The Transformation of the Library

Gone are the days of independent study with a stack of books and a librarian who glares if you sneeze and hushes if you read out loud to yourself. Those days have been replaced with both small- and large-group collaboration and research from both books and machines. The cause of the transformation? Technology.

“Because of technology, libraries are evolving into resource centers,” confirms Debra D’Amico Kolesar, interior designer/associate in the Dublin, OH, office of Fanning/Howey Associates, Inc. “They’re becoming more of gathering spaces, and more social.”

The key to accommodating this evolution is furniture flexibility, which allows the library to serve a multitude of needs in an almost-instant. Flexibility is important regardless of whether the library also serves the community at large because technology affects the community as well as the students.

“Modularity of furniture is important so that students can be off by themselves for privacy or teaming together for projects,” confirms Michele McHenry, ASID, an interior designer for Baltimore-based Supply, Inc., which makes computer classroom desks, tables, and visual conferencing tables.

Flexibility includes tables, seating, and shelving.

Flexible Tables
As an example, McHenry points to modular tables that lie flat when the top is closed to accommodate books and paper. When needing to work with a computer, the top of the table opens to present a computer monitor for electronic research or writing. In a library, the bonus for the student is not having to move from one table to another when shifting gears from paper to electronic work.

“Of course you want to put books in the hands of young students,” says John Kessell, vice president of Marketing for Supply, Inc. “But, more and more, they are using laptops and other mobile devices as part of the whole educational delivery system. So having the capability of using either a textbook or computer at one seat is critical.”

This flexibility is a factor in the library footprint, as well. While there is no formula for determining how much space is devoted to shelves of books and how much is devoted to study space, a library only has so much space that can be devoted to seating. And, while many libraries have a bank of study carrels and a bank of computers, flexible tables allow you to have both in one area and perhaps even fewer overall because of the flexibility they afford. On a side note, they also make it easy for the librarian to maintain control over the environment and provide assistance when necessary.

Flexible Seats
Seating is the one element that gives libraries the greatest flexibility. Let’s start with large group work. “We want to create a variety of environments for large groups, and that’s done through furnishings,” says Kolesar. Think in terms of mobility and purpose, like tables and chairs on casters that can quickly and easily be moved from one area to another, depending on the need.

It’s also critical to think in terms of durability. Avoid furniture with parts that are removable. Avoid furniture that has pieces that can be pried off. “Even with our progress in technology, kids are still kids,” says McHenry. “They’re hard on furniture. Nothing has changed there.”

The same furnishings used for large groups are regrouped over and over again, depending on the need, for small groups. That said, it’s important to note that furniture doesn’t haven’t to be stiff and uncomfortable. “We want to create soft seating areas,” says Kolesar, “where it’s inviting so that students feel free to come in, and they can either bring their laptops or have a small group discussion.”

Soft seating is especially useful for creating a comfortable environment that encourages students to read books, which is so critical to their development. Eric Nordstrom, director of PlanSCAPE for Torrance, CA-based Virco Mfg, which manufactures school furniture, advocates that furniture for computers not dominate soft seating, “because reading is at an all-time importance in education.” There’s no reason students using laptops can’t curl up in soft seating and operate their computers from their laps.

Flexible seating in terms of stackable chairs also allows library space to easily be reconfigured for various functions. This trend allows for a couple of perks. The first is that they’re easier and lighter to move than traditional wooden library chairs. “The second is cost,” says Nordstrom. “When cost becomes an issue, stackable chairs allow administrators to get high-quality, ergonomic seating, and reduce their overall expenditure.

“If you buy a traditional wooden library chair,” Nordstrom continues, “it will pretty much stay there. That may not be a bad thing. If you buy stacking seating, it allows you to move the seating and use it somewhere when it’s not being used in the library. It also allows you to stack it and move it out of the way for another function within the library. Wooden seating never stacks.”

Finally, when it comes to seating, Kolesar suggests using café tables and chairs in an area where it’s acceptable to be more verbal and less quiet. Again, this works to create a welcoming environment for students.

Flexible Shelving

Tables and chairs aren’t all that’s flexible in today’s transformed library environment. The shelving is, too. “We’re seeing a lot of freestanding shelving being put on caster bases for mobility,” says Nordstrom. There are two benefits to this. The first is that the library can quickly be reconfigured to allow for functions such as meetings or presentations. The second is that it allows the librarian to effectively configure the space to accommodate various grade levels and their differing curricula.

Technology, Again
Remember, the library has changed because of technology. During the planning phase of a library, many space decisions — how many computers, where do the ports go, how does wireless access affect our space, what’s coming in the future? — are based on technology.

“We’re seeing a lot more use of computers just in general in the library,” says Nordstrom. “In working with the school’s data plan, you have to make sure that, wherever the data is, there is also the proper furniture to house the technology.” It requires some coordination and — there’s that magic word again — flexibility.

For instance, do you want study carrels for individual work or do you want tables for collaborative work? Maybe both? Do you want ports nearby to plug in computers, or is this not necessary because of wireless access? If you’re going to supply computers for student access, do you want tables (either individual or conference style) with recessed tops? Do you want to set them in a bank, or spread them throughout the space? Is the furniture you’re choosing flexible enough to meet your changing needs in five and 10 years?

Without a doubt, flexible furniture supports the evolution of the library into a resource center so that it remains a viable student space in numerous ways. It makes sense, notes Kolesar: “Everybody learns in different ways. Therefore, it’s critical to create a variety of different spaces for students.”