combination is a recurring theme in the library commons. The environments that successful library commons draw from are diverse and dynamic. The best library commons have the laid-back feel of a coffee shop, expressed with comfortable lounge seating, café tables and plentiful connectivity for the students’ tablets and laptops. They stimulate group effort with collaborative areas that are reminiscent of contemporary architectural firms, design firms or interactive media developers: think large work surfaces, open areas and places where ideas and information can be easily accessed and shared.
Just like education itself, the design of learning and library commons will certainly continue to evolve. But these hybrid headliners won’t be hushed soon. They’re quite likely to become, well, commonplace.

1 Brown, Wendell D., “Tips for designing higher education’s newest building type: the learning commons.” Building Design and Construction (online) (Dec. 9, 2013).
2 Sens, Thomas, “12 Major Trends in Library Design.” Building Design and Construction (online) (Dec. 1, 2009).