What Do Paris, Shakespeare and The Library of Unrequited Love Have to Do with the Learning Commons?

Learning Commons have been on my mind quite a lot lately.  We are in the process of planning a renovation of what we hope will become a Learning Commons (email me if you would like a copy of the planning document I wrote two years ago), so it was with interest that I read the posts on the AISL list that were a semantic debate about the name Learning Commons: What did it mean?  Should schools change the names of their Libraries to Learning Commons? What was a Learning Commons and how did it differentiate itself from a Library?

CD at the Shakespeare and Co. bookstore holding my copy of The Library of Unrequited Love, which I had just purchased.

CD at the Shakespeare and Co. bookstore holding my copy of The Library of Unrequited Love, which I had just purchased.

It was in that mindset that I set off to Paris, with my husband for our Spring Break trip. Now, mind you, I had a lovely time eating chocolate, touring churches and museums, but being a librarian, there are a few Holy Grails that we must go see and one of them is the Shakespeare and Co. bookstore that is opposite the river from Notre Dame. (Although I had received a stern warning NOT to sit on the couches as I would come home with flea bites, as a friend did.  I followed his direction.  No fleas were encountered.)

The cover of The Library of Unrequited Love by Sophie Devry from Amazon.com

The cover of The Library of Unrequited Love by Sophie Devry from Amazon.com

I was delighted when on the very big table in the front, I found a delightful novella with the intriguing title of The Library of Unrequited Love by French woman Sophie Devry.  Imagine, if you will, one morning, coming in an hour or more early to unlock the library and set up. You are in charge of the Geography section. It’s in the basement. And there you find a patron, locked in.  He’s been there all night. What would you do?  Our librarian, with such depth of feeling, is compelled to hold forth, rant even (I dare say, she sounds a bit like me on a tear! 😎 to the poor patron as there are security procedures and he can’t escape until opening bell rings, which is hours away anyway.

Right there in Shakespeare and Co., I immediately fell in love. I had a book in my hand and love in my heart.  And I was in Paris.  While reading the book, I found so many questions that relate to us as independent school librarians as well,  and to the broader question of a Learning Commons and what does it all mean.

What Should the Library/Learning Commons Be?

It is the great existential question.  Who are we?  What services should we provide?  Are we to be loud or quiet? The anonymous librarian in The Library of Unrequited Love says, “I’ve heard all your arguments: make the mediatheque a place of pleasure and conviviality in the very heart of the town. Make it less intimidating to go into a library.  Blend culture and pleasure so that culture becomes pleasurable-”  She maintains that government fears the youth might foment revolution and to forestall it, we have to placate them with noisy spaces and multimedia spaces in the library: “Just one more step to take: develop the hi-tech, expand the videotheque, and soon the mediatheque will be a discotheque, it’s bound to happen!…I’ll never let it come to that.”

And yet, we have certain sacred cows we don’t want to give up.

silence sacred cow

A silence sacred cow

There is a certain amount of silence that is expected in a library, but are our libraries, should our libraries ALWAYS be silent. Do they need to be the hushed places of yesterday?

Silent Study Lunches

Or, rather, are other innovative ideas that we can come up with like Ellen Cothran did.  Cothran, librarian at the (ecothran@pacificridge.org) Pacific Ridge School in Carlsbad, CA  had to come up with some silent study solutions for her Learning Commons Library.  (Her thoughts on Learning Commons and Silent Study Lunches come from an Oct. 2013 AISL listserv discussion. Information on Silent Study Lunches gathered by AISL member Joan Lange and compiled on the AISL wiki, re-edited and presented here by CD McLean.)

“We’ve recently had a dramatic improvement in our “how do we act in the library?” conundrum.  Perhaps these changes have helped, or perhaps it’s the phase of the moon!  Here’s what we’ve been doing:

  • After-school is silent/quiet study beginning 15 minutes after dismissal—3:15
  • Silent Study Lunch on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  Big, red, full-length paper signs on both doors of the library remind students during lunch (little signs DO NOT work).  Kids who want quiet (that number is growing) look forward to it and say, “oh, yea!”  Kids who don’t want silent study know the schedule and hang out elsewhere.
  • I believe it’s important for the kids to understand that the Library Learning Commons is, above all, flexible.  That means lots of freedom to learn.”

