A school library is no longer just a quiet repository for books. It has become a hub, offering students all manners of access to learning and resources. They’re still essential, central spaces, but over the years the library’s function has changed. What was once a place for a class to go learn how to use the card catalog is now a multimedia hotspot serving students throughout the day. And while the ubiquity of technology has reshaped how and where students access information, research also tells us that a variety of spaces and furnishings helps students learn. Education is changing, and the design of the school library is changing with it.
For the past 50 years, we’ve designed libraries to be the center of schools, academically and socially; looking forward, the library will be more essential than ever, not only as a place to access information, but as a learning environment flexible enough for students to produce content, develop information literacy skills, and build community.
When we designed the award-winning Brewster Elementary School four decades ago, it was a cutting-edge example of how a school library could be both a symbol of literacy, and a critical, everyday player in learning. Airy, open, and at the center of the school—now called Stony Brook Elementary—the library garnered recognition for its use of light and space, which created a welcoming, integrated learning environment. The multi-functional space, which was used for reading, storytelling, and events, was designed to be flexible and accessible, and it was a nod to the school’s philosophy that learning is everywhere for everyone. “Over the years the students have become very excited about reading because the library has such a presence,” says current librarian Elisa Bucci.
The library’s openness fostered collaboration and creativity, but it also meant the space was loud and social, which Bucci says made it hard for some students to concentrate. Over time the school sectioned off areas to give students quieter spaces and added a computer lab. Efforts to make spaces more flexible raised the question: how do you create libraries for all kinds of learners and activities?
Like Brewster’s library, the Roeper Learning Commons, which opened in September of 2018, is at the center of the school. We were engaged to convert a former empty, three-story courtyard into an integrated space that housed dining areas, work spaces, and the library, and which also functioned as a communal social space where everyone felt welcome. By taking lessons from projects like the Brewster library, talking to the Roeper School students and administration about their needs, and incorporating new philosophies on flexible learning spaces, we repurposed the courtyard into a multi-purpose gathering space and hub for learning and connection.
To accommodate and support all sorts of uses, we designed an open, lively first floor, geared toward group projects and dining. The Commons accommodates quieter activities as students move up levels: on the second floor there are rooms for small group work, a distance learning classroom, and technology labs; on the upper floors there are quiet pockets where students can study individually. The Commons is fluid and connected, but acoustics, furnishings, and light were employed to designate different uses.
We had this notion of a continuum with active social spaces, where students could work together, as well as quiet spots where individuals could concentrate. There’s visual connection, but you’re divided acoustically.
Roeper’s success is a manifestation of the principle that all students learn differently, and that well designed and differentiated space can help them do so. Using tools like acoustic treatments and natural light can help delineate space, which is particularly important in libraries, where librarians and teachers are challenged to give students tailored multimedia learning experiences in the same spaces where they once solely checked out books.
Some kids really need to be alone, some kids thrive in social situations, and if you’re stressed or uncomfortable or unwelcome, it’s hard to learn.
Going forward, the library will continue to evolve and look entirely different than it did several decades ago. We’re looking at designing spaces that feel welcoming for everyone, and that help all students connect and learn. Libraries were always important, but now we’re seeing that they need to do so much more. They’re integral parts of a creative learning environment. The library of the future will be a flexible space that can transform into what educators and students need it to be: a podcast production studio, a makerspace, a digital classroom, a place for librarians and teachers to coach students on how to access information, or a cozy nook to curl up with a book.