Divine Design: How to create the 21st-century school library of your dreams

Things are changing. For starters, ebooks, apps, and the web are now a part of your students’ 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.

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Things are looking up at P.S. 189, in Manhattan's Washington Heights, where a flock of books (fabricated from sheet metal) soars beneath a digitally printed sky, turning florescent light fixtures into inspiring works of art. The libraries shown in this article are located in some of New York City's poorest neighborhoods, and were created as part of an initiative by the Robin Hood Foundation-a leader in school library design-and the New York City Department of Education. Photo ©Albert Vecerka/Esto

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’s 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 They’ve been replaced by more urgent questions.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 such as, what are the tools and resources your students will need, 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 that 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 creating the best space for your students. Here are five design considerations that you shouldn’t overlook when planning your dream school library.

1. Make sure your space is flexible.

Many librarians—even those in brand-new media centers—are forced into using stagnant 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 students prefer to learn. Flexibility is vital; traditional library furniture can be cumbersome and make multiple seating 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.

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The boldly colored library at the New Vision School, P.S. 69 in the Bronx, is the school's learning epicenter. To enter the building, students must pass through the library on their way upstairs to the school's main floor. The shelving system is from Haller of Switzerland, and the chairs are Arne Jacobsen's "Seven" chair from Denmark. Photo ©Peter Mauss/Esto.

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 Melvil Dewey’s 1876 system) and requires a step stool 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 step stool? By the way, there’s now another ereader alternative—Ectaco’s jetBook, designed especially for K–12 schools.

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The John J. Driscoll School, P.S. 16 on Staten Island, takes savvy advantage of a seamless vinyl floor, curvy objects, spray-painted foam cushions, and bright primary colors to create a super comfy space for its multicultural student body, which speaks at least 15 languages. The laminate plywood shelving is from Rakks, and the overhead light fixtures are from Barrisol. Photo ©Peter Mauss/Esto.

3. Insist on a stronginfrastructure.

Don’t cut corners by underpowering 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—but 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 among 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 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 into your new space. 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.

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It took children’s book illustrator Maira Kalman an entire year to track down the flea-market treasures that she transformed into the alphabet at the John Randolph School, P.S. 47 in the Bronx. The stimulating space is divided into colorful reading, research, and study areas with floor graphics, mobile shelving, and easily positioned tables and chairs, including Pierre Paulin’s “Orange Slice” chair, peeking out in the background. Photo ©Peter Mauss/Esto.

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 hardworking 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 “Starbucks” 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. Granted, it’s very cool and very social, but how exactly does it prepare students 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, some librarians have simply gone too far the other way.

As attractive as these new spaces can be, they will be undervalued over time. Even at home, a pristine living room isn’t used for studying; it’s a nice spot to sit in 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 to 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 do 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 and 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.

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Marino Jeantet School, P.S. 19 in Queens, uses its learning garden for both science and reading programs. During April’s poetry month, students will read aloud their works in this peaceful outdoor space. The garden is also a hug hit with members of the mostly Spanish-speaking community, who like to help out with the gardening. Photo ©Paul Warchol Photography

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 students’ other senses. Whether or not you agree with child-advocate Richard Louv’s 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 in expands your space significantly. And no, this outdoor 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 with good window treatments, and 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 have 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.

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 uncomical conclusion: we’ve produced a generation of students who 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 fabfle 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 broad 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, get this excellent 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 generation that will 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 bold commentary on educational reform, its failure to improve education, and 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.

Author Information
Margaret Sullivan (margarets@smith system.com) is Smith System’s library marketing and sales manager.

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