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Photo of a group of students sitting around a computer lab table in the school library.

Editor's Note: Elissa Malespina, Jennifer LaGarde, and Laura Flemming contributed to this post.

I have always been infatuated with libraries. As a child, my mom used to take me to the local public library for story time. During high school, I spent hours tucked into stacks, looking for a quiet place to learn. However, in college, I quit the library. Not because of computers, or eBooks, or any sort of technology, but because most of my work required collaborating with peers, and the library was not conducive to that interaction. Even Core, with its big round tables and study rooms, was considered a "quiet space."

Recently, I wrote about the transformation of libraries from archives of resources to active learning commons that encourage exploration, creation, and collaboration. However, in that post, I profiled a number of locations that made significant financial investments in their redesign. Million-dollar learning spaces are often not a reality for most schools. However, that is no reason to abandon the concept of transformation. Here are four suggestions from librarians and educators who have transformed their learning spaces -- even without a budget.

Tip #1: Create an Agile Space

Classrooms and libraries often have a uniform appearance even though they could be used for a multitude of activities. Elissa Malespina -- history teacher, librarian, and Coordinating Supervisor of Educational Technology for the Parsippany-Troy Hills (New Jersey) School District -- recommends putting caster wheels on tables and bookshelves. This relatively inexpensive adaptation allows you to quickly push tables together for collaborative activities, or move bookshelves out of the way to open up more space, ultimately creating a more flexible learning environment.

To encourage collaboration and brainstorming around the room, Jennifer Lagarde -- classroom teacher and librarian from North Carolina -- recommends using whiteboard paint, chalkboard paint, or shower board to transform tables, walls, and floors into writing and drawing spaces where students can brainstorm, share ideas, and co-create. She also suggests using plexiglass, cut to the size of the table, to create another editable space. This way, you can remove and place things (flyers, student work, graphic organizers, sentence strips, etc.) underneath to guide student interactions.

In a Teacher-Librarian Virtual Cafe webinar this fall, Jennifer co-presented the concept of MacGyver Librarianship: The Art of Doing More w/Less! From giant spools to donated furniture, she has a number of recommendations for how to create truly unique learning spaces.

Tip #2: Design an Inviting Space

When Carolyn Foote redesigned the library at Westlake High School in Austin, Texas, she included a "juice bar" as a space that would encourage teachers and students to congregate and engage in co-learning. Similarly, Laura Fleming -- Library Media Specialist in New Milford, New Jersey -- repurposed a room in her library to create a library lounge, where students could gather to read, eat, work, and socialize. To save money, she even tiled the floor in dictionary and atlas pages using Elmer's glue and water!

Other suggestions from both Elissa and Laura for accomplishing this goal include:

  • Get donations of jigsaw puzzles, Legos, and board games, and put them out for 
students to play with during free time.
  • Consider permitting food and drink in lounge spaces, and if possible, include a 
coffee/tea/hot chocolate station.
  • If it falls in line with the school or district Acceptable Use Policy, encourage the use of 
personal devices and even provide charging stations.
  • Include varied seating areas such as cafe and gaming tables.

When students and teachers want to congregate in learning spaces, opportunities for spontaneous co-learning may present themselves. In Too Big to Know, David Weinberger writes that "the smartest person in the room is the room." By reinvisioning a learning space, more students may come inside.

Tip #3: Build a Makerspace

At the heart of constructivism lies the concept that "to understand is to invent" (Jean Piaget, 1976). When students have the opportunity to construct their own understanding, they engage in more meaningful learning. So in transforming your library or any other learning space, think about providing opportunities for all students to invent, tinker, create, and learn.

Designing this space doesn't have to break your budget, either. Jennifer suggests visiting your district's surplus furniture warehouse to search for "treasures," using old wire spools from the local telephone or electric company to build tables, and soliciting donations from families -- especially when they are ready to clean out their closets. Old video game systems, outdated computers, and other gadgets can be great additions to your makerspace.

Tip #4: Create a Community

The first step in transforming your library, or any learning space, from a place of content dissemination, archive retrieval, and solitary learning is changing the culture of the space. Gino Bondi, in Our Learning Commons: One How-To for 21st Century Learning, describes the shift as being "more than a room":

It calls for the creation of new environments that improve learning. It is about changing school culture and about transforming the way learning and teaching occurs. It is a transformation that calls for physical, virtual, and pedagogical changes as well as a shift in mindset for all players.

Laura suggests that the culture of your library should not only encourage meaningful student learning, but also provide the tools, resources, and opportunities for your students to thrive and flourish. While we have been discussing the impact of transformation on libraries, all learning spaces could support your learners and encourage them to contribute to building a dynamic community.

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MrMath88's picture

All great ideas, especially designing an inviting space! I started putting more effort into this aspect of my classroom a few years ago, it's made a big difference. I also started using http://whyliveschool.com?a=1 to better track and reward student behavior. Culture is strong in Mr. Math's class!

Ms History 101's picture

I have been struggling to come up with thoughts on how to create a space that will make my students more comfortable and is conducive to learning. The ideas shared here was enlightening and informative. I especially liked the idea of creating an agile space. It was often difficult and time consuming to allow my students to work in groups as the furniture was often times bulky and quite heavy so creating an agile space is a great suggestion. Excellent ideas!!!

Joe Nathan's picture

Very good ideas. Will repost on facebook. Do you have any examples of creative school libraries in Minnesota? If so, please post. Thanks!

Beth Holland's picture
Beth Holland
Johns Hopkins University Doctoral Student & EdTechTeacher Instructor

Hi Joe.

While I don't know the librarians, I do know that Minnetonka is doing some great work and even has a summer institute coming up in June where I will be a presenter.

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