Whether we like it or not, libraries are changing. Although they still provide access to information, they also are tasked with teaching new users how to take advantage of available resources. They are expanding their role as community-wide help centers while continuing to be a place for reflection, sharing and learning.
Shelves filled with rows upon rows of books no longer are the emblem of the library, whose role is much more proactive, exposing the public to a range of media as well as enabling live access to lectures and community meetings. Public libraries now have community spaces, galleries, resource centers and large, comfortable reading areas.
Individual Focus, Worldly Access
In academic environments, libraries are changing as well. This shift is a direct result of two academic realities: the slow demise of the traditionally published book as the primary source of information; and the increasing demand for more collaborative, social environments for academic study and production.
The results of those two trajectories are stunning and amazingly uniform. Education campuses throughout the nation have been restructuring their libraries to become, or at the very least include, the "Learning Commons." The Learning Commons most easily is identified by communal study spaces that support collaborative learning and easy access to food services. But in reality, the Learning Commons also provides students with other less obvious, but equally critical, resources.
These resources include centralized access to specialists who can explain resource research and retrieval in a technologically complex world; complete integration of technology throughout the space, enabling students to work together for research and production; and a range of meeting spaces for small- and large-group activities and classes.
Until recently, elementary schools have been immune to these kinds of changes, but its design is starting to change. With a few variations, the library still is centrally situated within the school, filled with bookshelves, a few lounge chairs at the perimeter, and perhaps joined by a dedicated area for computer use with enough hard seating to enable directed library instruction for a class. This layout continues to be used because books remain the medium of choice for most elementary school educators and because direct supervision of students by a teacher is considered a primary design imperative.
There are, however, some K-12 schools moving away from that standard. Cushing Academy, the nation’s oldest co-ed boarding school, hopes to become a model for 21st-century learning by eliminating its entire print collection. The 144-year old school, situated in Ashburnham, Mass., is giving away or discarding its 20,000 volumes and providing 18 digital readers, enhanced electronic databases, flatscreen TVs and laptop-equipped study cubicles.
Other designs incorporate individual reading areas, each within its own, small-group learning space. Common areas adjacent to the small-group learning areas encourage collaborative and self-directed exploration.
Freedom to Teach and Space to Learn
As school library design evolves, teachers no longer will be constrained by the four walls of their classrooms. The Learning Commons model has enough space for multiple classes to partake in a special activity, for a small group to tackle a research project, or for a single student to find a quiet spot for reading. And because many classrooms will open up to the Learning Commons area, as well as have window access, supervision is possible from the classroom.
The Learning Commons will create new possibilities not only for teachers, but also for parents and after-school functions. Parents will be encouraged to participate in or supervise activities taking place in the Learning Commons, and participants in after-school programs will have access to the area without intruding upon the teachers’ workspace.
The Learning Commons will be an experiment not just for the school system, but for the entire community. As the 21st-century library evolves, schools can be confident that the Learning Commons will become a unique resource for students, faculty and the world outside their doorsteps.
Sidebar: New Methods Demand New Libraries
As in higher-education institutions, K-12 schools have both technological and pedagogical reasons for transformations. Most elementary schools place a strong emphasis on literacy, self-directed education, and collaborative learning and teaching styles. This is the case in Concord, N.H., where three schools are being constructed.
During the design of the buildings, administrators and faculty were conscious that they were planning facilities that would have to accommodate a future that increasingly is hard to envision. They also were cost-conscious.
They began raising questions about how the library space would support learning in the future. To what degree would electronic formats replace traditional reading and study materials at the elementary school level? How could a new design strengthen the classroom-based literacy program and bring more reading materials into that learning environment?
Faculty members also asked if there could be extensions of classrooms that could be supervised easily but where students had the ability to work independently with access to a range of technology to support their endeavors. They were eager to have larger project areas close to the classrooms where activities could be set up and then left to work on for multiple days or a lab with the flexibility to be used by different teachers and classes over several weeks. They desired an area where at least two classes of children could participate in multimedia activities, as well as a place where events such as book drives or science fairs could be arranged speedily.
An original concept created two libraries, one adjacent to the classrooms for younger children and the other adjacent to older students in the K-4 grades. This, however, did not yet capture the spirit that the faculty was seeking.
Ultimately, the school library both grew and shrank. Instead of the traditional library in each of the new schools, there is a two-story, light-filled Learning Commons surrounded and shared by all of the classrooms situated within the school’s academic wing. Within that 30-foot-wide and two-story-high space there is a contained, quiet area with books and shelves. Yet, it also includes multiple spaces for project-based learning tasks and multimedia activities, and a small storytelling area for student presentations or performances.
There also are designated areas for reading specialists and other support spaces for special-needs students in the Learning Commons.
Wernick, REFP, LEED AP, is a senior principal with HMFH Architects, Cambridge, Mass., and has spent her career shaping education spaces that reflect her focus on educational planning. She can be reached at [email protected].