Are libraries obsolete or evolving?
“K-12 Libraries are empowering learners through thoughtful design. No longer the hush-hush environment of yesteryear, the library has been slowly reinventing itself as the true hub of a school — a lively multipurpose and multimedia space.”
by Catherine Sweeney, Catapult Inc.
Ideally, libraries are welcoming and universally accessible with an innate gravitational pull to draw in students and teachers alike. The library as learning commons fosters inquiry-based learning and collaboration alongside quiet contemplation. What was once considered a repository for books, the K-12 school library presents an opportunity to encourage and foster the excitement of learning and to bridge the gap between the physical and virtual learning spheres. There are obvious challenges with retrofitting an old library into a more versatile, fluid space or creating a new one with budgets to balance and many needs to accommodate. Virtual learning and new technologies now require much consideration, but some basic must-haves remain unchanged: accessibility, ample seating, appropriate wiring and lighting, and, of course, a place to house, display and checkout print materials.
We spoke with various stakeholders and experts to discuss how the footprint of our libraries influence, if not direct, this new adaptive mindset? How can we alter existing libraries and design new ones that address this philosophical shift?
Perspectives from our Partners
The physical space, first and foremost, needs to be warm and inviting. It should have the relaxed ambiance of a coffee shop. Design strategies to achieve this include transparency, daylight and connections to nature outside, a mix of seating like comfortable lounge furniture, café-type tables, modular study carrels, and plenty of connectivity for laptops and personal devices.
To achieve the inclusive, multi-tasking goal of a new learning commons, architects must look at key areas to improve student use and enjoyment. Location is one such factor. It should ideally be centrally located and easily accessible, both physically and visually. Lighting is paramount, too, with a need for natural, direct and indirect sources. Book stacks need good vertical light levels, while study desks benefit from horizontal task lighting. And, student collaboration zones and lounge seating work best with natural day-lighting supplemented by glare-free artificial indirect lighting.
Teachers and librarians need open, flexible spaces that are conducive to both individual and group learning. I see the most success when the infrastructure supports learning through several means. In the old library, there were a couple of different ways to participate, but in the new learning commons, there should be a place to read aloud, a place to plug in and listen to e-books, places to view and scan to find new information, and places to talk or even dance.
From an architect’s perspective, this entails using a wide range of tools and design concepts to achieve a space where all students can thrive. It is much more about using a social imagination to determine how the library will be used. You need to involve students, teachers, parents and administrators early in the design. Quickly you will see that every teacher has a different teaching style and every student has a different learning style. What becomes most apparent is that the library requires the flexibility to accommodate those various styles.
To keep the spaces physically adaptable, consider moveable book shelves with industrial-quality lockable castors and limited fixed millwork; non-fixed seating and tables that can be easily rearranged in different configurations; and large operable glazed walls that slide open and allow the library to open onto the main entry foyer creating a large gathering space. Computer resource rooms should avoid fixed seating and hard-wired technology layouts, and instead provide moveable furniture layouts that can be grouped around wired and wireless technology clusters.
Several elements of an efficient plan offer dual function. For example, clear sightlines afford teachers the supervision they need in a large space, yet also create pleasing and restful spaces, especially with views to the outdoors. And, acoustical considerations such as soft carpeting or resilient flooring offer both a soft spot for children to sit and read (they often prefer to sit on the floor in front of the books), and dissipate ambient noise.
Others are opening the doors of the school library to the community. Some boards have embraced joint community use of their facilities, partnering with community stakeholders to combine their limited resources to build hubs that include schools, libraries and community centres. Architects can help champion this endeavor from the design stage. The library should be central to the layout to symbolically and functionally signify its importance making it both the heart of the school and, potentially, the neighbourhood as a whole.
Though e-learning and digital materials are on the rise, so is a highly curated print collection. It’s imperative to have sufficient room to display new materials and, of course, to house the books themselves. I prefer them to be on the walls, thus maintaining sightlines and reducing fixed stacks, which can be a challenge when natural lighting and large windows are also on the list. It’s issues like this that are resolved by early collaboration between all parties. Clear signage “in plain English” also fosters a positive learner-based experience for students, essentially empowering them to learn on their own.
Creative visions for interactive and thriving libraries are just beginning. Concepts like a maker’s space, where students are encouraged to build things for instance. The maker movement is influencing library design. That kind of creativity inspires learners to learn more, and to use more of the library.