With the largest repository of human knowledge available in the palm of our hands, thanks to the internet, what place do libraries have in the modern technological world? How does the design of a modern library tap into and use everything we now know about learning and thinking to improve our ability to teach problem-solving and innovation? These are the types of questions that school districts and their architects face when considering what is needed in a modern school library.

In the past, libraries served as a physical repository of trusted information; instead of looking something up on the internet, you would search through the card catalog and the stacks for an appropriate text.
Today, almost anything we have ever wanted to know is only a quick Google search away. Now, more than ever, our libraries need to serve students who are growing up in the information age not only by storing information, but also by providing an appropriate space to develop critical thinking skills and making available the technology needed to engage in hands-on learning.

Flexibility is Key The “learning commons” is the modern answer to the next step in library design, and can be seen in action in the Point Pleasant Beach school district. A learning commons marries the idea of a traditional library with modern sensibilities and technologies. Flexibility is the key component of these state-of-the-art facilities. Current curricula have endeavored to make learning a more social and engaging act, including more group projects to promote collaborative learning, problem-solving, and decision-making skills. These skills are highlighted in a learning commons through the creation of a modular and flexible space where students can try out a variety of problem-solving techniques. With fewer physical texts required, the space that would normally go to storing those texts can be re-imagined to promote learning and social engagement during the learning process. With the input provided by teachers and school administrators, the learning commons connects research and media with creative and social activity, helping every child learn effectively.

The process for designing a learning commons is very collaborative. The design team meets with the school administrators and bases their design on the needs and goals of the end user. For example, perhaps the school library is going to be used by the public and community groups after school hours; in that case, the additional of a separate secure exterior access is useful.

Functional Furniture The most noticeable difference between a learning commons and a library is in the design of the physical space. The rigid and inflexible furniture of the past is gone, along with the high number of individual spaces. A learning commons makes use of modular furniture and open spaces to embrace the flexibility of creating a learning environment without barriers. The furniture and space can be easily rearranged into social collaboration areas for group projects, or sectioned off into an individual area for studying alone. It can even be easily pushed completely aside to create an open space large enough to simultaneously accommodate large groups of students, such as an entire grade.

Different flooring patterns and materials are used to designate different areas, while still leaving the space as a whole flexible and open. Even the lighting is flexible, with individually-controlled LED lights and dimmer switches, allowing the level of lighting to be controlled and customized. The modular furniture at Point Pleasant Beach consisted of high-top tables and café style chairs, with modular fabric stadium-style blocks incorporated into the space to keep the work areas flexible. Low tables with cylinder-shaped chairs were also included. All of these types of furniture are easy to move and rearrange, keeping with the flexible and modular design.

When it comes to the media centers, every school has unique requirements. We find that schools focused on the lower grades may still have computer banks, but this falls away with higher grade levels. This can likely be attributed to the rise in the use of laptops, Chromebooks, tablets, and similar personal devices. What once would have been several rows of desktop computers, has now given way to flexible and comfortable seating provided near all-important charging stations for the use of handheld devices.

Incorporating Makerspaces One of the more distinctive types of spaces frequently incorporated into a new or renovated learning commons is a “fabrication lab” or “makerspace.” These spaces can be separate areas and filled with creative tools and resources designed to encourage experimentation in an open environment. These tools include 3D printers, laser cutters, and engravers. The goal is to nurture hands-on learning.

Although makerspaces require space to store materials, they don’t necessarily require separate rooms. In Point Pleasant Beach, the back area of the room was used for a makerspace, allowing for durable tables and storage space for supplies. This accommodates the construction and the assembly of parts that a makerspace is used for, but still permits the space to be flexible as the tables are easily moved to create, for example, a demonstration area.

Learning commons give the community access to all of these technologies, aiming to bridge the digital divide and increase digital literacy. While having smartphones, tablets and other devices s very common in today’s world, there are still many children without access to these technologies. The U.S. Department of Labor Statistics estimates that 77% of U.S. jobs will require technology skills within the next decade. A central technology hub like a learning commons provides access and equal opportunity to all children in the community, giving them the chance to learn and develop the skills they will need in the future.

With all of the changes learning commons bring about, it is important to note what has remained the same. Although there are more and new pathways to learning, traditional books are as important as ever in a child’s education. Librarians continue to be an important piece of the puzzle, helping children to navigate this new and sometimes overwhelming learning environment. A librarian helps a young learner to develop a critical eye, and understand how to spot biases and false information. These educators foster an inquiry-based learning environment, one which doesn’t simply cram information into the minds of children, but also teaches them the crucial life skills of how to acquire knowledge on their own, evaluate information, analyze it and use it appropriately.

One big challenge in creating a learning commons is designing a space that can keep up with the rapid pace at which technology changes. A well-designed learning commons will integrate every aspect of modern learning to create an inviting and cohesive learning environment where people want to come together and learn. Comfort and flexibility are key to creating a space that will keep up with the future.

Steve Siegel is a principal at Spiezle Architectural Group, Inc. and leads the development of the firm’s K-12 STEM/STEAM labs and media centers.