More Thrifty School Library Design Tips

A lot of imagination, a little elbow grease, and the right tools can yield dramatic results like these.
Considering a library remodel? Check out these creative, low-cost ideas from fellow librarians, some shared on Jennifer LaGarde and Mark Samberg's  #macgyverlibrarianship Twitter initiative. Learn more about the MacGyver Librarian Movement —and get crafty! Share your ideas on Twitter and Instagram with the hashtag.

Dress up the desk


Photo courtesy of Heather Brown

Heather Brown, librarian at St. Joseph School Library in Herndon, VA, collaborated with the school art teacher for International Dot Day to create this beautiful circulation desk (above). Every kindergarten through eighth grade student cut and decorated a dot modeled after Wassily Kandinsky's 1913 painting Squares with Concentric Circles. The squares were then laminated and used to cover the circulation desk.
At the Delft Technology University in the Netherlands, the school created this rainbow-hued desk (below) out of discarded library books that were being replaced after a school fire. 13

Photo by Ellen Forsyth

No extra space? Try this

2 If you’re revamping your library, it’s a great time to downsize your collection, get rid of outdated books, and create more space. Melissa Mannon at Goffstown (NH) High School Library completely rearranged her library to make the space more usable. She removed tall bookshelves and used the extra room to create a silent reading area (left). She culled the reference section and cut the long, waist-high shelves vertically to make smaller units. Adding plywood and casters to the bottoms of shelves made them movable to create displays or to divide different sections of the library (below left). The remaining reference section shelves, which were already curved, were fashioned into a reference desk and storage for their graphic novels (below right). thrifty_refdesk

Photos courtesy of Melissa Mannon

At my school, we removed our entire reference collection and aggressively weeded our nonfiction section. With the extra space, we pushed our shelves against the walls (where our reference section was previously located) and removed two additional rows of shelves to create a cozy reading area. Our circulation desk was moved from the middle of the library to near the main entrance. We didn't need permission or money to make all of these changes—and it made a big difference. 1

Before (left) and after shots at the North Buncombe High School Library in Weaverville, NC.


Student-led designs

5Getting permission to change your library can be a hurdle. In many districts, libraries aren’t allowed to paint the walls or furniture. This can sometimes be solved by designating a project as "student led": If an initiative is for a specific class or driven by students, you may have more freedom to paint, decorate, or renovate. Be sure to talk to your principal before starting, and ask your county's high school programs for additional help. My library had help from our interior design, art, carpentry, and welding classes. Our welding class is building us extra slanted magazine shelves out of leftover metal shelves (right). Once completed, they’ll get a nice coat of bright spray paint.
Below: Jessica Gilcreast at the Bedford (NH) High School Library transformed her chairs with remnant fabric and a staple gun. thrifty_reupholster

Photos courtesy of Jessica Gilcreast

Below: At Heath (OH) High School Library, Amy Gibson, with the help of some students, made a video production green screen simply by painting a library wall green. Researching the "perfect" color, she settled on Behr paint in the "Sparkling Apple" shade. thrifty_greenwall

Photo courtesy of Amy Gibson

10At Northwoods Middle School Library in North Charleston, SC, librarian Christy James painted her walls, ceiling, and the top of the circulation desk (right). To update the marbleized countertops, they took tips from a HGTV website tutorial—and sanded, primed, painted, and sealed the countertops with multiple coats of paint. She created large orange READ signs (below) by painting Styrofoam letters and hanging them with Command brand strips.   12

Photos courtesy of Christy James

Fundraising strategies

When you don't have extra money to remodel—or permission to paint or purchase items—sometimes you have to get even more creative. Try a Donors Choose project, which sends you educational items (not money) once the project has been funded. Many new projects qualify for a "price match," where companies will match what you raise. A great time to try Donors Choose is around the holidays, when people are looking to make donations, or tax season, when larger companies are seeking tax breaks. Some school systems have guidelines about using Donors Choose—check out your county’s policy. Also consider a book fair: some schools don't regulate how you spend proceeds, and they can go toward redecorating. Also consider contacting your local hardware store about donating leftover materials.
Jennifer LaGarde, #macgyverlibrarianship cofounder, created this fun book table (below) out of a cable spool, discarded books, glue, and black paint for New Hanover High School in Wilmington, NC. Thrifty_spooltable

Photos courtesy of Jennifer LaGarde

Below: Megan Gill and her students at Summersill Eagles Elementary School Library in Jacksonville, NC, used a sanded cable spool to create a gaming table/charging station. The local electric company donated the spool, which the student will paint with a color of their choice later this year. thrifty_kidsrounddesk

Photo courtesy of Megan Gill


Photo courtesy of  Vanessa Calhoun

Vanessa Calhoun, librarian at Sandy Ridge Elementary School Library in Durham, NC created these book displays (right) out of painted wooden pallets and wire book stands. The hinges on the side allow them to be folded up and stored easily.  
Below: The book review bin at Northwoods Middle School Library in North Charleston, SC, is made out of a white kitchen cabinet from Lowes. Librarian Christy James drilled a slot in the top and added handles, a lock, casters, and decals. James also created a book display (below right) by painting Ikea spice racks orange and mounting them to the walls. thrifty_James

Photos courtesy of Christy James

Below: At North Buncombe High School in Weaverville, NC, librarian Cindy Mackiernan and I used a projector to show actions words above the different areas of their library. Using a black sharpie, we traced the words and filled them in with dark blue paint. 21 23
Below: Librarian Kathryn Garrett from Isaac Litton Middle School Library in Nashville, TN created all these whimsical displays out of discarded books and magazines. A great idea for your library makerspace! Thrifty_paper

Photos courtesy of Kathryn Garrett

darty_head_shot Katie Darty is a librarian at North Buncombe High School in Weaverville, NC. She transformed her library with the help of fellow librarian Cindy Mackiernan, assistant Tony Sykes, and interior design teacher Stephanie Griffin. She lives in Asheville, NC, with her husband, Josh, and their daughter, Charlie. Contact her at, or follow her library on Twitter.
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Collette J.

I've used long rolls of bulletin board paper to cover our white concrete walls when painting isn't an option. $25 gets you enough to cover a LOT of wall space as a backdrop, and I match the printed paper to that year's decorating theme. I've done mountains for a camping theme, underwater for an under the sea/buried treasure theme, jungle leaves for a rainforest/bananas for books theme, beach for a pirates theme, etc. Just make sure to use good quality tape to hold up all year. -

Posted : Apr 29, 2016 11:24

Nadine Poper

Thank you SLJ for this informative and practical article on how to remodel or redecorate when permission or funds get in the way.

Posted : Apr 29, 2016 05:59

Frances Wildsmith

This article is very encouraging. Since I lost my state and federal funding several years ago (NC schools), I need cheap, creative ideas for redecorating. I especially liked the action words projected on the walls that were then painted. It looks so classy!

Posted : Apr 28, 2016 10:26

Pamela Love

Great ideas! I especially liked the two circulation desks at the beginning.

Posted : Apr 28, 2016 09:30



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