Overdue notice: Transforming libraries into learning commons
Monday, July 14, 2014
In the middle of a classroom wing at a bustling high school sits a large room full of books and computers just waiting to help students on their next research paper. There is a sign on the door that reads "Quiet Zone!" with a picture of a librarian with a raised finger on her lips.
Nestled snugly between the stacks of nonfiction books, organized by an obsolete Dewey Decimal numbering system, the remnants of what used to be a card catalog and a microfiche reader sit idle, collecting dust. On the top shelf in the corner of the room rests a row of overhead projectors that are no longer being checked out to classrooms.
The room looks more like a museum featuring relics of the past and less like a 21st century student-centered classroom space. With the increased access to technology by teachers and students, the school is now contemplating whether it is time to close the library doors for good and find a better way to use the space that was once the information hub of the school.
For school libraries — much like the newspaper industry — staying relevant in the 21st century has been the story of reinvention. Technology has put information at our fingertips like never before. Ten years ago, New Hampshire school librarian Pam Harland saw the writing on wall and knew that if her profession was to survive, the concept of the school library was going to have to undergo a massive overhaul.
In the mid-2000s, Harland inherited the library I described above when her predecessor retired. Thus was born the concept of the "learning commons," a new purpose for the space that was formally known as the school library. Harland is not only a believer in the learning common model, she quite literally wrote a book on the topic.
Learning commons are everywhere. In a June 2014 Mind/Shift article, communications consultant Luba Vangelova writes about how Charlottesville, Virginia's Monticello High School recently transformed its library into a learning commons.
"Our library is now a workspace of the future," said Monticello High School librarian Ida Mae Craddock. "Teachers want to be creative, do interesting things and engage students. We provide that environment." The learning common model is overtaking public, school and university library systems at an alarming rate.
Learning commons take their cue from the concept of the village commons, the 19th century green space in the center of town that was used for grazing livestock, staging a festival or meeting neighbors. A learning commons integrates the functions of a library, labs, lounges and seminar areas into a single community gathering space. The space invites students and teachers to collaborate, to design their own approaches to their work, and most importantly to share the joy of learning.
No matter what time of the day you walk into Harland's school library, the space is bustling with energy and student engagement. In one corner a teacher may be giving a seminar on research skills to his class. In another corner a small group of students have pulled together some sofas to read a magazine article aloud. In the technology sandbox, students are experimenting with a new design on a 3-D printer.
Students can self-checkout just about any resource in the library, including a tablet device. Students and teachers, encouraged by the library staff, are taking selfies with their favorite books and posting the pictures to #SanbornReads, the Twitter forum that the staff created for students to share their love for books. The Dewey Decimal system is gone, and books have been organized by genre and topic, much like one would find in a modern bookstore.
Harland's library is the information hub of her school. Her library is relevant. Her library is a necessary component of her school because she has reinvented her library into a learning commons — the center of the 21st century school.
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