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Turning Libraries Into Learning Commons

The library space should be three things: welcoming, comfortable, and useful.

School libraries today are in a state of flux: many are on the verge of closing or understaffed, and just as many are growing into the learning commons a library should be. No matter where your library falls on this spectrum, there is no question that your job as a librarian is to be all things to all users. That may seem daunting, but it really is simple if you have the right outlook.

Not every school has a healthy budget to promote and support a full library makeover, but even without money, small changes will yield a big impact. When I was offered the position of Library Media Specialist at a high school, I was lucky to have the backing of the school and district as I transformed a tired, unwelcoming library space into what became the hub of the school.

Because not every librarian is quite so fortunate, I’ll outline my makeover process in sections, starting with what can be done by every librarian regardless of budget, and then move into the options for big spending.

Make your library into an indispensable resource for teachers and students

Services

This is the most important job of any librarian, in my opinion. We are the “yes men,” so to speak. Whatever a patron needs, we say, “Yes, I can help with that.” (And if we can’t, we figure out who can.)

My students — and even school staff — were never allowed to use the library before I was hired. I had to go out of my way to change this attitude and invite them into what should have already been their space.

How did I accomplish this? By meeting everyone more than halfway — in fact, I went to them.

  • Send emails reminding staff of the lessons you can teach (copyright/fair use, research skills, web tools, etc.).
  • Create a plan for scheduling your spaces and make it user-friendly for teachers to sign up.
  • Ask teachers what projects they have going on and offer to co-teach or introduce the students to the necessary databases for any research elements.
  • Pay attention to your users. Keep records of requests and needs.
  • Ask yourself: if something is too difficult to access, what can you do to make it easier for patrons to find?
  • Have office supplies stocked and out for all patrons to use. I promise, it is necessary. I had a caddy with pens, pencils, erasers, markers, colored pencils, glue sticks, staplers, tape dispensers, lined paper, copier paper, grid paper, and dry erase markers and erasers. (Plus, I had back-ups at the ready.) Don’t have a budget for this? Float the idea of having other departments chip in — after all, it’s their projects these kids are working on, right? If that doesn’t work, community organizations often look for ways to contribute to schools and libraries.
  • Give students access to whatever technology you have available, including printing capabilities. If you have limited technology, it’s even more important that you keep what you have running properly, and promptly call the tech department when problems inevitably arise.
  • I also loved occasionally stocking my Keurig with fun coffee flavors, creamers, teas, hot chocolates and bringing in baked treats for the staff. They never passed up free goodies, and it gave us an opportunity to chat about potential collaboration.

In short, what do your patrons need?

Answer: Everything. All the time. Have it ready, and if you don’t have it ready this time, be prepared for next time.

Environment

The library space should be three things: welcoming, comfortable, and useful.

Creating a welcoming environment is easy: you, the librarian, want the library filled with teachers and students, yes? Yes. Be inviting, be a friend, be happy. You have the best job in the world, so this should be the easiest part.

Making the library useful is almost as simple — all those services from the first section are geared toward ensuring that patrons know they can come to the library for anything they need. It should be their most trusted resource.

As far as a creating comfortable environment, ideally you should have many options for seating, and when possible, that seating should be flexible.

In my library, we replaced the old, heavy, stationary tables and chairs and replaced them with furniture on wheels. I could set up the tables for a presentation during third period, and by fourth period, everything would have a new place.

Students could move and arrange tables and chairs to suit their needs — whether they wanted to join a group or get away from one, the space was theirs. We also had three seating areas with comfortable couches, rugs, tables, and charging stations. These were stationary, but attracted both casual groups and serious studiers.

If you have money in the budget for furniture, it would be well-spent on creating these comfortable spaces and flexible seating arrangements. For many, though, the budget might not stretch beyond the cost of new books, which is Priority One. If that’s the case for you, keep an eye out for affordable pillows or rugs that can make a space more inviting, or suggest a pillow-sewing project for the Interior Design class!

And if none of the previous options of couches, pillows, and rugs are at your disposal? Grab some students and do some heavy lifting — take a chance to arrange those tables differently one day. Then switch things up again the next week. Go ahead: move two tables together for sixth period next Tuesday, because there’s a project due in World History and those freshmen need a space to lay out their materials. If your arrangement doesn’t appear to be flexible, show the students that they can still make it work for them because it is their space.

Spending

This final section is important, but not absolutely necessary. If you stop here and only focus on your services and environment, you will already be prepared to pull off a fantastic makeover. But I can’t lie: if you have money to spend on technology, do it; if you don’t have money, look for grants.

At my school, our big spending was focused on technology, in hopes of finding a balance between two extremes. “1-to-1” devices seemed to be potential distractions, yet only offering computer labs for full classes to use was too limited.

We went for a “technology readily available” approach. The district applied for federal funding and technology grants to purchase several laptop carts to be housed in the library, and over the next few years, additional carts were purchased for each department.

Teachers could reserve a cart to be used in the library or to be taken to their classroom, and I tried to keep a cart in the library for individual students to use when they came in to work.

We also bought six “pods,” which were large tables equipped with large flatscreen TVs, 4 HDMI cords, and laptops, allowing groups to work on individual laptops or display one on the screen for collaborations. Students loved the pods for all purposes, but teachers also loved to reserve them for technology lessons and projects. This, in turn, improved collaborative lessons by bringing in fun, new technology elements.

Lastly, we purchased two large screens to be used for lessons and presentations. This is where I would teach tech tools, database use, copyright/fair use, research skills, and more. The two screens connected via HDMI to one computer, so the presenter or teacher could either create a presentation and run it with a clicker, or manually use the laptop to access different sites, etc. based on the lesson.

Library. Learning Commons. Safe Haven. Trusted Resource. This is what we librarians are, and so much more. I hope your libraries become the favorite place on campus like mine did. Good luck and happy makeover!

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