A reasonable assumption is that what was once the school library — a room containing shelves upon shelves of books, tables, chairs and some filing cabinets — is becoming nearly extinct, because technology has changed these libraries into media centers.

Yet, in speaking to a number of experts in this area, what emerges are a number of conflicting perceptions. One is that many school libraries are still being built to the traditional model. Another is that the media center concept has become outmoded, and that type of space has been reduced to a resource room. The third is that the media center is not only alive and well but is expanding.

What these differing views mean is not that any particular expert is right or wrong, but simply that they see that schools are either not changing these spaces or, if they are, are changing them in different ways and that different factors are at play. The experts all agree that schools should adapt to new technology, as well as to other issues such as comfort, flexibility and maximum use of space.

First, let’s take a look at what is happening or not happening to these spaces. Then, we can zero in on the furniture and furnishings that will best meet the changing conditions — now and in the future.

“A lot of the brand new libraries we see don’t look much different from the libraries built in the 1960s,” says Rolf Erikson, a partner at biblioTECH Corporation, Sudbury, Mass.“We’ve even seen award-winning designs that are based on what has worked in the past, but don’t take into consideration what is happening now, or will be the needs five years from now.”

On the other hand, in terms of the libraries he’s been around, Dwayne E. Gardner, Ph.D, chairman of the board of Planning Advocates, Inc., in Delaware, Ohio, says“Definitely schools have been moving toward a high-tech, high-touch environment. But there’s been a reduction in the amount of space needed in the media center. There was a time when the planning of a library was based on the thought that it should be a major media center, but now it’s being used more as a support base.”

The very movement toward a media center implies a smaller area — from the reduction of the large furniture and many shelves of books, as well as the removal of the check-out stand for security (security concerns now more on the Internet) — as well as the removal of the need for cumbersome audio-video equipment that has had its functions taken over by computers. But Gardner also says that conferencing and teaming spaces put into these spaces are now moving back to academic areas. But the biggest change, he says, is the moving of computers into the classroom, again making the media center less of a center than a resource room.

Andrea McLean, program director, Heery International, Atlanta, Ga., points out, “There are fewer linear feet of shelving and fewer books. There no longer needs to be rows of encyclopedias. You can have just one set, with the rest online.”

Yet McLean also says, “Although some computer functionality is going into the classroom, these resource centers for both students and the community are not going to go away.” She adds that she is not seeing any single design, but that different schools have put together different spaces, adjoining each other in imaginative ways, such as a traditional space with books and play spaces for children or conference spaces, with an adjoining space for computers. These areas often include a computer lab with Internet access that is set up for the community computer use, as well as adult courses.

“I’m not seeing a large reduction in media space, though it does depend upon the school. Different schools are thinking about this space differently,” says Sandra Kate, principal and director of interiors for Fanning/Howey Associates, Inc., in Dublin, Ohio. “Many schools are investing in media centers for community use, and some are setting it up like a college library, so students will learn to be comfortable in that environment.

Comfort is an important consideration,” Kate continues. Many schools want to encourage students to come to this center, so they create a bookstore atmosphere, with coffee or snack areas, along with enjoyable furnishings to support the same.

“The center should provide many different spaces and environments,” says Carolyn Markuson, a partner with Erikson. Together, they have written a book, Designing a School Library Media Center for the Future, published by the American Library Association 2000. “There should be different types of seating for different learning styles, easy chairs and straight chairs, and areas for students to be seated together or in private. We also try to get furniture appropriate for the students’ age. In elementary schools, this is a big challenge because some manufacturers don’t generally design for this age group.”

In fact, Markuson continues, the traditional library had all the same type of heavy-duty tables and chairs, and many architects and designers still think of furnishing the centers with one basic type of table and chair. “We do a lot of looking, not only at library furniture manufacturers, but also at office, industrial and social furniture makers — the full range of the contract furniture business. We like furniture like the sled-based chair that can be maneuvered into two to three different positions.”

“Often the tables provided for computers are not flexible enough,” says Erickson. “One of the things we notice is that architects tend to provide just enough space for a computer, 30 in., or 36 in. at most,” he says. “But middle and high school students tend to work together. Unless you’re just doing e-mail, there’s no room for books or papers or working with someone else. We try to have a minimum of 42 in. width for a computer table.”

McLean says, “We have come across a really great combination table. It’s a two-piece table — on the top is computer and monitor, but the second part is a triangular table on wheels which can be pulled and moved into a circle, or rectangle or other configurations, allowing students to move.”

Laptop computers also bring in their wake a number of different considerations, says Kate. “The technology concept varies from library to library,” she explains. “Some are banking on wireless for the future, but others are not ready to make that jump. Right now, the wireless connection to the Internet is quite slow, so if a student is doing research, he’s much better off using a full computer.”

Some schools are therefore using a combination, Kate continues. For instance, in the media center there are the regular computers wired for quick access to the Internet. Yet, at the same time, they are providing connectivity to all of the tables, as well as lounge chairs, for laptops for a student using word processing or other programs not requiring Internet access. “They make lounge chairs now with a side that comes up like a chair arm, and you can flip it over so you have a board on which to put your lap top.”Kate also mentions that, whereas the demise of AV equipment frees up storage space, the arrival of laptop systems “may mean that libraries must have several carts of these units, allowing them to check them out to students to take to their classes or to use in the center. There needs to be a place to check them out and a lockable area to store them.”

“One way to gain flexibility for the space you have,” Kate says, “is to install mobile shelving. This is being used more now than in the past. The shelves can’t go up as high, but they can be moved and reconfigured.” Markuson adds that the lower shelves also help satisfy security requirements for many libraries, for lower shelves allow the staff more visibility. Something to consider about this, however, she says, is that if the books are too close to the ground so the students have to bend over, they will be less inclined to reach for them.

Modular tables also aid flexibility, Markuson says. “Sometimes large tables are appropriate, but where you don’t have a whole lot of room, you don’t want one child sitting at a table surrounded by a bunch of empty seats,” she says. “If you have smaller modular square tables, that seat from two to four students, they can be moved around the library as needed — as private study spaces or for group projects.”

The modern library requires flexibility, for its uses range from private study to group work. The advent of voice instead of keyboard-activated computers, as well as requirements for students with disabilities can complicate matters. To further complicate matters, many multimedia projects are group efforts; librarians are often required to be media specialists, teaching classes in the use of computers (especially for research); and outreach community programs often mean that the space will also be used for meetings.

One good way to accommodate the to and fro movement from individual to group space, says Erikson, is to avoid fixed walls. “Use either accordion or floor to ceiling partitions, out of which you can craft office, storage, conference and periodical spaces, along with the use of modular furniture that can be easily moved around.”