From one-room library to learning commons



What do YOU think of when you read that word?

Me? I get giddy with excitement! In my first year as the Lower School Librarian at Carolina Friends School, I was given the privilege (and let’s not kid ourselves, the enormous responsibility) of re-designing and re-imagining not only our library space but also our library program. In this post, I’ll share with you a small fraction of my thoughts and considerations in designing the physical space.

Our Lower School library serves 120 students, first through fourth years.

I started the 2014-15 school year with 8,000 print volumes nestled in this 600 square-foot space.

Our storytime area could comfortably seat a handful of students, though I often had 10-12 students at a time.

Space was an issue from that very first day I arrived. But for a year, I made it work. (That’s an entirely different post!)

Plans were already in the making before I arrived to increase the library space as a part of a larger Lower School renovation. I was beyond thrilled. After looking at the architect’s drawings, though, I realized that the library would only be gaining a few feet of space. This couldn’t be right!

After much research and consideration, I presented my proposal to increase the library space to the entire 1,800 square-foot building to my staff. Yes, the library would be tripling in size, but it would still be well below the state recommendations for an elementary school library (see resources at end). This was not an easy presentation to make, especially since I was brand new and had yet to develop working relationships with any of my teachers. Nonetheless, the proposal was approved!

(This is where I have to pause and cheer for my co-workers and administration because they were incredibly supportive and open to my suggestions and ideas to increase the library space.)

So, now what?

Well, after performing an in-depth collection analysis using TitleWise by Follett, I realized that the collection needed to be weeded immediately. Or rather, 20 years ago. I know that weeding in your first year is highly frowned upon, but my options were limited. I would have to either box up all 8,000 musty books and place them on brand new library shelves, or I would have to confidently cull the collection. I chose to cull.


I was conservative in my weeding efforts. Only 2,000 volumes were whisked away to find better homes. The rest were meticulously boxed up near the end of the school year. I boxed everything in shelf order and labeled and numbered each box so that they could easily be unpacked by volunteers. This is where thinking ahead saved me from a ton of work later in the summer!


Emptying this tightly-packed library was no easy feat, but I had loads of help from staff, staff kids, and extra workers we employed for the renovation. Remember, the whole Lower School was packing up, too! The boxes were hauled to a Pack Rat, which was then transported to a climate-controlled warehouse.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Throughout the school year, I was planning and designing and researching library spaces. I knew that we were heading for some BIG changes. I do not exaggerate when I say that all of my “free” time was devoted to designing the new library. I visited other school libraries and took notes on what worked and what didn’t. I read books about 21st century library design. I spoke with experts in the field. I talked to anyone who would listen and provide feedback!


A common theme was emerging from my research – the space had to be exactly what it was not in the past. It had to be FLEXIBLE. Bookshelves on wheels. Tables on wheels. Lightweight furniture.

Because our needs are many and varied, so our space would need to accommodate them. Can I fit a whole class in the library? A half class? Small groups? Are there quiet reading areas? And loud ones too? Cozy nooks for students to get lost in a book?

These considerations and more were on my mind when I met with our furniture and design consultants to select shelving units, tables, chairs, lounge pieces, wall colors, furniture fabrics, tabletop finishes, carpet designs, and more.

So, when I say that I re-designed our library, I mean it! I selected every new piece, every new color and textile. This is not something that everyone will feel comfortable doing, but I think I must have been an interior designer in a former life. I had my say in every last detail.


Once all of the hard work of planning for this renovation had been done, it was time to renovate! Luckily, I could now sit back and enjoy my summer.


When I returned in August 2015, the library was nearly transformed! Okay, nearly might not be the right word. If you’ve ever lived through a renovation, personal or school, you know that timelines are not always, or ever, accurate. We started the school year with most of our spaces ready enough for students.


It’s now November, and the library is almost finished. I still have furniture on back order. And of course, there’s the work of adding artwork and bulletin boards and signage. That will be ongoing throughout this school year.

