Research on Research Centers

In cleaning out some old files, I came across a cartoon I clipped several years ago. It shows a man standing in front of what is obviously a library desk. The librarian (turning from her computer) says, “Sir, this is a library. If you want a book, go to a bookstore.”

When I clipped it, it amused me. Now, I realize how prescient it was. Modern school libraries still contain books, but more and more the research and even leisure reading functions of school and college libraries are being taken over by electronics.

I learned this first hand at a prestigious college where I was evaluating the need for increased library space. The existing library was empty when I visited but the librarian insisted that at the end of the term, when papers were due and students were studying for tests, it was mobbed. I returned to the library at those “busiest of times.” The library was still empty. When I asked students, they explained that from their residence halls they could access most of the collection and get the research materials they needed. There was no need to spend time in the library.    

This got me to thinking about the place and space libraries command in our schools. Not long ago, the mantra was that the library should be at the center of the school. Not only should the library be at the center of the school, it should be large. The size and prominence of the library became the mark of the educational standing of the school.

That was not a bad idea. Libraries were the heart of learning. Students went there to do research, to complete projects, to study, to read. Libraries were quiet, academically oriented spaces for those who were serious about getting an education.

But times have changed. That huge, quiet space is no longer used as it once was. Instead of working silently alone, students and teachers work collaboratively, often making the kind of noise old libraries did not tolerate. And, of course, the predominance of electronic media has replaced shelves full of books as a means to get information. Schools may well be able to work with smaller libraries. What they need now, more than large libraries, is more librarians!

If that sounds like a contradiction, it is not. Librarians, more than ever, play a key educational role today, but they do not do that just in a library.

Watch school librarians at work today. Fortunately, they still introduce children to reading, guiding them to books and helping them appreciate the values of literature. They have always played a role in helping children do research, but now they are teaching how to use the new, more powerful and sometimes more dangerous, electronic media. They are the ones who know how to do research on line, how to evaluate what is on that computer screen. They show students how to get beyond first (and often incorrect) impressions. They are the ones who can teach lessons about the ethical use of material that students find on the Internet. And, since the Internet is available throughout the school, the librarian, too, must work throughout the school.

If schools need librarians more than they need libraries, are physical school libraries obsolete dinosaurs that should be closed and shuttered? Absolutely not. They still play a vital role, but many of the resources that once were kept in the library need to be available throughout the school. So the library’s role has changed and so should the space provided for it. Some real thought needs to be given to how libraries and their functions can best be provided in our schools of the future. Do we need to provide smaller libraries, essentially for reading and books, or do we need a new kind of school library altogether?

Architect Laura Wernick, AIA, REFP, LEED-AP, a senior principal at HMFH Architects, Inc., is designing three elementary schools in Concord, NH. Each contains a “learning commons,” a concept that combines the advantages of open meeting and project space for students and teachers with the functions of a library/media center. It is a flexible space that allows the librarian and teachers to work with students and with media of all types without a separated, closed space designated as “the library.” 

The schools have not yet opened, so the concepts have not been tested, but what caught my attention was the idea that schools need library services and librarians, and that by incorporating them into open space, we may be able to provide a richer educational environment throughout a school. If you want to learn more about the concept, or argue its pros and cons, reach out to Laura Wernick at [email protected] and let’s get a serious discussion going.

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facility consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEFPI's 2008 "Planner of the Year." He can be reached at [email protected].

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."