Wear, Tear, Function

The recently refurbished library of Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical Education High School in the Bronx, N.Y., is, simply put, “always busy,” with plenty of traffic during the day, from young people coming in around lunch time from the nearby cafeteria to poetry readings.

Smith High Librarian Susan Alicea recounted to School Planning & Management those and other happenings typical for the library of a bustling high school. And with much, and varying, activity in these important places of research and learning, comes a considerable amount of wear and tear to furniture. Issues such as budgetary constraints and changes in how school libraries are being used complicate the process of replacing that furniture and spurs questions, such as: Will what works today stand up tomorrow, both in terms of wear and tear and function?

Such questions have an edge in terms of K-12 school libraries because there’s a lively conversation in expert circles about the implications of the Internet and the future of libraries, including K-12 school libraries.

Joe Agati, president of Agati Furniture, which supplied the furniture in Smith High’s library, characterizes that conversation as, “there are two schools of thought — one is that the library is going away. The second is that the library is moving away from a book storage building toward a gathering place for people,” not unlike how book shops have been used in recent years.

However that turns out, K-12 schools from coast to coast are still faced with meeting the furniture needs of their libraries. So, what are many districts seeking and choosing?

Carl Harvey II, president of the American Association of School Librarians (AASL), says, “I think flexibility is the number one option librarians are looking for in furnishings.” He explains, “We need places where students can work in small groups, lounge-type areas for group work and discussion, and then the ability to move it all around to open it if we are having a big event or presentation. We work with whole classes, small groups and individuals, so the design of the library has to have that flexibility to work for all of those scenarios.”

Two suppliers describe several current trends. Judith W. Fister, August Incorporated, cites “more casual ‘lounge’ seating, which can support class groups working together and where children can use electronics, such as iPads and e-readers.” Accordingly, Fister urges districts looking at new library furniture to “look for quality, flexibility, adaptability to future changes.”

Two projects supplied by August illustrate the trend. Coolidge Middle School in Ferndale, Mich., and Greenbrook Elementary, in Hanover Park, Ill., “both use sectional furniture, featuring replaceable upholstery covers for cleaning, damage or just new colors and décor,” she reports.

Coolidge’s youngsters are using “armless chairs, corner and end sections that can be arranged to form an enclosure or be used individually and re-arranged to new floor plans,” Fister explains. Greenbrook’s library furniture strategy is similar, but with seating with “45-degree segments at the curve, and end arms,” a design enabling the furniture to “be separated to sub-groups or individual units for activities.”

Agati argues that, “K-12 schools are a couple of years behind public and college library trends where we see more integration of soft seating, more collaborative work areas and more technology.” Agati also notes the following.
More requests for integrated technology, namely media and computer equipment. “Schools want the technology to fit seamlessly into the design. The technology is part of the furniture and not an afterthought,” he says.
  • More modularity in the furniture. “Flexibility is important,” Agati says. “The traditional library setup is making way for group spaces, breakout spaces and technology. The furniture needs to be adaptable, and modular pieces provide this versatility.”
  • Continuing movement “away from open desks and toward soft seating,” and, aesthetically, “toward a cleaner look, more contemporary then the traditional heavier furniture of the past.”

On another tack, “sustainability is important… but the underlying factor to sustainability is durability…. We have seen design and aesthetic preferences evolve throughout the years, but high traffic and heavy use are the principles of institutional furniture,” Agati believes.

That much has not changed. Agati describes elements that make such furniture stand up; for example, for chairs: “mortise and tendon joints secured with hardwood metal pins [and]… one-piece, steam bent, solid lumber back posts,” and for table bases: “end aprons and leg stretchers mounted to the bottom face of table tops with steel plates secured with mechanical fasteners.”

Another element in Smith High’s library further illustrates the interwoven interest in sustainability and durability: several 3Form table tops on Agati table bases, selected for Smith’s library by project designer Atelier Pagnamenta Torriani Architects. Agati explains that the “environmentally conscientious product” is translucent, enabling more light into the room. It’s also durable, he adds.

Another school library provides an additional snapshot: About the time you read this, new furniture and furnishings will be delivered as part of a renovation of the library of Woodland Hills High School, in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley. Librarian Kevin McGuire reports that “the current furniture is very basic: rectangular and circle study tables with hard-back chairs. Additionally, there are 36 computer desks and chairs. It has worked, but it appears run down.”

That’s no surprise given that “the library’s current furniture is from when the building was constructed in the late 1960s, same with the curtains and carpet,” according to McGuire.

He explains, “When parents come into the library, they often say things like, ‘Wow. This is the same furniture that was here when I graduated!’ [thus] we are really in need of improvements, especially with a school full of 21st-century learners.”

A process followed that “involved many discussions with administrators, contractors, and architects” and McGuire. Woodland Hills High is anticipating a library with plenty of daylighting and “space to house several areas for teaching and learning, as well as independent study,” he says. Helping to enable those activities: “new library furniture that’s very modern and clean looking,” says McGuire. “The furniture in the large group instruction area will allow the students the freedom they will need when using the library’s new Macbooks and iPads. Some of the computer desks will be movable and this will allow teachers to configure the library to meet the needs of their classes.”

McGuire puts it this way: “I hope that the library’s new furnishings will provide students with a comfortable, welcoming environment to explore their personal academic interests.”

Back at Alfred E. Smith, librarian Alicea says the new library furniture, which she calls “stylish,” “has held up well.” And when asked how things have changed in her 10 years of service, she says she is seeing more group activities, necessitating rearranging furniture, sometimes into theatre seating arrangement for video and other presentations. It’s telling of some trends.

AASL’s Harvey adds, “Libraries today are way more than a place to warehouse materials. They are places where students are not only finding information, but evaluating it, creating new information and then sharing that information.” He points out that “today’s library has to provide the space” for direct instruction and where students can work in groups or individually. The bottom line? Harvey adds, “The furnishings need to reflect that flexibility.” 

Scott Berman
is a Denmark-based freelance writer with experience in educational topics.

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