Additionally, Elisabeth Abarbanel, eabarbanel@bwscampus.com, of Brentwood School in Los Angeles, California shared Silent Tuesday Lunches, inspired by Ellen Cothran’s AISL listserv discussion.

“Inspired by Ellen Cothran’s silent lunches, we just tried our first “Silent Tuesday Lunch.” We informally talked about it with the kids, who seemed excited by the idea, we announced it at assembly, reminded them, and finally did it! We had some happy studying students! (O)ne senior girl exclaimed, in a whisper, “This is amazing – you are a genius!”

We are a big one room library, which is a very popular hang out spot. The student lounge is often a bit empty, while the library is always bustling. The students say they like being with a lot of people from different grades, and they just like being in the friendly library. We love that, but it does get loud for kids who need quiet to focus.

The plan is to have four Silent Tuesday Lunches then send a survey to the students asking if they liked them, if they want to keep doing it, if they want to add Thursdays. There was total buy-in today – nobody tried to ruin our experiment.

I was happy to offer them the quiet. They can go to the student lounge for louder work.”

It seems like a great compromise and one that both schools and students are happy with.  It will be interesting to hear how the experiment goes in the future.

 The Idea of Zones

Image map of the Pingree School's Learning Commons' Layout.

Image map of the Pingree School’s Learning Commons’ Layout.

Meghan O’Neill, is the Learning Commons Director (moneill@pingree.org) at Pingree School, in S. Hamilton, MA. You can find a lot of amazing information about their center and about learning commons in general at Pingree Learning Commons.  O’Neill says that Pingree serves an Upper School population (grades 9-12) of 330 students, co-ed, day school, going 1-1 for next year.  Also, Pingree just hosted the Learning in Commons  Conference and welcomed over 175 librarians, educators, administrators, and tech specialists from across the United States.

You begin to see a big difference  when you look at the furniture groupings in the image map.  As the anonymous librarian in The Library of Unrequited Love put it “Listen, you might meet someone on the way to the cinema, or the restaurant, or the swimming pool, or a cafe, looking happy, that’s normal. But have you ever heard people in the street saying things like “I’m going to spend the day in the library, yippee!”” How are we going to change that mindset? It starts with letting go of QUIET all the time, everywhere.  It continues with comfortable,  furniture. For Pingree, they have divided up their spaces:

Learning Commons Spaces

You can see in the image map that these spaces will all have different levels of noise attached to them.  Sofas and couches and group study allow for conversational level to low levels of sound, while the Quiet Library area is the one area for quiet study.

  • The Hub: an innovative space for teaching, learning, and collaboration. Read a news story about The Hub here.
  • Quiet Library: our quiet area for study and research.
  • Group Study Room: a conference room for teamwork and meetings.
  • Pond Room: an open area for participatory learning.
  • Harte Room: a reading room that houses our special collections.

Our plan had different zones and noise levels as well.  And our student council was firm on the idea that individual study carrels be in the design mix.

What about the Books?

I’ve always believed that it isn’t what you read, it’s that you are reading.  However, the recent study by the researchers at the New School in New York City finds that reading literary fiction may improve one’s ability to identify the emotional state of someone which would lead to empathy.  Reading genre fiction did not have the same uptick in one’s ability. And where does our friend the anonymous librarian stand on this issue of books in the library? She is firmly on the side of the reader.  “In this arena, they have a part to play. Either they’re cowards and take the side of the mountain of books, or they bravely help the worried reader.” In this quote she is talking specifically about the overwhelming amount of books printed and published and essentially, “the dead will eat up the living” if we aren’t careful and don’t weed.  But she is also on the side of the general reader too.

“I see them, the thought police of the library, I’ve seen the way they talk to the readers.  They hit them over the head with “You must read this, or that”.

The Learning Commons Library WILL have books.  Teens are still reading print books.  The same amount of teens (75%) who read a print book last year, read a print book this year.  The rate is steady and ebook ownership is climbing.  Print isn’t going anywhere.  We have to have ebooks, we have to have print. And I am not going to back down and force my 8th grade boy into literary fiction if he is reading Scientific American or Gamer or graphic novels.

