“The library is the heart of the school” – I have heard this expression used so many times and perhaps I’m a bit biased when I say that I full-heartedly agree with it. It’s no secret that I love my job and working in a school library has been a complete dream come true for me. One of the things I love most about working in a school library is the fact that you get to wear many hats. You are the sole person in charge and it is up to you to keep things running smoothly. You are responsible for looking after the book exchanges, leading story times, providing research support, facilitating information literacy instruction, collection development and management, fundraising initiatives, scheduling author visits, and the list really does go on.
Another hat I had the chance to wear last year was project manager. I was responsible for transforming our school library to fit the new learning commons model that supports 21st century learning. I was excited to take on this opportunity, but it was the first time I would be taking on a project quite like this. I have gone into detail below regarding the entire process of this transformation, from the beginning phase of planning and research, right up to the final completion of the space.
Before we go any further though, I find that everyone seems to have a different interpretation of what the terms library and learning commons really mean. Which one is the correct term to use? Can you interchange them? Let’s establish this first:
Library: a place in which literary, musical, artistic, or reference materials (such as books, manuscripts, recordings, or films) are kept for use but not for sale (definition from Merriam-Webster).
Learning Commons: similar to libraries, a shared space for information technology, collaboration, content creation, meetings, socialization, playing games, and studying. Learning commons are popular in academic and research libraries (definition from Wikipedia, I know sham on this librarian, but it summed up what an LC is so nicely).
Especially in academic libraries, the learning commons is a hub where the library is connected to, but so are several other services from the academic institution, such as a writing centre or perhaps career services. It’s the idea that all of these different services are located and connected to one central place. Often, the library will oversee the learning commons and be responsible for managing it, but technically, it is not really the library itself.
So where does that leave us when it comes to redefining the school library? A library and a learning commons serve two different purposes, but in our case, we have one single space. Essentially, we want what both have to offer in one space. We still have a library, a place where literary and reference materials are kept, but we also want it to be a shared space for information technology, collaboration opportunities, content creation, meetings, studying and socialization. Transforming the library into a learning commons is not about just changing the name of the space, nor is it about getting rid of what the library already had in the first place. It’s about keeping the best pieces from what we already have, while introducing new elements to enhance the space.
Knowing this, we decided to call the space the Library Learning Commons at our school. We combined both names together, because it’s no longer just a library anymore and we wanted staff and students to know this. However, we also wanted them to know that we still have a library collection, but just like our name suggests, we have added something else to the mix and it is now something new and different.
Let’s redefine what a school library is now:
Library Learning Commons (LLC): a place in which literary and reference materials are kept. Also a shared space for information technology, collaboration, content creation, meetings, socialization, playing games, and studying.
Now that we understand what the purpose of our space is, we can proceed with looking at what exactly needed to be changed or be added to truly make it a functioning LLC.
Before any planning took place, the first thing that needed to be done was information gathering. This entire project was a well researched and lengthy process. I spent a whole year observing how students interacted with the space and furniture, looked at what we had/didn’t have, and I visited many other school and public libraries to take note of what they had and what could work for us. Feedback from students, teachers, and other library professionals were also taken into consideration.
Following this, mapping out a plan came next. The following needed to be considered:
- Space – Was our current space good enough to stay in? Maybe there isn’t enough space where you currently are and you need to relocate. For us, the library would be staying in the same location. The space was large enough and we had an empty computer lab beside it, which we could later play with if more space was needed down the road.
- Budget – In a school library, the principal typically oversees the library budget, so this is something you will need to sit down and discuss with them. I was given a budget at first, but when I went away to make a wish list, we were not able to get the big-ticket items we were hoping for while running with our current budget. I showed my principal how far the money would take us, which lead to reevaluating the budget and actually increasing it to get the essential pieces we really wanted.
- Flexible furniture – Part of the idea of a library learning commons is for furniture to be flexible and not fixed on one location, so things with wheels, especially shelving and tables, were essential. Having furniture on wheels would allow us to easily move pieces out of the way or to reconfigure the space with ease. Also, we wanted to make sure that the space was not filled with just chairs. Our library originally had all classroom chairs for seating and we had two wobble stools. I watched how students interacted with the furniture and where they tended to gravitate towards. Do you know where they always wanted to sit? The wobble stools, every time. An entire class would race to claim one of the two stools we had and would carry them around so that they wouldn’t lose their seat. This happened everyday, all year long, and it spoke volumes about what students wanted. They wanted more flexible seating options.
