It’s the Thought That Counts

Most would say that I am in a happy position: Head Librarian at a school with a forward-thinking Head of School.  Still, this has caused me no end of trouble.

If you think about it for a minute, I’m sure you can agree that it is much easier (I didn’t say Better, so don’t @ me) to be stuck someplace with an immovable and archaic administration, or at least miles of daunting red tape, so that one’s only responsibility is to bemoan in a vague way the fact that so much Could be Done, if only you had administrative support, or funding, or the right alignment of stars and omens.

But when, instead, your HOS sits right there and says “What would your dream library look like?” with the idea of trying to work as much toward that goal as possible—well Hell’s Bells, that puts some pressure on a person!  Instead of self-righteously falling asleep at night secure in the knowledge that there is Nothing to be Done, one has to start coming up with plans and ideas and links to pages. It’s terrifying!

Once the panic subsided, I indulged my fondness for impractical and abstract thinking (so helpful).  I began to ponder: what would my dream library look like?  What is my grand vision for the Dorothy and Chalmers Poston Library?

My first thought:


Not sure installing flying buttresses is what my HOS has in mind.  But this lovely picture of the library at Mount Holyoke College (my alma mater!) got me thinking: what do I love so much about that library, or any of the other great libraries (big or small) I have known?  It is beautiful, of course–notice those nice sight lines all the way across the library; no high shelves blocking the main area, lots of comfy seating [fell asleep there many a time..but I digress]).  What are the essential elements of a great library space? Wood and stained glass are nice, but so are bright steel, clean modern lines and expanses of clear glass.

Maybe it is the different functions of the space.  These have seen a lot of changes.  Way back in my day as an undergraduate, the library was mostly a place of study, but there were group study spaces, quiet carrels, all sorts of different rooms (even one where they served tea once a week!), and a language lab, and a nascent computer lab.  Today of course libraries have maker spaces and collaborative creative spaces with equipment of all kinds.  As fast as someone can think of a new permutation, there is a space for it.

So pleasant and useful furniture is nice, sight lines are nice, different areas for different purposes are nice–is that the key to a thriving library?  I think not (that’s kind of a pun–you’ll see).  Thus far my answer–and certainly many of you may disagree–is not in the mutable functions or definitions of our space (media center, learning commons, research commons, information hub, design lab, tinker lab, maker space), but rather a focus, no matter what shiny new trend we are riding, on the immutable intent of our space–of its enduring purpose and function–of how we think of the library in connection with the mission and life of the school.

The libraries I have loved–and any library worth its salt–is the heart of its school; a vital part of sustaining and supporting not just its academics but also its community.  Though it seems we spend more and more of our lives online, school libraries are essential spaces for students, faculty, and all members of the school community to investigate, discover, collaborate, share, recharge, and just hang out.  For this to happen, the library must be a vital and active presence in all aspects of school life: in daily academic work, in extra-curricular learning and entertainment, in community connections, and in future planning; it must be at or near the forefront of thinking and planning how best to serve the entire school community.

Because our 21st-century lives are increasingly digital, it is easy for some people– administrators, parents, community members, even faculty–to wonder why we even have a physical library space at all.  Some schools have eliminated formal library space, or at least print collections.  Yet it is precisely because of the ubiquity of electronic media that we need a place to connect face-to-face and learn the skills we need to evaluate and manage information and learn the difficult rules of the road on the digital freeway.  Those skills are best taught together, and even better if they are taught within the context of a physical space dedicated to the multality (made another new word!) of wide-ranging, thorough and conscientious academic endeavor alongside community connection, digital skill-building, and recreational events.  The library, with its seemingly contradictory elements of static print materials alongside the quicksilver material of the digital world, underscores the code-switching inherent to life in the 21st century.  Where else but the library, then, is it not just possible but natural to do print and digital research, work on a paper, connect for a group project in Google Docs, meet with a manga fan group (Insta of us all with flower crowns!), read poetry during coffee-house (catch it on my YouTube channel!), and post the play-by-play of a book discussion on Twitter?

So if the most important thing is how we think about our libraries, will that dream list my HOS has asked for have anything on it?  Sure!  I’ve been collecting ideas from a number of wonderful independent schools in the Southeast (I’m open to travel farther afield in the name of thorough research. Dave Wee–I’m sure you’ve got library stuff I need to see, right??), and I am developing quite a list of desirable features for our library renovation: lower shelves and clear sight lines; varied lighting; moveable tables and bookcases; toddler-friendly book bins; comfy seating with charging ports; multi-configureable study spaces; bean bags and lounge chairs; expanded digital collections and updated print resources; special display space for yearbooks and memorabilia. These are all great things, ones I hope we can talk about adding to our space.  The most important design element of our library, however, will continue to be be how we think about it, continually reimagining its role as the heart of the school.

4 thoughts on “It’s the Thought That Counts

  1. Hi Jennifer,

    We were given the same kind of charge by our HOS. Our goal was to make the Jean Ann Cone library and the new Frederick Learning Commons the intellectual heart of the school. I think we have succeeded. We have more faculty, more students and more faculty and student tutorials than we have ever had. The students are using the space in new and innovative ways and we could not be happier. I am happy to host you for a visit or send you some photos.

    Berkeley Preparatory School
    Tampa, FL

    • That is great to hear, CD! I would love to see photos, and if possible come and see your Learning Commons; I’ll pitch it to my HOS as we put our plans together. Thanks for sharing your ideas and success!

    • WOW! What a gorgeous facility!!! Definitely worth a visit; I’ll pitch that to our HOS right away. 🙂
      Super ideas here for a space that really serves and connects with the mission of the school, and provides a hub for campus learning. That is what we are hoping for also.

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