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Big leap for school libraries

Students want to spend time in the active, group-learning learning spaces schools are building
  • ACTIVE LEARNING SPACES—The Design39Campus, part of Poway USD near San Diego, has transformed its library into The Loft. The facility offers students soundproof collaboration studios, a tech help desk and whiteboard tables for brainstorming sessions.
  • THE PLACE TO BE—The library at Naperville North High School outside Chicago has been transformed into a learning commons where students can work in small- and large-group spaces and socialize in a cafe lounge. Administrators say the library is packed starting each day at 7 a.m.

Steven Yates has a message for would-be school librarians. “If you’re coming to this because you like to read and you want to manage a collection of books, then you showed up about 30 years too late to the profession,” says Yates, a former high school librarian who teaches in the school library media certification program at the University of Alabama.

The school library’s mission—matching resources with those who need them—has not changed, he says. But its role is evolving: With materials increasingly offered online, schools are transforming their libraries into active places for students to work together and get creative, with staff who do much more than manage books.

Here’s a look at how administrators and their teams are redesigning libraries.


Sidebar: Going digital


Inspiring thinkers

Poway USD near San Diego built its Design39Campus, a K8 school that opened in 2014, around the concept of design thinking—an approach to problem-solving that promotes experimentation and collaboration. That kind of open-ended thinking influenced the school’s programing, scheduling, instructional materials and library, which is called the Loft.

“Our Loft is not filled to the brim with tons of books, as the future is going digital,” the school’s website says. Students can rearrange the library’s modular furniture and get IT assistance at a tech bar operated by students and staff. Collaboration studios with soundproof glass and whiteboard tables encourage brainstorming.

“The library is definitely a space that I think pushes your thinking and allows you to be creative and innovative,” says Beth Perisic, Poway’s director of learning support services.

Following the Loft’s lead, the entire district also shifted to Overdrive’s digital library catalog after funding for materials was cut during the recession, Perisic says.

“We were getting a lot of concern from our librarians as well as our community about how old our circulation was becoming,” she says. “It was important for us to update some of the books that were culturally insensitive.”

Make way for multitasking

Districts don’t need brand new facilities to launch this transformation. Many schools have found success in redesigning—and rebranding—their library as a hub for learning activities.

The old library at Naperville North High School near Chicago wasn’t a place many students wanted to go.

When they all got Chromebooks, the library’s rows of desktop computers went unused, as did most of the physical collection, says Mark Skarr, Naperville North’s former technology integration specialist who oversaw the library’s transformation into a learning commons.

The facility opened last year with small- and large-group spaces, a student-run cafe, and a lounge area with leather couches, booths and tables. Eating, talking and socializing are all encouraged, and the space is packed starting at 7 a.m., Skarr says.

Meanwhile, the physical collection was cut down from nearly 14,000 items to about 4,000 based on data on which titles students were reading, Skarr says.

“The way that we do school is changing and the way kids interact is obviously changing along with (that),” he says. “The new normal is that you have a multitasking facility that’s capable of taking care of the needs of a lot of students at one time.”

Visionary students

When leaders at Brookside School in Allendale, New Jersey, wanted to improve the fourth- through eighth-grade school’s library, they asked students for guidance. Students wanted a place to hang out, do homework and use their Chromebooks. And, “They wanted it to look cool,” Principal Bruce Winkelstein says.

Brookside’s learning commons opened in January with bright blue carpet, hourglass-shaped tables and candy-colored chairs on wheels. Elsewhere there are high-top tables (“think Starbucks tables with high stools,” Winkelstein says) and reading nooks built into the walls (“those are wildly popular”).

At the far end, curved shelves form an enclosed space where teachers bring classes.

One challenge was finding a design firm up to the task of creating a nontraditional library space that reflected students’ wishes.

“If students were going to utilize this room and be excited to utilize it on a daily basis, this was going to be their vision,” says Allendale School District Superintendent Michael Barcadepone, who admits the bright colors can be jarring for adults. “There’s nothing in that room that the students did not sign off on.”

Brookside removed some nonfiction and reference materials to make room for another trend in libraries: a makerspace area devoted to hands-on creative activities. The space is stocked with Legos and art supplies.

Makerspaces are an engaging way to bring STEM and STEAM into the library, adds Yates, the 2017-18 president of the American Association of School Librarians.

For older students, makerspaces might include woodworking tools, sewing machines and 3D printers. As expectations in the classroom change, library offerings must expand.

“If it sounds somewhat like the Industrial Revolution in your library space,” he says, “then you have an active making culture.”

‘These resources called librarians’

Of course, a stellar library space still needs a skilled librarian. During the recession, many districts targeted these positions for cuts. But a few years later, some school systems found themselves missing that champion of digital literacy and technology integration, Yates says.

Say you want to get rid of textbooks and pull from open educational resources instead. “Who is going to sit there and curate it and help your teachers, who are already constrained for time?” says Nader Qaimari, president of Follett School Solutions, the library products and software giant.

“You probably have these resources called librarians who know how to sift through information.”

Follett has been working in recent years to elevate the role of librarian. It formed Project Connect to advocate for librarians as leaders in the areas of digital literacy, research and critical thinking.

The company also convinced backers of the national Future Ready coalition—in which districts pledge to support digital and personalized learning through best practices and training—to include librarians in the initiative.

Despite all the changes going on in school libraries, some administrators still see librarians primarily as the keepers of books.

Project Connect gives librarians tools to contribute to district-level discussions about curriculum, instructional materials and strategic planning, Qaimari says. “They can go right to the principal and then the administrator and say ‘Here’s how I can support you in terms of reaching your objective,’” he says.


Abby Spegman is a freelance writer based in Washington.