What Does the Next-Generation School Library Look Like?

| June 18, 2014 | 19 Comments
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3D printers like this one can be found at Monticello High School's new library/WikiCommons

3D printers like this one can be found at Monticello High School’s new library/WikiCommons

At a time when public libraries are starting to offer everything from community gardening plots to opportunities to check out humans for conversations, some school libraries are similarly re-evaluating their roles and expanding their offerings.

Case in point: Monticello High School in Charlottesville, Virginia. When librarian Joan Ackroyd arrived there four years ago, she found an environment very different from the “engaging, creative, fun” elementary and middle school libraries to which she was accustomed. “Its library was none of those things,” she recalls. “It was a traditional, quiet research space.”

Ackroyd decided this wasn’t optimal. “People no longer have to come to a library to get information,” she says, “so the library has to get people coming in for different reasons. Students need somewhere to socialize, create things and collaborate.”

As her first step, she and her co-librarian at the time (music teacher Dave Glover), converted a storeroom into a technology lab. They salvaged computers destined for the landfill and installed music-authoring software on them.

Teachers balked because the library was no longer quiet, but students liked it, and many at-risk students became frequent visitors. Some even admitted to Ackroyd that the only reason they still came to school was to go to the lab.

When the principal witnessed this new level of engagement, she decided to support a full library renovation, funded by rent collected from a company that used the space every summer. They hired an experienced library consultant and took inspiration from libraries designed for younger patrons. “We have open, flexible scheduling, and let students in even when other classes are there,” Ackroyd explains. “We also have banked computers that students can use independently, and a circulation desk in a more central area. It’s a matter of attitude, to make students feel welcome any time.”

The book collection was weeded, and shelves were moved to one wall, freeing up space for collaboration and instruction (with glass walls that serve as sound buffers but enable participants to see what’s happening in the rest of the library). Rooms that had been used for offices or storage were turned into student areas. The library now also has reading lounge areas with comfortable modular seating, as well as tables with chairs and stools that students are free to move around; two music studios; a HackerSpace (with high-tech equipment such as a microscope, 3D printer, gaming hardware and software, and a green screen for filming) and a Maker Space that also houses a 3D printer and serves as a “hands-on” craft room where old technology can be disassembled and re-configured with other materials. In short, the Monticello Library Media Center has become a “Learning Commons.”

“Students work more productively in that kind of environment,” Ackroyd says. “It’s not an adversarial relationship, with teachers at the front of the room and students at their desks. It makes the teacher’s job easier and more pleasant.”

“Our library is now more like the workspace of the future,” adds Ackroyd’s fellow librarian, Ida Mae Craddock, who previously taught English at the school. “Kids who graduate from here will be more productive in those environments.”

A New Culture Develops

The new surroundings were also accompanied by a new attitude. “We went from managing students’ time to giving them ownership,” Ackroyd explains. “They’re almost out the door, and they have to be able to manage their time. We are more like an academic library now.”

“They need natural consequences,” Craddock adds. “What happens when adults don’t turn in our work on time? Controlling children that much and then telling them ‘goodbye’ when they turn 18 doesn’t work well.”

But it didn’t happen overnight — the shift entailed a transition period. “At first they came to the library to experience freedom, but they weren’t using it wisely,” Ackroyd recalls. “The first year, and even a little bit into the second year, students saw it as a place where they didn’t have to be quiet anymore, where they could come and laugh. They weren’t studying.”

But now, accepting the responsibility that comes with freedom has become ingrained in the school culture, and new students adjust quickly. “You learn behaviors from the people around you,” Craddock notes. “They train each other, through social learning.”

As a result, parents’ worst fears (of “atrophy, a fate worse than death,” as Craddock puts it) haven’t materialized. “Atrophy is fairly hard to achieve here, because everything is moving,” she says, and students are either busy on their own or engaging each other.

Students are free to use phones and other devices. But no first-person shooter games are allowed, and the library uses county Internet filters. Students police each other if they become disruptive to others.

“They know we trust them, and they trust us,” Ackroyd says. “We form relationships. We circulate all the time, and try to be welcoming.”

A Resource for Teachers

Teachers have come around to embrace the “Learning Commons,” holding classes there when they want to conduct lessons that require research, equipment, additional space, personnel or expertise, or that may get messy. “All that has migrated down here,” Craddock says. “Teachers want to be creative, do interesting things, and engage students. We provide that environment.”

Students are free to use the library during study hall, remediation period, or during internship hours (available to juniors and seniors). They can also use the library during lunch (food and drink are allowed). Some students do their internships in the library, for example by staffing the help desk or maintaining the equipment.

The Virginia School Boards Association recognized the library in its “Showcases for Success,” and other librarians have visited Monticello High School to inform their own practices. Many are stunned by the statistics: the “Learning Commons” logs more than 33,000 student visits per year outside class time (the school’s enrollment is 1,104).

