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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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A photo of 2 female students writing a whiteboard table with colored markers.

Libraries have existed since approximately 2600 BCE as an archive of recorded knowledge. From tablets and scrolls to bound books, they have cataloged resources and served as a locus of knowledge. Today, with the digitization of content and the ubiquity of the internet, information is no longer confined to printed materials accessible only in a single, physical location. Consider this: Project Gutenberg and its affiliates make over 100,000 public domain works available digitally, and Google has scanned over 30 million books through its library project.

Libraries are reinventing themselves as content becomes more accessible online and their role becomes less about housing tomes and more about connecting learners and constructing knowledge. Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, Massachusetts has been in the vanguard of this transition since 2009, when it announced its plans for a "bookless" library. A database of millions of digital resources superseded their 20,000-volume collection of books, and a café replaced the circulation desk. With this transition, not only did the way in which students consumed content change, but also how they utilized the library space. Rather than maintain a quiet location for individual study, the school wanted to create an environment for "collaboration and knowledge co-construction."

From Library to Learning Commons

Printed books still play a critical role in supporting learners, but digital technologies offer additional pathways to learning and content acquisition. Students and teachers no longer need a library simply for access. Instead, they require a place that encourages participatory learning and allows for co-construction of understanding from a variety of sources. In other words, instead of being an archive, libraries are becoming a learning commons.

The design and implementation of the new library at Chicago's Francis W. Parker School epitomizes this concept as they transformed their traditional space with its cubicles and stacks (which essentially thwarted collaboration) into one that fostered learning and communication. To meet the needs of their teachers and learners, they constructed a flexible space with moveable chairs, desks, and even bookshelves. Small rooms can be opened up to allow for group projects, and the circulation desk as well as the sides of the stacks are writeable with dry-erase markers to encourage the collaboration and sharing that the previous space had discouraged.

Rather than focusing on the role that their library had played in the past, Francis W. Parker designed a space for what students need now and what the school could envision for the future.

A photo of a group of students gathered around a computer workstation, each at their own laptop.

Transparent Learning Hubs

In a TED Talk called Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson explores the role of the coffeehouse in the birth of the Enlightenment -- it provided "a space where people would get together from different backgrounds, different fields of expertise, and share." When Carolyn Foote redesigned the library at Westlake High School in Austin, Texas, she wanted to create a space without barriers, one where individuals would congregate and engage in co-learning. She wrote:

I knew that I wanted the library to be a campfire space where students could gather, a collaborative space where they could work together in small groups, a transparent space where learning in the school could be seen through the windows, a more barrier-free space in terms of student use, and an innovative space where the design would reflect the innovations that are going on inside our campus.

In other words, she wanted to create a learning hub for the school community that would encourage teachers and students to collaborate, communicate, and share. To achieve that goal, the Westlake library includes glass walls, making the space literally transparent, as well as an outdoor area and a "juice bar" -- combining the concepts of an Apple Genius Bar and a Starbucks.

A photo of a modern juice bar, with tables and chairs spread throughout.

Where traditional libraries are often characterized as places of silent, independent study, the spaces at both Westlake and Francis Parker have been transformed into centers of active learning.

Extending the Physical with Digital

Too often, the debate about the future of libraries centers around paper vs. eBooks or physical vs. digital. Instead of looking at technology as supplanting the traditional, we could explore the ways in which it enhances the traditional. Paul Hamilton from Sunshine Coast, Australia, uses a combination of paper, books, whiteboard paint, iPads, and augmented reality to create custom learning environments for his students. He wants them to interact with the content, the technology, the space, and each other in order to gain context and increase their knowledge.

When the Stephen Perse Foundation in the U.K. opened their new library, the guest speaker described it as quaquaversal, meaning "directed outward to every point of the compass from a common center." Not only does the space embrace the concept of a learning commons, it also thoughtfully merges the best of the physical and digital worlds. While the space does include paper books and physical artifacts, as well as flexible furniture and an open environment, digital content encourages students to explore, play, and delve deeper into subjects they may not otherwise experience. As principal, Tricia Kelleher writes:

The central purpose of this new learning environment is to encourage curiosity untrammelled by preconceptions or indeed physical barriers.

The Future of Libraries

When every student has the potential to carry a global library on the device in his or her pocket, the role of physical libraries may become even more important, not just a place to house resources, but one in which to create meaning from them. The libraries of the 21st century provide a welcoming common space that encourages exploration, creation, and collaboration between students, teachers, and a broader community. They bring together the best of the physical and digital to create learning hubs. Ultimately, libraries will continue to inspire students to construct new knowledge and meaning from the world around them.

How is your library changing? Please tell us about it in the comments section below.

