Winter 2010 – Volume 9 Number 3

Reinventing the School Library

By Linda Demmers

Library Planning Consultant

A recent article in U.S. News and World Reports magazine noted that the total annual attendance at libraries exceeded the combined annual attendance at all sporting events, amusement parks and museums.

(Above) Windward School Center for Teaching and Learning design by Pica + Sullivan Architects, LTD. Photograph by Randall Michelson

The Leavey Library at the University of Southern California is now open 24/7 after students petitioned for extended hours. John Berry, editor of Library Journal for 40 years, wrote that he had overheard two teens pronounce their new public library to be “cooler than the mall.” Library use is up and many exciting new facilities have recently opened. Contrary to popular belief, libraries are not dead, but like the times, they are changing.

School libraries, often known as Learning Centers or Information Commons, are being reinvented to meet changing learning styles, increased demand for technology and the desire for alternative types of study space. Today’s school libraries have to be nimble, cost effective, and compete with the appeal of retail bookstores.  With library space being viewed as prime real estate, library planners and librarians are changing their approach to collections, technology, collaboration, flexibility and comfort.

There is a growing distinction between information that is used and books that are read. While collections continue to grow, information has become easier to retrieve electronically.  Accrediting agencies are moving away from standards that measure the number of owned volumes.  Print reference sources and back issues of periodicals are being reduced.

Librarians use their collections to attract students to books they might not otherwise

seek out. It is not uncommon to see books featured in eye-catching displays that emulate retail merchandising. Wall panels and display kiosks are being introduced to highlight new library acquisitions, call attention to a current reading topic or advertise discussion groups and events.

Computers are no longer relegated to a classroom-like lab.  They are integral to the library’s offerings and it is important that every nook and cranny be designed for digital access. Wi-Fi networks, laptops for loan, chairs with tablet arms, data jacks and power sources on table tops are all essential elements for a tech-friendly library environment. Students are sophisticated technology users.  They need access to printers, scanners, and high end multimedia stations to accommodate the myriad of information sources.

New libraries are being designed to be more flexible than in the past. The library has evolved from a place of quiet reading to a location for students to work together. To accommodate collaborative activities, libraries have begun to incorporate oversized tables, group study rooms, and large multi-use spaces. New facilities utilize furniture with casters that can be easily reconfigured, rolling dry erase boards for ad hoc class gatherings, and oversized computer stations for students to work together. The round multi-station computer pod has become extremely popular where as many as five students can sit around the circumference and focus on a single task.


Libraries – Centers for Collaborative Learning

(Above) Le Lycée Français de Los Angeles Library design by Pica + Sullivan Architects, LTD. Photograph by Randall Michelson

The solid wood library reading chair has traditionally been known as the “50-year chair.” While the name suggests that the chair should last for 50 years, one can conjecture that one hour in the chair might feel like 50 years! Good solid institutional chairs still have their place, but many libraries are now using soft seating. These modular systems have names like Pebble®, the Kloud®, and the Spot®. The new library at the Pica + Sullivan designed Raymond + Esther Kabbaz High School for Le Lycée Français de Los Angeles sports a very large open area.  It has been furnished with the Pebble® system providing flexible and comfortable seating for group discussions, small get-togethers or just a quick sit-down.

There has long been a myth that custom fabrication costs more than standard stock furniture.  In fact library furniture manufacturers are willing to change furniture details including finish, leg style, table top, work surface, fixtures, and fabric without additional outlay.  Furniture designers and manufacturers are adapting commercial, industrial, training facility and office furniture to library applications.  Reading and training tables can be customized into boomerang shapes with adjustable height surfaces and arms for multiple computer monitors.

The library planning team for the new Pica + Sullivan designed Windward School Center for Teaching and Learning worked closely with Burbank, CA-based furniture designer dTank, Inc. to create custom study pods with the flexibility to convert to collaborative work settings.

What about quiet? Students still come to the library to study for an exam or catch up on reading.  Furniture can also be used to provide much needed quiet space. Systems furniture with rolling screens that create separate spaces is being used in lieu of group study rooms. And increasingly popular are diner-style booths which provide more acoustical isolation than an open table for four.

Other good basic design principles include providing ample natural light and energy efficient fixtures, use of sustainable materials, and readily apparent way-finding. New facilities sport well placed staff workspaces and service desks, good sightlines, opportunity for merchandising the library’s services and collections and, of course universal accessibility.  Diner booths, pebbles, and furniture on wheels? Yes, libraries are changing and yes, they are cooler than the mall.

Linda Demmers, formerly the Library Director at Phillips Academy, Andover, is a library facility planning consultant located in Los Angeles.  In the past 20 years she has worked on many college, university, public and independent school libraries.  Linda can be contacted at