But the end result? It’s simply breathtaking. The comment I hear most often is, “It looks like a real library!” Well, thank you. We have moved from the one-room “library” to a true learning commons.




Bibliography (or, the sources I consulted to aid me in the redesign)

Bitterman, A., Gray, L., and Goldring, R. (2013). Characteristics of Public Elementary and Secondary School Library Media Centers in the United States: Results From the 2011–12 Schools and Staffing Survey (NCES 2013–315). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved 21 Aug. 2014 from

“Educational Specifications for the School Library Media Center.” IMPACT: Guidelines for North Carolina Media and Technology Programs ~Information Access and Delivery. NC DPI, 2006. Web. 21 Aug. 2014. <>.

Erikson, Rolf, and Carolyn Bussian. Markuson. Designing a School Library Media Center for the Future. 2nd ed. Chicago: American Library Association, 2007.

Hart, Thomas L. The School Library Media Facilities Planner. New York: Neal-Schuman, 2006.

Harvey, Carl A. The 21st Century Elementary Library Media Program. Santa Barbara, CA: Linworth Pub., 2010.

PowerPoint presentation from Designing School Libraries for 21st Century Learners by Peg Sullivan, Standards and Guidelines Implementation Task Force Member, at AASL National Conference in Charlotte, NC.

Sullivan, Margaret. Library Spaces for 21st-century Learners: A Planning Guide for Creating New School Library Concepts. Chicago, IL: American Association of School Librarians, 2013.

12 thoughts on “From one-room library to learning commons

  1. Thank you for this thorough and inspiring article! Very timely as well – we are preparing to move into our newly-renovated space in 3 weeks, to our “Library within the Learning Commons”. I appreciate knowing that the settling in is ongoing…I’m just learning of what won’t quite be ready for opening day, but your article has helped me re-focus on welcoming students to what we do indeed have for them.

    • Yes, be prepared to settle in slowly and continually throughout the year! It won’t be perfect, but as long as you can stay flexible and positive, it should make it a whole lot easier on you and students. I began checkout far earlier than I was comfortable, but boy, did it please my students!

  2. I am impressed! Ditto to Faith and Shelagh’s comments. I plan to share this post with the planning committee for our new Lower School (upcoming in 5 years.) It appears as if some of your furniture was manufactured by VS America in the Shift+ line. Would you consider sharing info on your furniture vendors/manufacturers?
    One other question: Our new plans include the Library/Library Commons functioning like a “town center” among our grade level “neighborhoods.” Consequently, we will be housed in the middle of the building, and the classroom pods will radiate out from our space. I am very excited about this, but some people are worried that we won’t be in a separate room. I do think we will have some movable glass walls to create quiet spaces, as well as study rooms. Did you see any library facilities that were set up in this way? Any thoughts or feedback?

    • Bonnie,
      I’m the LS Librarian at Ft, Worth Country Day. You might have toured our library if you attended AISL in DFW , 2014. My library is out in the open and surrounded by classrooms and hallways. If you can find a way to create doors or windows I would HIGHLY recommend it. Our students are NOT quiet as they come and go down the hallways and it is liking teaching in a gym. The teachers could raise their expectations of their students, but after doing that for a while they back off again. The space looks cozy and inviting, but it is a nightmare to work with! Just my two cents!

    • Thanks, Bonnie. We tried to use local vendors, when possible. The shelving is custom made by Brodart, the tables and chairs are from ArtcoBell, and the lounge furniture in the last picture is by Philmark.

      As for your wall-less learning commons, I don’t have any experience with this. I can tell you that there are spots in my library that echo quite a bit, and the tutoring rooms that we created (with walls) are actually quite noisy (sound travels through them and into the library – though you’d think it would be the other way around). Not sure if that helps any!

  3. Thanks for this great post! I’d love to be able to see a blueprint/layout of your new space, as well as further info about schools you visited and any other resources you used. If you are able, please contact me at
    Thanks, and well done!!! 🙂

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