Libraries as Learning Spaces

Stacy Cameron, Coordinator of Library and Media Services, Frisco ISD Nancy Jo Lambert, Librarian - Reedy High School, Frisco ISD

When we were approached to write this post we immediately said, “of course!” but that was much easier said than done.  How do you effectively write a first person article with two people?  For those of you who are former English teachers you probably have a quick answer to that, but we didn’t!  So we came up with the idea to go back and forth from one to the next much like you would see in a script.  That’s what you’ll see here.  We hope this format provides you greater insight into our own personal thinking and that you are able to take away some ideas and start implementing today.  Enjoy!

Stacy:  If you’ve been around libraries long enough, you have undoubtedly heard the library labeled a variety of terms.  In my eleven years as a school librarian I’ve heard it referred to as a kitchen, learning commons, and media center, just to name a few.  However, the term that resonates with me the most is “learning space.”  In the summer of 2015, I had the joy of presenting with rockstar librarian, Nancy Jo Lambert, at the ALA conference in San Francisco, where we presenting on the library as learning space.  We went on to present at the 2016 TCEA and TLA conferences on the same topic.  What follows is what we shared about learning spaces and redefining your library.

What is a Learning Space?
Stacy:  Before we begin, it’s helpful to define what a learning space is.  A learning space “should be able to motivate learners and promote learning as an activity, support collaborative as well as formal practice, provide a personalised and inclusive environment, and be flexible in the face of changing needs” (JISC).  When you look at your library space does it do all of these things?  If not, what areas can you change to make this a reality?

The Physical Space
Nancy Jo: As librarians we tend to be people that want things in their exact right spot. What I have found from being in libraries with children and teenagers is that they are more likely to return and feel comfortable if you allow them some freedom with the space. I try and put as few of restrictions as possible on the physical space. For example, I have signs posted to “eat and drink responsibly.” I allow the students to move the chairs and furniture around and I don’t ask them to put it back before they leave. I do ask them to treat the space with respect, but I don’t hound them to put a chair back to its original spot. I know that the next group of students is going to come in and move things around again anyway. The point of having flexible seating and flexible spaces is for moving that furniture around to fit the needs of students. It’s ok to let the students determine how they want the furniture arranged. When you are looking at the physical space, look at even the smallest changes you can make to help your students feel like the space is theirs. Comfortable students are students who can learn!

Stacy:  Take a look at the physical layout of your library - the floor plan.  Chances are there are furniture pieces and walls you cannot move.  But what can you move to create more open, flexible spaces?  Marnie Cushing, formerly of Poteet High School in Mesquite ISD, took her 20+ year old library and completely transformed the space with almost no budget.  You can see the before and after layouts on the presentation linked at the bottom of this post.  In our district, the big push at the secondary level is to weed, weed, weed.  We have found that most of the non-fiction does not circulate so there’s no reason in having it on the shelves.  The result has been that the librarians have been able to remove some of the extra shelves from their libraries which frees up floor space to make room for more flexible seating and different configuration options.     

Nancy Jo: For some time now, librarians have been discussing genrefication. It has been debated and implemented for years in many libraries. One of the biggest hurdles for me, and why I had not seriously considered doing it before, was the time it would take. I couldn’t justify the time away from curriculum collaborations, teachers and students to genrefy. Vendors like Mackin and Follett are now both offering services for this type of project that greatly reduce the time intensive work of genrefying. I have seen the impact of this change on my students and I believe this is a worthwhile endeavor. When we’re talking about the physical space of our libraries, we should do everything we can to make books more accessible to our readers. Whether it’s changing call numbers to group books in a way that makes more sense or genrefying an entire collection, we can make those choices to better serve our students. If you are interested in the process I went through to generify you can read about it here.

Beyond the Space/Programming
Nancy Jo: When it comes to redefining your library, library programming is one of the key places for transformation to take place. In designing some of the different programs I have put in place at various campuses PreK-12, I always look to the stakeholders first. Usually the students are the first group, but often teachers and administrators or even parents play a key role in a successful library program. Find out what the kids are interested in and what they want. There is no sense in creating a program that no one is interested in. I also look at campus initiatives. What are the curricular goals of the campus? How can the library tie in and create programs that work toward those goals?

Here are some of the key areas related to programming that I think librarians should be looking at consistently and some of the things I have done in each of the key areas:

Nancy Jo: The school library at every level has to be about more than checking out books. We have to be instructionally relevant and contributing to student achievement. Allowing for flexible scheduling is paramount to achieve these goals. Real readers return their books because they are done with them, not because it’s library day. Having a fixed schedule based solely around checking in and checking out books does very little to nurture and grow genuine readers, and it usually tends to serve as the biggest barrier keeping teachers from collaborating on the curriculum with school librarians. I know a flexible schedule is not always easy, but even in schools entrenched in this system can change. You can read my full blog post on making a flexible schedule work here.

Final Thoughts
Stacy:  “Students are drawn to spaces that are open, inviting, and stimulating; spaces where they become fully engaged in the conversation and in the excitement of sharing new ideas” (JISC).  Ask yourself again if your library, be it the physical space or the programming you provide, is this type of space.  If not, what can you do today to begin the transformation from library to learning space?  

Nancy Jo:  It was my pleasure getting to present three times with Stacy Cameron, who has been a mentor, colleague, and friend to me. Her expertise as a librarian, her knowledge, and her leadership have been inspirational to me. As our presentation evolved over time, one thing that became obvious to me is that libraries are transforming. I truly believe change is the only constant, and this statement is certainly applicable to school libraries. School libraries have to be open to changing, and to changing in the ways that our students need.  If you are interested in joining a group of librarians who are seeking ways and sharing ways to transform their school library, you can read my blog post about the TYSL (Transform Your School Library) movement here and join the movement!

For our full presentation from TLA Annual conference, click here:   


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