- Collaboration-designated areas – We also had no designated areas for collaboration opportunities or reading spaces, so we wanted to make sure we found furniture that allowed for these kinds of opportunities and to make it more inviting for students. Students rarely came on their own to work in the library, so making this space exciting and inviting to encourage student use was really important. We also noticed that staff tended to work in the library often, so we wanted to make sure that there was a place designated for staff as well.
- Flexible scheduling – Another consideration was given to making a change in the normal library schedule. Transforming the space to adhere to a learning commons model did not just involve furniture changes, but it also included how the library would operate and function. A little more on this later.
After gathering information, I then consulted and collaborated with my principal and library services manager. We discussed our goals for the space, ideas we had, and our next steps. Taking the above into consideration, as well as comments and requests made by students and staff, we mapped out a plan to move forward.
- Things that had to go: Carpet, book spinner, dusty rose couches, tables, chairs (could not fit as many/did not fit well with new tables), buckets and cardboard book holders, books used as signage, area rug, rocking chair.
- What we needed: New flooring, variety of flexible seating, tables on wheels, shelves on wheels, shelving to mount against wall, SmartBoard projector, signage, book storage, area rug, story time chair, updated circulation desk, new library learning commons schedule/model.
- Flooring – We ripped up the carpet and put in a vinyl flooring to look like hardwood. This made a difference with the acoustics of the space, but once we put down area rugs later, this helped with sound absorption.
- Lighting fixtures – Our whole school was being retrofitted and that included the library. This happened just as I was transitioning to my new school, so I did not get to see this completed, but I was sent a picture of the final project. It made a huge difference having this done.
- Circulation desk – We ordered a desk wrap from our Print Services department. Essentially, they printed one huge sticker to go around the entire desk to cover the wood and update it. They took care of the design of the wrap and they installed it themselves. This truly made a HUGE difference and helped update our circ desk.
- Layout considerations – Wanting to create areas for collaboration opportunities made us mindful in not only the furniture we selected, but also in the placement of everything. We moved the entire collection from one side of the library to the other, just so that there was a flow and organized order as you travelled through the space. We also considered where different grades would tend to congregate, for instance, when kindergarten and our primary classes come in for story time, we made sure that the picture books, the junior nonfiction, and the story time chair and carpet were all in the same general area. This way, students knew where their books could be found. Work areas were located near the nonfiction collection for easy access to books for research. There was also an additional couch purchased and placed beside the young adult section in order to encourage teens to come into the space more. Though these may seem like minor details, we tried to be intentional with everything we did in our design.
- Scheduling – Not just the physical space looked different, but also scheduling too – no longer the traditional “everyone has a library period and comes to do a book exchange.” Why did we change this? I found, again through observation, that grades 4 to 8 would show up for their library period and maybe only five students out of the whole class would need to exchange their books. Sometimes, classes wouldn’t even show up at all, because they were busy working on other things during that time. My solution was to create opportunities for staff to book their own periods. Here’s the breakdown:
- Kindergarten to Grade 3 – These grades still had a designated, weekly library period, where they came in for story time, a book exchange, and centres.
- Grades 4 to 8 – These grades had the opportunity to book periods, up to a month in advance. I also carved out open periods for student drop-ins and research support, as well as a daily open book exchange for junior and intermediate students to come and change their books.
- Library Passes – These were distributed to all grades and I gave each class four passes. These were to be used if students needed to come down to the library during class time. Sometimes, it was for one-on-one research support, other times, a group would come down to do their work in the library. Whatever the need, I had them come with a pass, to show me that they had permission from their teacher to work in the space. It was also my way to keep track of numbers in the library.
- More than one group in the Library at a time – At any given time, there may be several people in the library all at once and they all might be doing different things: I may be leading a story time for a primary class, while an educational assistant and a student are working one-on-one in the corner, while another group of junior students are sitting at a table all working on a project. A learning commons really is a space where learning happens, but all different types of learning happening in a common space.
- Booking Online – I had our monthly schedule posted on OneNote. This was a live schedule where staff could fill in the periods they wanted to book. Depending on what staff needed, they could book what they required, for instance, if they needed a double-block or a consistent period over the next three weeks as students did research, they could look ahead and book periods according to their needs. Other online bookings that were made available along with the schedule included, the computer lab and technology (iPads).
