When I began working in the library design industry 16 years ago, my portfolio contained 5 different checklists targeted to the needs of the various types of libraries I encountered: elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, higher education and public. While these lists contained basic requirements that were similar for each type of space, there were also distinct differences. However, over the last 5 years, I have noticed that as libraries shift from transactional to transformational services, there are far fewer differences between each library type. In other words, my checklists are more or less out the window. Today, when I see any photo of a library space, it is often hard to discern whether it is a school, university or public library. And, that’s OK, it means expectations are changing and we’re adapting to those needs.
As a professional, I have always been involved in library space transformations from the outside in, following trends and suggesting ways to incorporate these trends into the design. I recently experienced a transformation taking place at Pomperaug School in Southbury, CT, my children’s school, from the inside out. I found it fascinating and inspiring.
Even in a drab outdated space with no plans for renovation, the changes in how library service is delivered and the functions that take place in the space have added new life to a tired environment. While a transformation of the physical space is far from a reality, the transformation in learning is incredible.
During a recent conversation with Jane Martellino, a media specialist at the school, I had the opportunity to walk through the inside out transformation for the first time. It was an invaluable experience and I asked Jane to help me share it with you by providing her thoughts on the new requirements for today’s transformational learning environments and what her space needs to better support the current learning environment.
Jane’s Library Story (in her own words)
What’s In a Name
School library, media center, learning commons, cyberspace, makerspace … these are just a few of the names mentioned when one peruses blogs or articles written by school librarians (our official job title according to the American Association of School Librarians). I am a 19-year veteran elementary school media specialist, (my official title according to the state of Connecticut) and I find the disparity in both of these professional titles and the names of the physical spaces in which we inhabit to be irrelevant.
Titles and names aside, I believe all stakeholders agree the focus should be centered on the shift libraries must make from transactional to transformational. I believe this shift occurs first in mindset, and then the physical transformation (design and utilization) of the library space follows. And that is exactly the journey I embarked on this past year.
Transformation from the Inside Out
This fall, I accepted employment in a new district, which adopted a flexible schedule for the media center program. This adoption demonstrated to me that administration had made the necessary mindset shift in no longer viewing media centers as traditional transactional libraries but rather centers filled with the possibility of transformation. However, a shift in our physical space is another story.
The media center was built in the 1970s and, like many elementary school media centers built during that era, the circulation desk is front and center, the perimeter of the room is encased in tall, dark wood bookcases. More dark wood bookcases jet out from the walls to form various sections in the library. Tables and chairs are the sturdy ones reminiscent of my own middle school and high school years — the types of chairs that were shockingly cold every time you sat down on them, and the height of the chair was awkward in comparison to the table. Definitely not a comfortable workspace.
A storytime corner with bleacher type seating is still useful, however it takes up a good chunk of valuable real estate and the only way to project a computer or iPad® is on a large, very dated, pull-down screen which takes up even more space and produces less than satisfactory viewing quality. Also, typical of this era of library construction, there was a librarian’s office and a large workroom with a storage closet. Basically, the physical space shouts ‘static, librarian-centered and outdated.
Work Within the Parameters
Knowing I had administrative support, I focused on transforming instructional practice. By changing both the way I taught, as well as the expectations for student learning, the results were obvious.
Students were collaborating, creating, communicating and dropping in anytime they had moments to spare. In no time at all, mindset shifted. However, changes to our physical space needed to be incremental due to the constraints of our pre-21st century design and zero budget.
What were the immediate changes we made? Well, for starters, I cleaned out the librarian’s office and transformed it into a green screen room and recording studio. When students needed additional recording spaces, we invaded the paraprofessional’s workroom (with her permission). In order to provide spaces for small groups to collaborate, we used the current furniture and attempted to create nooks in between the stacks.
When grade levels were invited to a Skype session with an expert or an author, we had custodians stack tables and chairs in order to clear the main area of the media center. As the school year progressed, students began to understand that the media center space existed for their transformational learning needs. They began to see that we could move or request to move whatever wasn’t bolted down to help create a learning space for a specific need. Yet, we readily admitted that the outdated furnishings and traditional layout of our media center space did not naturally facilitate 21st century learning and gathering. It needed a major makeover.
Where Are We Now
While student learning and habits are transforming, significant improvement still needs to occur in the transformation of our physical space. Instead of visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads, as Clement Clark Moore penned in “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” students in our media center have visions of …
Inspirational Media Center
Collaboration Hot Spots
Our wish list of additional features includes:
- Touch screen monitors in our nonfiction area to seamlessly integrate digital and print text.
- Removing walls that separate the workroom and library office from the media center, creating room for student workshops, makerspaces, publishing and recording services.
- Portable dividers with write-able surfaces such as Plexiglas® walls on wheels.
- Comfortable seating with electrical outlets in a ‘living room’ type setting to welcome students and teachers to informally gather and chat.
- Everything on wheels, so in only a few minutes, we can easily and safely reconfigure our space to accommodate large group needs.
- Additional power access to charge mobile devices and use them in a variety of locations within the media center.
- Walls painted in colors that enhance learning.
Keep the Dream Alive
As I reflect on what I learned from this experience, Pomeraug Elementary School is still far from implementing its wish list of items, but the transformation in learning continues. Jane searches for innovative ways to improve the space to better support 21st century functions with minimal resources until a complete renovation is possible.
While I still believe that the environment is a key factor in successful learning (if I didn’t, it would make my career obsolete), my experience with the mindset shift of the media center at Pomperaug Elementary School has shown me that form can follow function without hindering growth. I have a renewed excitement for helping libraries of all types improve their form to match their new functions.
In a way, space is just like every other tool we intentionally select, and then purposefully utilize in order to engage, motivate and inspire students in their thirst for knowledge, quest for innovation and their ultimate desire to positively impact society. The world needs the unique gifts and talents each of our students possess and the spaces they inhabit should enable them to become all that they can be!