My journey from traditional school library to learning commons began with inspiration from a library media center very different from my own. Last year, our district’s Media Leadership Team visited Brookwood High School in Snellville, Georgia, a school that had transformed its library media center into a Learning Commons the year before, with the support of their principal. Their dynamic media specialist duo recognized that they couldn’t fully realize their program goals of becoming true instructional partners with their faculty until a drastic change took place. Their work happened in three major steps:
- First, they transformed their online presence, as they wanted to be available to their students virtually at all times.
- Next, they ramped up their involvement in their faculty’s professional learning, continuing to show teachers and administration what valuable teacher leaders they were.
- And finally, the physical transformation began to take shape. When our group visited, the change was nearly complete. Their library was an exciting place to be. Students moved in and out of the space seamlessly. The students themselves established quiet study areas and productive group work spaces.
After seeing a learning commons in action, our group was on board! Each of us wanted an exciting and academically productive space like this. I was fortunate to have my principal’s immediate and overwhelming support, so our school became one of four pilots in our district.
Step 2: Gather Data from Our Users
Before making any changes to our library media center, we had to figure out what our teachers and students needed in our space to start “cooking,” so we started by collecting information about how our patrons viewed the library and how they used it:
- We collected circulation, collaboration, visitation, and website statistics.
- We talked to our students and teachers.
- We assessed their needs through informal conversations and a more formal online survey.
- Most importantly, I established a student advisory committee to provide me with real and immediate feedback about the proposed changes to our space.
We really wanted to see the library through the eyes of our students. What did they really think about the two book limit? Did they like coming into the library? Did we have books that they liked or needed for school? Did our website provide them with the information they needed? Kids are often brutally honest, so we quickly had answers to these questions.
Step 3: Out with the Old
Based on our collection statistics and feedback from our users, we realized that our book collection needed substantial weeding. When we saw the collection from our students’ perspective, we realized that old, damaged, and irrelevant books were making it harder for students to find books that were useful and appealing to them.
After established criteria for weeding, we began the arduous process. We looked at:
- Circulation statistics of each book,
- Book condition,
- Copyright, and
- How a book fit into our grade levels’ curricula.
I am beyond blessed to be supported a full-time paraprofessional with a media degree of her own and an incredible army of volunteers, one of whom is a recently retired media specialist. I was especially fortunate to have this amount of help, because I also had a hard deadline to complete the weeding before our summer construction. Through teamwork and persistence, we were able to weed the entire library in about six months. In the end, we weeded thousands of books and materials for one reason or another. (Many of the books were repurposed in other areas of the school, and the rest were recycled.)
By getting rid of books that were of little or no value to our students, they are now better able to see and choose books that interest them or support class projects. By freeing up shelf space, we were also able to get rid of massive bookshelves that impeded the flexibility of our space.
Step 4: Flexibility Is Always the Best Policy
Pamela Colburn Harland’s book The Learning Commons: Seven Simple Steps to Transform Your Library(2) was instrumental in our transformation process. She recommends that after getting to know the needs of your users, you begin thinking about making your space flexible—your physical space, but also your virtual space and other resources.
Our Physical Commons
I was fortunate to have a budget for some new furniture, but before purchasing, I had to educate myself about the options available and consider which ones would provide for the most flexibility in meeting the needs of my users.
After visiting five different schools, I my list included tables on wheels, high-density foam seating, easily-moved chairs, whiteboards on wheels, and even bookshelves on wheels. You can see some of this furniture in the photos below.
Our Virtual Commons
Furniture is expensive, but flexibility in other areas can be free. Harland stresses that your blog or website must be “flexible, sustainable, and scalable” (p. 18). I have made it a goal to update my blog at least once a week. Our virtual presence is just as important as our physical space. I keep my patrons up to date on club meetings, class projects, and upcoming events. I constantly evaluate our blog, and it has evolved many times. I examine it through the eyes of our parents, students, teachers, and fellow media specialists. One major goal this school year has been to tag each of my posts. Tagging posts makes it easier for me and my readers to access previously tagged posts quickly and easily. I also maintain a Facebook page and Twitter feed.
Stay Relevant by Updating
Another way to increase flexibility without cost is to conduct a thorough, ongoing examination of your library media center policies. Start thinking about how you run your library and more importantly, why. Harland has a great set of questions to get you started in her book, but every policy should be examined with an eye toward making your library and its resources more accommodating and supportive of today’s students and today’s curriculum. Many circulation policies, schedules, and other library rules are left over from an earlier, more collection-centered era. They were put in place to protect library resources from students, rather than to ensure that students used them to their fullest. Maintaining this legacy model is the surest way to make yourself and your program irrelevant. Today’s students want school to be social and interactive. What better place to start than the largest classroom in the school!
Go with the Flow
Flexibility in attitude may be the key to creating a program that is relevant now, and continues to flourish in the future. When discussing our Learning Commons transition with other library media specialists, the two things that seemed to ruffle the most feathers were the flexible checkout policies and the moveable furniture: What if a student checks out 10 books at a time? What if all your furniture is out of place? There are many questions to consider, but the bottom line is that you must trust your users. If they feel welcome and that the space belongs to them, they will respect it and take care of it. I often have chairs and tables in a configuration that does not work for my next activity, but my students are more than willing to jump in and lend me a hand in rearranging the furniture.
I began this process September of last year. Thanks to a “perfect storm” of circumstances, we have made incredible progress during this time, but my program, space, policies, virtual presence, and attitude are still changing to meet the needs of my users, sometimes on a daily basis. Your journey will be different from mine. This transition could take two to three years. Remember, it’s not about the fancy furniture; it starts with you and the program that you are building. When you start to build a program around the needs of your school, the administrative support will come, along with buy-in from parents and teachers. Perhaps the most important and satisfying part is seeing how much students love coming to the new Learning Commons. Almost daily, a student will quietly tell me, “I love this library.” Me too, kiddo, me too.
In my next learning commons article, I will discuss how this model has transformed how my students and teachers use the space, and how it has reshaped the way I teach. If you missed it, be sure to check out last month’s article, five things you needed to know about The Learning Commons Model.
Photos of Mount Bethel Elementary’s Learning Commons Transition
Take a look at my photographs of the transformation below. You can see what we started with, and where we are now. If you have any questions about specific items of furniture or how we use the space, please email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
New paint is up, carpet squares are in, but we still have a long way to go
Students testing out our new self-checkout system
Judith Lee, our library paraprofessional, shelves our picture books on our NEW shelves!
Our new moveable shelves really pull everything together.
Our furniture is fun, inviting, and moveable!
Our media scape area is a great place to learn about new apps and share projects we created on the iPads.
Testing out the new stage with a magnetic, chalkboard backdrop for creating scenery for skits and reader’s theater
Our bean bags give the kids a cozy place to curl up with a great book
Our new shelves are the right height for our younger patrons and make a great place to display fantastic books!
(1) Johnson, Doug. “The New School Library.” Educational Leadership October (2013): 84-85. Print.
(2) Harland, Pamela Colburn. The Learning Commons Seven Simple Steps to Transform Your Library. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited, 2011. Print.