Goal: Create a Student Centric Library Learning Space

My first goal upon becoming the Upper School Librarian at Randolph was to find balance between my vision of an Upper School Library and what students wanted from “their” space. This was (is) harder than it sounds. I admit to you that I am somewhat old-fashioned in my views of the school library. I was degreed prior to the concept of the “Learning Commons”, and I have worked in a variety of library settings (public, academic and school) so I have seen many ways libraries meet the needs of their constituents. Still, I prefer a school library on the quieter side. I view the library as an extension of the classroom – an academic space subject to the same guidelines one might place in the classroom. This view is furthered by the constraints that my particular library space operates under. It is basically one large room with a classroom attached.

But I am not the person that library is meant to serve. The space must serve our students and I must serve effectively within those expectations. And, of course, the administration must be A-OK with all of this.

After banging my head against the wall for about six months trying to force my ideas on recalcitrant students, I got the bright idea of surveying them. Some of you out there helped me with my survey. I enlisted the assistance of several teachers to administer the online survey which asked students what they liked about the library and what they didn’t like. I asked what was missing. What worked, what didn’t. I asked about furniture, study space, white boards, databases, magazines, e-books, library policies, noise levels, and hours of operation.

Then I held several focus groups. That sounds fancy, but it wasn’t. I pulled in students who were sitting around the library during breaks and free periods and I quizzed them about the library and the survey’s findings.

I learned so much. What emerged was a plan for how the space could fit the student’s needs and allow me to operate comfortably and effectively.

The results:

  • A comfortable space

Although we have comfortable seating, the table locations and shelving wasn’t conducive to small groups and “lounging”. I removed two ranges of shelving and rearranged tables – mixing soft furniture with more traditional wood furniture. The school doesn’t have a student lounge, so the library often serves as that.

  • Individual study spaces

Students wanted more study carrels and hidden nooks and crannies in which to withdraw. We added a few more study carrels and I placed chairs in corners and odd crooks in the walls. Those spots are the first to fill up.

  • Coffee

I don’t allow food in the library. I just don’t want to open that can of worms. My compromise to the students was the addition of a Keurig machine that they can use. Or they can give me money and I will make them a cup of coffee from my stash.

  • White noise machines/Silent Study Room/Library headphones

Because I do enforce a reasonably quiet library, I purchased three white noise machines which dampen conversations a bit producing a more muted library buzz. This allowed conversation to continue in the library without echoing off the walls or high ceilings. The Library Classroom is always silent for those who really need quiet. I purchased headphones to loan students who want to listen to music but forgot their own earbuds, or who need to cut out all noise but their own.

  • Art work

The Library is very beige. There is not a lot of color. The addition of student produced art changed that and the students love seeing their works on display.

  • Trashcans

Apparently, there were not enough trashcans in the library. I often complained that I was always picking up after the students – so they convinced me to add two trash cans and I was amazed at how much cleaner things were at the end of the day. So simple.

  • Collection Development

In terms of library materials, students wanted more books in world languages, were not interested in e-books, and loved using ABC CLIO (which I was considering swapping for another). They also had great suggestions for Summer Reading.

  • A Sign

I hate signs. The rebel in me doesn’t like to be told what to do. But the input I received was that my expectations were not clear. So, I made a simple sign that expresses my vision and expectations of the Library as an academic space.

The absolute best thing to come out of the survey and the group conversations was that students realized that I was listening to them.

We now have a group called the Library Leadership Council made up of students from grades 9-12. They suggest book purchases, assist greatly with Summer Reading book selection, put up book reviews, and offer policy suggestions. We meet 4-5 times a year.

Finding the right balance between how I want the library to be, how students want the library to be and what the library really is will always be a challenge. I’m lucky to have a supportive administration who allow me to make the changes. Somedays it is a zoo in here. But most days I’m pretty happy with the results of this student/librarian mashup space.

The Politics of Laminating

Due to its proximity to the library, the laminating machine “belongs” to me. I have been forced to learn how to operate it. I am responsible for its care and maintenance. The same is true of the printer/photocopier and the microwave oven (both denizens of the library-adjacent workroom), and the two faculty restrooms in the library vestibule, although I have yet to plumb them. I have even been asked to refill coffee from the pot housed in the workroom. I don’t even drink coffee.

Faculty members seek me out when photocopy toner levels are low, or the machine is jammed. When the restroom is out of paper towel or soap I am alerted. When the microwave shorts out a plug, I am summoned. I think you get the picture. It can seem, at times, that my role as librarian has been expanded to include management of any object or area within a stone’s throw of the library.

If it sounds like I’m complaining, I’m not. I’m terribly flattered. Apparently, those at my school think I can do anything. I am Superwoman! Unfortunately, it is also an indicator that colleagues aren’t sure what it is I do all day. I’m too polite to tell them. What to do?

As counter-intuitive as it sounds, I have remedied this by taking on even more.

When I started my position four years ago, the job was somewhat undefined. My then title, Dean of Student Research and Library Resources, sounded oddly auspicious. I would teach research skills. I would manage my resources. Why the fancy title? Beyond the aforementioned tasks, my supervisors were vague about how my position should take shape. Guidance was in short supply. Not to worry. I’ve always been a firm believer that one should make the position they have, into the position they want to have.

If you find yourself in a similar position, here are a few ways I manipulated my circumstances to further define my role.

  1. Take opportunities to communicate on a grand scale.

When I started here I was shy. I assumed the faculty would not be interested in my collection development activities. Then I started sending out lists of recent acquisitions.  The response was immediate. I now send a weekly email titled “Featured Book Review – Get it at the Upper School Library” school wide. The reviewed titles only last a few minutes before someone races in to nab them or emails a request to send them through campus mail to our other campus. Obviously, circulation has increased.

I do the same for the students, featuring a YA title or relevant reference work for a project I know is going on.

On Wednesdays I send an email to faculty called “Wednesday’s Interesting Article of Random Content”. I scour History Today, JSTOR Daily, Science News and other resources for interesting articles, alternating disciplines by the week. I often get emails in response indicating the article was perfect for the lesson of the day.

  • I write blogs for our school web site.

Sometimes the blogs are about cross-curricular research projects. Sometimes they are about Summer Reading. Sometimes they are simply musing about books I’ve known and loved. All of them illustrate the integration of my role within that of the greater school community.

  • I offer Professional Development Classes/Documents

The beginning of every school year means several days of professional development classes offered by fellow faculty. I have offered an Introduction to Library Resources from time to time as a way of making sure the faculty realizes the wealth of resources we have. Some come from public school settings where libraries have been phased out. Some simply haven’t had the time to figure out how to use the library gateway or don’t know they can access it remotely. It’s always a fun session with everyone learning at least one new thing (including me).

I also create documents to send to new folks that delineates the same information.

  • I take on new duties that fit my wheelhouse and interests.

In the past two years I’ve added direction of our Upper School Interim Program and co-leadership of our Summer Internship Program to my duties. Why? Because I believe these programs further the concept of research through experiential learning. As a result, I asked for a change in my title. I am now the Dean of Student Research and Experiential Learning. This makes a whole lot more sense to me.

Which brings us back to the politics of laminating. Had it not been for those crazy requests to refill the restroom soap dispensers or replace colorful paper stock near the photocopier, I would never have spent so much time coming up with ways to integrate myself into everyone’s world (in more meaningful ways). I feel integral to my community and am much more satisfied with my lot. And yes, I still laminate.