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Comments (26) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Grant Lichtman's picture
Grant Lichtman
Author, speaker, facilitator, "Chief Provocateur"

I agree with lisasnyder...and maybe would take it even a bit further. I am thinking and writing (will probably make this a separate post) about the nature of the library over time. Fundamentally, I think, it is the node that connects a school or community to the rest of the world for access to knowledge. For centuries knowledge flowed primarily via books and other printed material; then we added digital media. But the reason for a library is to access knowledge that is not on-site or in the community. I am exploring what I think that means in the future: what does a library look like if it's purpose is as a connectivity portal to community, region, world?

Paul Signorelli's picture
Paul Signorelli
Writer-Trainer-Presenter-Social Media Strategist-Consultant

Nice (and much appreciated) addition to all that is being written about the transformations occurring in libraries; particularly liked the comment about libraries being "less about housing tomes and more about connecting learners and constructing knowledge"--one of many positive trends building upon the finest traditions within our varied library landscape.

lisasnyder's picture

Provocative question! And one I'm just beginning to play with. First, I'm inspired by what public libraries are doing with their collections. There is a tool library in a section of Philadelphia where older, Victorian row-houses line the streets. Patrons can go there to find tools, print resources on building, and an expert or two to help with their home improvement projects.
I'm also thinking that libraries will begin cataloging available experts in various fields. So, when you search a particular subject in the catalog, you might retrieve books, on-line resources, and an entry for an expert, with links to the expert's blog, Twitter feed, etc. (I taught a lesson for my kids about finding experts on Twitter. They use the site to communicate with their friends and follow their sports or entertainment heroes; they never considered using it to learn about something more mundane, like science or foreign policy.)
That's what I'm thinking. How about you?

Glen's picture
Vice President of California School Library Association

Thank you for this article and surfacing the importance of school library services. I would like to point out that these wonderful library transformations require trained school librarians like Carolyn Foote. Behind every amazing school library is an amazing school librarian. You can't have one without the other. Don't you agree?

Beth Holland's picture
Beth Holland
Instructor and Communications Coordinator at EdTechTeacher

Hi All.

Thanks to Grant for provoking even more conversation around this topic. Perhaps a little background information on this post...

My venture into exploring this notion of libraries came around by accident. Thanks to Edutopia, I went to Italy back in November to speak at a conference for "Projetto Invitro." This national Italian initiative brought together the departments of education, libraries, pediatrics, sanitation, and commerce to discuss how to raise literacy rates. This consortium provides literacy education to new mothers while attending pre-natal check ups, so my initial directions had been to discuss literacy instruction in general.

However, in addition to this one talk, I ended up in a position to discuss the potential for the public libraries to join in this discussion. Before leaving for Italy, I knew very little about the conversation and spent considerable time chatting with Carolyn Foote (Eanes ISD), Carl Hooker (Eanes ISD), Jonathan Werner (Cape Elizabeth, ME), Patrick Larking (Burlington, MA), Daniel Edwards (Stephen Perse, UK), Paul Hamilton (Sunshine Coast, Australia), and others. In listening to them, and reading the articles that they shared, I began to see how this conversation is way more than just about "space."

Now, while having the opportunity to speak with librarians and travel in Italy, I learned as much as I spoke. In Pistoia at the San Giorgino Library, the YOULab serves as a mechanism to bring more teens into the library community. Kids are creating apps and media projects with the purpose of maintaining heritage, culture, and community. The library may be the central gathering point for this work, but the impact is far reaching into the community. In Terni, the library includes a maker space so that students can come to explore, collaborate, and begin creating new evidence of their learning all thanks to the support of the learning commons environment created within the library.

As Glen has stated in the comment above, "Behind every amazing school library is an amazing school librarian. You can't have one without the other." With the increases in access thanks to mobile devices, every person has the potential to carry a global library in their pockets. However, there is NO librarian! No expert in this mobile situation to provide context, guidance, and enrichment.

In this article, I am limited to 1000 words, so as Grant has mentioned, perhaps it's time to write a follow up to further delve into this topic. I do agree with the thoughtful comments in this thread that we need to look beyond just the role of the space and more towards the overall construction (pedagogically speaking, not necessarily architecturally) of our learning spaces.

All rooms can essentially become a learning commons, complete with various learning hubs and the ability to extend the physical with the digital. I'm honored to know that this conversation has persisted and look forward to continuing the thoughtful discourse. There are a lot of excellent questions, and comments, being raised.

I look forward to hearing what comes next in this thread.

Vivianne Fogarty's picture
Vivianne Fogarty
Librarian in a K - 6 school

I enjoyed the article as well. Thanks for the graphic you created! I'm using it in my library.

Nur Izyan's picture

hi. i'm doing a design thesis on children's library and i'm proposing new programmes in the library which can attract new generation to love reading. One of them is by adding real life animal or pet such as cats or rabbits. This cats' reading area could be fun! The idea of cats library just like cat's cafe which is in Korea and Malaysia. Do comment on my idea. Tq!

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