 Nicholas Jackson, Head Librarian (njackson@mbs.net), at Morristown-Beard, says they have connected their writing center and the library. In addition, they have weeded about half the print collection (mainly because the items were old, not used, & out of date). They cut the stacks in half, making the entire library visible from the circulations desk. Also, they removed some stacks and made room for sitting, group space, and studying.  

What Is the Answer?

I go back to the anonymous librarian at The Library of Unrequited Love,”Yes, indeed, you can accomplish great things if you’re a librarian…like Mummy, the library gives you a magic kiss and everything’s better…I can tell you, there’s nothing the library can’t cure.”

Whether we are a Library or a Learning Commons, whether we are quiet all the time or we choose to have quiet zones, as librarians we create a space that serves the needs of our students, our faculty and staff.  That means providing them the tools, the materials, the space, and most importantly, the expertise. We are the experts. We can accomplish great things no matter what name is on the building.


Other Learning Commons Schools

Flintridge Preparatory School, La Canada, CA

Susan Hodge is the head librarian at Flintridge Preparatory School (www.flintridgeprep.org/library.aspx). The new library was completed in September of 2007. The two-story library complex is situated in the center of campus and includes a computer lab, a classroom for seminars, meeting rooms, space for individual and group study, and a college counseling suite.

Mater Dei High School, Santa Ana, CA

Mater Dei’s  Library and Learning Commons has a technology hub with an iPad help counter, study rooms with movable tables and whiteboards, and updated library collection and online catalog, a recordable classroom ad a Media:Scape for group collaboration. 

My colleague Joan Lange gathered the following info for the AISL wiki:

Chatham Hall School in Chatham, VA

Carolyn Stenzel, (stenzel.carolyn@gmail.com), from Chatham Hall School in Chatham, VA has documented her library’s transformation to a Learning Commons. You can view the photos here.

Harvard-Westlake Upper School in Studio City, CA

Shannon Acedo, sacedo@hw.com, from Harvard-Westlake Upper School in Studio City, CA shares Tips on Creating a 21st century Library.  You can also view photos of her library’s transformation.

The Sullivan Center

David Wee, from Harvard-Westlake Middle School in Los Angeles, CA shares the following about The Sullivan Center:

“The Sullivan Center, a Iolani School in Honolulu, is truly a maker-space and learning commons, but in a full context.  The library is one part of a larger center for innovation and learning–quite amazing!”

Story and photos of The Sullivan Center.

6 thoughts on “What Do Paris, Shakespeare and The Library of Unrequited Love Have to Do with the Learning Commons?

  1. What a great post and I too am envious of your trip! I appreciate the varied strategies for helping to preserve the “quite space.” It seems at once one of the first aspects that has to be sacrificed in a re-envisioning of the library space. Yet, it is critical for so many reasons.

    • Hi Faith,

      Thanks for the comment! What I love about the idea, though, is that it gets us thinking more programmatically about our space. What do we want going on? And do we want just studying? No, probably not. There should be a variety of things going on in the library. And we should be appealing to a variety of groups: the technology center, the writing center, the opportunities for collaboration and deeper integration into the curriculum are great. We can form better partnerships with faculty who are in line with what we do and want to be on the forefront of technology and digital literacy skills and research. It’s a win-win for everyone.

  2. This is an article I will refer back to. Thanks for the great post with all the links to other interesting related information. Very very helpful. Love the Silent Lunch idea.

    We are working on a piecemeal renovation of our library into a Learning Commons Space, each summer making some progress. Not the preferred method, but we take what we can get. I am interested in the square footage of other libraries. We have over 550 student visits a day to the library in a school that has an enrollment of 520 students, and yet last summer there was a request for us to allow office space for a new employee. We managed not to lose space, but additional space that could have been included in the library instead went to this office. Discouraging. I am trying to make a case for more space for the library. How much square footage does your library have? And to serve how many students? Thanks so much

    • Thanks so much for the comment Ann. It can be very discouraging to see bits of your library taken away, I agree. My question to you would be have you written a formal renovation plan? Have you a discussion with your staff about programs and what you want to see happen in this new space? Who you could bring into the library who could help you have a larger voice (like the technology dept? or the writing center?). Once you have that, or the start of that, then start thinking about talking to administration and getting them on board. They are hesitant about doing anything anything without something fancy they can show the board and they usually means a plan with charts and numbers! 😎

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