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August 25, 2011

New schools are shelving the old library

  • Active learning centers and dispersed resource programs are replacing the dusty stacks of yore.
    DLR Group


    Picture your old school library. Likely you’re imagining shelves of books. Silent people reading at tables. Conversations being hushed by a librarian.

    That was my library, too, and it was connected to an educational model focused on developing basic skills in reading, writing and arithmetic (the classic three “Rs”). It worked fine for the 20th century, but our understanding of how students learn has changed as we’ve delved into the 21st century.

    Educators see the need to better prepare students for an increasingly complex, demanding and competitive world. The three Rs remain ever-important, but just as important are the four “Cs”: critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity.

    The new school library must become more than shelves of books and silent reading. It must evolve into an active resource center supporting a more dynamic model of student learning.

    Learning in the open

    Photos by Chris J. Roberts [enlarge]
    Instead of a traditional library, Marysville Getchell Campus has numerous resource commons where students can research and collaborate.

    Federal Way Public Schools recently implemented a design and construction program for four new elementary schools. The district looked past traditional educational programming in favor of guiding principles rooted in student-focused learning.

    Each school would incorporate strong elements of the four Cs while maintaining high standards in knowledge curricula. Their project goals placed heavy emphasis on literacy, which made the library a critical component of the design.

    The design for the first of these schools, Panther Lake Elementary, places the library at the heart of the school, adjacent to the main entrance. While a separate room maintains the security of the traditional bookshelves, the heart of this library space is an open learning resource center.

    Students may gather here for one-on-one or small-group activities with learning coaches. While these activities emphasize curricular development, the collaborative nature of the learning establishes each student’s facility while working with others in exploration, problem-solving and creative learning of core reading skills.

    “This type of space encourages student and community interaction in learning,” says Noah Greenberg, a principal at DLR Group, the architect for this school.

    Panther Lake Elementary in Federal Way has a resource center that houses a student coaching area.

    “It breaks the library open as a place that’s active and welcoming. Students can come and go as they need as a part of the learning process.”

    The schools are designed with reading nooks throughout. Located inside and outside of classrooms, the nooks provide comfortable mini-retreats for reading and interactions with other students.

    “The nooks say to the students, ‘read everywhere, be visible, share it with others.’ Even something this simple can extrude a library’s value into more diverse and active uses,” Greenberg says.

    Adaptable spaces

    After elementary school, the library takes on additional complexities.

    With the design and construction of Marysville Getchell Campus, the Marysville School District created a retreat for learning. The design eschews traditional classrooms and hallways in favor of a campus of four independent learning communities: the Academy of Construction and Engineering, the Bio-Med Academy, the International School of Communications, and the School for the Entrepreneur.

    Every single space on campus is a learning space. Students and faculty use and adapt these spaces to suit their changing needs throughout each day, week, month and year.

    During initial planning stages, designers realized a traditional library and media did not fit the vision for the campus’ flexible model. Working together, DLR Group, Architects of Achievement, BrainSpaces and the district created a plan to disperse library functions within all four of the campus’ learning communities.

    A ‘library of the future’

    Marysville Getchell Campus students can check out a book and take it to an adjacent patio.

    “With a positive attitude, a willingness to help staff and students, and a great deal of flexibility, we have created a library of the future — not a traditional library building, but an on-demand conceptual and virtual library that serves our digital natives.” said Susan Gregerson, a teacher-librarian for Marysville Getchell Campus.

    “We wanted Marysville Getchell to be a student-centered school,” says Gail Miller, assistant superintendent of Marysville School District.

    “To deliver, we had to think about how kids live their lives right now and create a resources system around that way of thinking, not the other way around.”

    All learning community buildings provide the same essential learning spaces. Designers incorporated minimal finishes, exposed systems and a large amount of glazing to create a sense of openness as students spend their day experiencing a hands-on, interest-based curriculum. It is this flexibility and transparency that enhances the dispersed resources concept.

    In each of the four academic buildings, a first-floor library resource commons is designed to have a bookstore atmosphere. Students have access to novels, graphic novels and magazines. It is adjacent to an a la carte cafe, offering students the option to grab a bite while hanging with friends, surfing the Internet or reading a book.

    The second-floor library resource commons is designed as a research area. Here, students have access to the campus’ nonfiction collection. Wireless connectivity also is available throughout the campus so students have access to resources anywhere on campus.

    “The library at Marysville Getchell is not a place. It is distributed resources so students have access to the same kind of resources as a traditional library, but in real time,” says Miller.

    “Students can access materials wherever, whenever. They don’t have to schedule time to go to the library.”

    Managing resources

    Informal seating gives students a place to relax, socialize and work together on projects.

    Having just one teacher-librarian manage dispersed resources among four buildings has its challenges, especially with book bin drops located on each floor of each building.

    “A librarian in my position must be energetic and willing to move at a moment’s notice,” said Gregerson. “I am always available, through a district cell phone, via email, or through the student and staff intranet.

    “In the beginning I rotated one day per week in each building, with one floating day. Now, I spend one period per day in each building. This gives me more visibility on a daily basis so that students and teachers have one-on-one access to me.”

    Gregerson also assists teachers and students, so she must rely on others to help with the day-to-day tasks of running the library. A full-time library secretary and library teaching assistants check the book drops, and check in books and shelve them. To complete inventory, Gregerson uses her laptop and scanner to check the collection, one learning community at a time.

    Each learning community is designed with its own color scheme. The color is introduced on the building’s exterior and carries through to the interior design. For added convenience, colored spine labels on all the books correspond with the learning community color scheme.

    Other library models

    Dispersed resources is a paradigm shift. The old library philosophy that books are sacred, organized and stored in a quiet reading room is fading. If a progressive, dispersed resources system is not achievable, districts could consider a combination of a central library supplemented with dispersed resources throughout a campus.

    “For districts that decide on a hybrid model, it might make sense to consider housing a core collection in a central location, augmented with branch libraries that house unique, specific titles,” says Gregerson.

    “For example, students of the Bio-Med Academy may rely on a central library for their core studies and a branch library in their building that contains forensics, medicine, animal science, et cetera.”

    While there is a nostalgia for traditional libraries, the new concepts of learning resource centers and dispersed resource programs will better prepare students for their futures, whether that’s college or an increasingly competitive workplace.

    Craig Mason is a group principal and designer at DLR Group, an interdisciplinary design firm with offices nationwide.

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