Here’s a sure fire way to put students to sleep. Have them take turns reading dictionary definitions for “library.” Case in point, Merriam-Webster says “a place where books, magazines, and other materials (such as videos and musical recordings) are available for people to use or borrow.” While respectable, it’s not exactly the stuff that gets today’s techno and social savvy K-12 students revved to learn.

Thankfully, design trends for 21st Century classrooms – and school libraries in particular – have moved away from such simplistic definitions. This is due, in part, to student involvement in the planning process. While it’s essential to gather library staff and faculty input, students will be the largest stakeholders. Here’s how to cull their youthful insights.

Know Your Audience

Before you dive into student focus groups or school surveys, get a good sense of what questions to ask. Observe student behaviors both individually and in groups within the library. Ask library staff for their observations, too. Also do some research, especially around understanding the impact of technology on student use of library spaces.

For example, Pew Research Center’s “Teens and Technology 2013” report offers golden insight into how that demographic is accessing information. Here are just a few results of the Center’s recent national survey of 802 teens ages 12 – 17:

  •   • 78 % of teens now have a cell phone, and almost half of those are smartphones
  •   • One in four teens are “cell-mostly” internet users (rather than using some other access device such as a desktop or laptop computer)
  •   • About one in four teens have a tablet computer
  •   • Nine in ten teens have a computer or access to one at home.1

Another Pew Research Center study from 2012 asked over 2,000 middle and high school teachers how teens do research in the digital world. When asked which online activities [teachers] have students engage in, 95 percent of teachers surveyed reported having students “do research or search for information online,” making it the most common online task.2

Convey How Important Student Input Is

Once you’ve done your research, let your questions reflect it. Speak in their language. Reassure them that you value and will consider their suggestions (within reason). For example, does their heavy technology use mean your library has to be techno central? Well, yes, according to Margaret Sullivan, a designer of school libraries.

She wrote a great article titled “How to Create the 21st Century School Library of Your Dreams” in the April 2011 issue of School Library Journal. She says, “Limited [electrical] outlets will also control how a space is used in the future. 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.3

But Sullivan also advocates for traditional print materials, a fundamental library resource, especially in schools that don’t have a computer for every student. “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. ” 3 That means fewer bookshelves that tower from floor to ceiling and more student-friendly, mobile storage options. Consider easy access book trucks, browser bins and magazine displays on casters. These work for all ages and heights.

Be Familiar with Current Trends in Library Design

Have a good sense of where school library design is headed and what works specifically for the K-12 environment. All research points to creating K-12 libraries that are energetic, inviting space filled with students who are busy gathering information and exchanging ideas. Physically speaking, that means doing away with dim lighting, low ceilings, subdued ambiance, institutional furniture, closed-off spaces and obstructed views. But don’t confuse a school library with a public or collegiate one. Going so far as installing a café may muddy your library’s role in learning.

A quick online search can offer many trend insights. “12 Major Trends in Library Design,” an article by Thomas Sens published in a 2009 issue of Building Design and Construction is still relevant today. He says, “While the internet can provide 24/7 access to information, it can also isolate learners. The new … library model provides a forum for students to collaborate, enjoy fellowship, engage in healthy debate, create and challenge ideas, and experience learning and discovery in a multitude of meaningful ways.”4

Finally, Ask Students!

There are many ways to get student input on library designs. Be sure to include all ages and types of learners, not just the extroverts eager to shout their ideas. Consider town hall-style meetings, student focus groups and student representation on advisory councils. Ask student government and other student groups who use the library before or after school. Send out a survey or ask for written responses by a certain deadline. Invite them to look at Pinterest boards and share visual ideas. Offer incentives for replies

What You Might Hear

The Council of Educational Facilities Planners International (CEFPI) recently hosted a webinar on library design for 21st century learners. Here are some quotes from kids who answered the question, “What would an ideal library look like?”
• “Quiet, but not too quiet”
• “Where, even if you’re by yourself, you don’t feel like you’re by yourself”
• ’Coffee shop’ feel or ‘living room atmosphere,’ where they could mingle with other people if the wanted to, but can do their own thing if not.
• “Like home room for your community”5

A Final Thought

Based on what designers are hearing and builders are building, is it time to retire the word “library” (liber is Latin for “book”) entirely? Some schools have, opting instead for “information commons.” One thing’s for sure. If you ask students, they’ll likely have an opinion waiting for a listener.


  3.  Sullivan, Margaret, “How to Create the 21st Century School Library of Your Dreams.” School Library Journal, April 2011.
  4.  Sens, Thomas, “12 Major Trends in Library Design.” Building Design and Construction (online) (Dec. 1, 2009).
  5. Council of Educational Facilities Planners International (CEFPI), “Library Design for 21st Century Learners.” Presenters Sean Conner, AIA, and Carolyn Foote. Originally published April 22, 2014.