Visitors also ask if it’s loud and messy. “Yes, it is,” Craddock tells them,” because people are loud and messy. It’s not a problem.” To accommodate those students who still want quiet, some areas are designated as quiet spaces during certain periods. Students can also use the office for quiet study. Meanwhile, the rest of the “Learning Commons” is buzzing, which suits this new breed of librarians just fine. “It creeps me out when it’s quiet in here,” Craddock says.

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  • David V. Loertscher

    Congratulations on your move to the learning commons model! Keep experimentaitng, trying, and documenting its impact on teaching and learning throughout the school.

  • Timothy Miley

    Thanks for all the good ideas and I will start to change our library immediately !!!

    • IdaMae Craddock

      yay!

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  • Elizabeth Sullivan

    Great Article!

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  • BintelGrrl

    As a multimedia producer and a college professor, articles like this make me sad for so many reasons.
    1) Students DO need access to information and they need to learn how to find it. My students get to college and are either completely intimidated by libraries or they’ve been told they’re a thing of the past. Not everything is on the internet, and this isn’t changing any time soon. But I don’t think my students can use JSTOR very well either. I believe this is because we are replacing degreed librarians (and their instruction) with artist/technologist/teachers. And I say this as an artist/teacher with a librarian/technologist husband. They are different jobs. Sure, the revised Bloom’s taxonomy has “creating” at the top and “remembering” is at the bottom. Remembering what? Information is the foundation. If kids don’t have that, what are creating? Powerpoint presentations and pretty posters based on Wikipedia and Time Magazine articles? As teachers, we should NOT pat ourselves on the backs for that. That’s the crumbs, not the future.
    2) If students who are creating things and collaborating are not bothering the students who are researching and reading they are probably not being loud ENOUGH. You want the library of the future? Give the creators closed media or conference rooms.
    3) If students are allowed to eat and drink in the “learning commons,” the computer equipment is not good enough to allow kids to do exciting work.

    And that’s just the beginning.

    We need to rip of the pretty packaging and think about what we’re really offering our kids.

    • IdaMae Craddock

      Maker libraries like this one should definitely help debunk the impression that either libraries are intimidating or passe. Hopefully, this kind of library will guide students through discovery to creation as opposed to providing resources at them without the skills to use them – or worse, intimidating them into leaving.

      Information is indeed the foundation. Making it stick through understanding is how information becomes useful. What is useful? Well, in our case, we are making neither pretty posters nor powerpoint presentations. This year, we used a Kinect bar to scan from life onto a 3D printer, created an assistive technology device to alert a student’s deaf brother to loud noises in his vicinity, changed algebra functions into real-life objects, made life-size bodies out of paper from bones through organs, and closed the year teaching our feeder elementary students to wire simple circuits and code. So, no. Not pretty pictures. Please don’t dismiss the work these students have done. They needed an opportunity and resources to learn and they got it. Isn’t that what’ best for kids?

      While I agree that a dearth of professional librarians in school libraries is a problem, this particular library has two and you can tell in the accomplishments of the students. I’m quite clear that no one in this library is removing resources from the students. In fact, I would argue that, indeed, there is more access to ideas and information in a library like this than in a traditional quiet library. More than merely looking up information, a maker library includes collaborative learning, professional assistance, and a way to explore and create new ideas. It is the intersection between ideas and information.

      I am sorry that your students are unprepared for your classes, but being pro-active in the secondary schools may help. For us, the support of the community has been critical. In fact, we will start off the year with a master class given by the University of Virginia Libraries on essential college research skills. So, we are working to marry the expectations of an extremely competitive university with the real-life skills that will serve them far beyond their BA. After all, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 40% of our students will not go to college. Volunteering to help students at the secondary level in school libraries would both help to see the changes and help to ensure that students are college ready.

      • BintelGrrl

        Thank your for your response! Obviously your school is doing a wonderful job. I am projecting a bit (and responding to statements like, “People no longer have to come to a library to get information….Students need somewhere to socialize, create things and collaborate.”

        I work as as artist in many schools and my daughter attends school in a district that is currently busy turning libraries into learning commons, complete with comfy chairs and coffee for the reason I quoted above. In my area, students can’t come to a middle/high school library for information. The elementary schools don’t have librarians, so they’ve never learned how to use a library, or even how to be comfortable and confident in one.

        Your library looks fantastic. What I see in the schools I visit (including my daughter’s) is an inability to invest in both information centers and media centers. 3D printers aren’t on the agenda at all. In my area, administrators seem to be gung-ho on newness and prettiness (of course high school students like coffee shops!), focus on the shiny maker tools of learning and push aside their poor-functioning libraries that have already been budget cut into shambles.

        If you don’t replace the library with the media/learning center, that’s great. But that needs to be articulated over and over. It’s not where I see the trend going.

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