Facilities (Learning Spaces)

Not Hush Hush Anymore

Libraries transform to learning commons


Today, school libraries are undergoing a transformation — becoming not just a place to house resources but one in which to create meaning from them. Technology is playing a large role in this change, as virtually every student has the potential to carry a global library on his or her device. With this change, the role of the library has become more central to the learning environment. In the evolution from library to learning commons, we are eliminating the formal, “whispering only,” reputation that has long been associated with libraries and instead bringing together the best of physical (books) and digital to support self-directed learning in a rich, interactive environment.

School officials and design teams are working together to create a contemporary learning environment that inspires learning, fosters collaborative study and promotes engagement with peers. The traditional library has gone from a stationary, uncomfortable, one-size-fits-all space with study carols and a card catalog to a highly flexible, interactive, technology-rich area. This new environment is being designed to be more casual and inviting for students, inspiring them to come more often, and stay longer. The learning commons encourages students to continue their learning opportunities after school, and have a place they feel relaxed and safe to participate in a diverse amount of activities solo or in a group setting.

Libraries transform to learning commons


Flexibility is a key component within the learning commons — making it easy for students and teachers to transform the setting based on the learning experience they are seeking. Easily adjustable desks, chairs, rooms and shelves are hallmarks of learning commons, in addition to private study areas, classrooms and/or group workspaces. These spaces may also include a café, help desk and printing kiosk with librarians serving as teachers, technology advisors, research assistants, ethical guides and collaborators.

Vail Mountain School was interested in discovering how to maximize the use of their current library space. They were finding less need for book shelves and more interest from students in spaces to collaborate and work in teams, as well as places for individual study. In this renovation from library to learning commons, the design entails moving bookshelves along the perimeter walls and adding small group rooms with glass walls to provide privacy along with good supervision. A stair and small mezzanine have been added to connect the learning commons to the outdoor courtyard. During the construction process, new furniture will be installed, including tech bars, casual seating, study booths and tables and chairs for team collaboration, along with additional outlet locations for ample access to technology.

Although printed books still play a role in these spaces, the digital technology component is emphasized with access to tablets, computers, and printers for students who do not have access to them outside of school and power sources for those who bring their own devices.

Libraries transform to learning commons


At Boulder High School, the library is undergoing a transforming to an innovative learning commons with many of these themes at play. By moving bookshelves away from the middle of the room and relocating the circulation desk, a tech bar space and new furniture will be added with the circulation desk serving as more of a kiosk or help desk. Glass garage doors will be installed to connect the learning commons to the adjacent courtyard and dining commons.

The new library no longer serves as a single use space but instead supports a variety of activities through various zones and a flexible design that seeks to integrate the following components: instruction, group study, informal learning, research, quiet study areas, and even makerspaces. In many cases, the existing library is repurposed into a more contemporary learning commons with the addition of flexible furniture, technology upgrades and other physical improvements within the current space.

Libraries transform to learning commons


The existing library at Roland Park Country School was reimagined into a learning commons with minor revisions to the “brick and mortar” and while preserving the basic mission of the library: to provide a center, both physical and virtual, for students to explore a variety of resource and reading options. The amount of space dedicated to book storage was reduced and new spaces were created for research, collaborative work and individual study with investments in new furniture and technology enhancements.

The learning commons is quickly becoming the academic heart of the school with thoughtful connections to other spaces. As technology and opportunities for discovery continue to play leading roles in the design of our learning environments, we will see the role of the library to learning commons continue to gather importance and evolve into a dynamic, media-rich space the supports and encourages students in quiet study, social connections and collaboration.

This article originally appeared in the issue of .

About the Author

Adele Willson, AIA, LEED AP, is a principal and partner with Hord Coplan Macht's Denver office and heads the firm's K-12 studio. She can be reached at [email protected]

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