Furniture – we bought several new pieces, so I’ve broken down exactly what we purchased below, along with the vendors we used:
- Wobble stools – Scholastic Classroom Rewards
- Tables with wheels – auction, vendor unknown
- Bar stools and table – Bouclair
- Bean bag chairs – Wayfair
- Caterpillar couch – TradeWest
- Circle couch – TradeWest
- Corner couch – TradeWest
- Floor cushions – gifted, vendor unknown
- Area rugs – both from Rugs.ca
- STEM kit storage unit – Scholastic Classroom Rewards
- Shelves with wheels – purchased by board, vendor unknown
- Low shelving to mount against wall – again, purchased by board, vendor unknown
- Wingback chair – Ikea (SO comfortable that I will be definitely buying one for myself at home!)
Other – some additional pieces that we integrated into the space:
- Book bins – Really Good Stuff
- SmartBoard projector & Apple TV – we purchased and installed these so students could cast their projects from their iPads up on the board. Also, the projector now allowed me to host instruction sessions in the library and other collaborating opportunities.
- Signage – I made these, download for free from my TpT store
- A good relationship with your principal is key – My principal was a champion for the library. He was not only a library user, but he also understood the importance of libraries, especially in a school setting. We worked collaboratively on this project, because even though I know libraries, he knows schools. Together, we worked as a team and brought both our experiences and backgrounds to the table. Having this good working relationship not only made collaborating a dream, but it made other things, like discussing budget or other requests, easier to talk about. My library manager was another key person I consulted throughout this project. Her years of experience and knowledge were fundamental in leading me down the path I took with this space. Without either of these individuals, I would not have been as successful as I was with this project.
- Make your money work for you – Even though my budget for this project was increased eventually, it was only increased enough to purchase some of our bigger furniture pieces. I still had to make my money work for me and stretch it as far as I could. Make sure you shop around to find those great deals. I also repurposed things that some libraries were getting rid of. The old expression that “someone’s trash is another’s treasure” is so very true. I was able to score some great items at no cost at all! Also, if you host book fairs, use your book fair money! Wobble stools are very expensive, but I used my Scholastic money made from our previous book fair to purchase these, which was great, because I was able to purchase all of the stools without having to touch my original budget.
- Take your time, but don’t hesitate to jump – I found that my principal and I really complimented one another in how we operated. I spend a lot of time thinking things over and planning, but I hesitate with jumping in and starting because I feel like I could do more research and put some more thought into it. My principal was the opposite. If we had a great idea, he was ready to jump in and start. We balanced one another out, taking time where we needed to in order to really feel comfortable with decisions, but then not hesitating to go ahead with a great idea. I struggled with this, so it was great to work with someone who could take me under their wing and show me the ropes of project management.
- Observe and ask questions – I cannot stress this enough. Like I mentioned earlier, I spent a year working in this library having not purchased a single piece of furniture, because I wanted to really see what the students used. Also, talk to them! So many times I would just casually ask students what they thought about the library, what would they include if they could have anything added to the space, etc. I asked everyone, from kindergarten all the way up to grade 8, and the responses I got were all taken into consideration when we started planning this project.
- Listen to your patrons – As I mentioned early on, one of the first things I did was observe how my patrons used the space and I listened to what they had to say about it: the good, the bad, and the ugly. This is so important, because you want to hear from your primary users exactly what they want and what they are looking for in their LLC. It’s also just as important to listen to your patrons’ feedback following final completion. A lot of the feedback I got after the space was completed was positive, however I did have a few staff members disagree with some of the changes that were made. As hard as it was to hear, I made myself listen, because listening allows you to gain an understanding. It’s important to remember too though, that you’re not going to be able to please everyone, so all you can do is make sure you try your best to problem solve and provide solutions where you can.
- Remember who the space is for – Also, remember who your users are. Though I wanted to make sure staff were happy with the new library learning commons, at the end of the day, the space was always meant for the students. Overall, the student feedback about the LLC was really positive! We had an increase in the number of students coming in to collaborate on projects, for quiet study, and for research support. It was so incredible to see the surge of users!
I hope the information that I’ve shared here is helpful to those also looking to undergo a similar project. This is by no means a perfect formula in how to transform a library to follow a learning commons model, but this is how we approached it, and I must say, I am quite pleased with the results. I wish I could have stayed longer at this school, especially because we were looking to tackle the empty computer lab next, but an opportunity to work in another school library (closer to my home) came up. I do have some other projects lined up for my new library though, so I am very eager to get started on them!
If you have anything to add, tips, suggestions, comments or questions, please share them below.
Thanks for reading!