Library Evolution | Feature

The Library as a Digital Learning Space

A high school in Connecticut is developing and honing a hybrid library that incorporates both traditional books and new digital technologies.

Wanting to develop a media center/library that would go beyond stacks of unused books, dark study corners, and low lighting, the staff at Simsbury High School in Simsbury, CT, worked with its district superintendent to determine a new direction for the facility. Some of the key questions discussed concerned the need for a physical library in the information age, the role that books would play in the new facility, and how media literacy would be taught to students.

The Library Evolved

This is the third segment of a three-part series of articles focused on the changing role of the K-12 library. Each article in the series has looked at a how schools are reinterpreting the role of the library and what's being done to reposition the facility to keep it relevant and fresh in the digital age. Use the links below to access other articles in this series.

A Hybrid Approach
After looking at several options--including one that would eliminate the library's physical space completely--the team decided to use a hybrid concept for the new Simsbury High School library/media center. Built in 2005 as part of a school renovation project the 1,500-square-foot facility incorporates both traditional and modern elements.

The new library was built with funds from the school's construction budget. Key features include a spacious entry way, two lounge seating areas, mission-style furnishings, a librarian reference desk that's positioned in a central location on the library floor, two library classroom/computer labs, 30 PCs, and 17,000 physical books.

Simsbury High School library/media center
Built in 2005 as part of a school renovation project, the 1,500-square-foot Simsbury facility incorporates both traditional and modern elements. Click image to see a panorama of the facility.

Maureen Snyder, library media specialist, said books and a physical space almost didn't make it onto the agenda for the new facility. "We toyed with the idea of not having books and developing a more digitized environment," Snyder said. "At one point we even wondered if we needed a physical environment at all for the new library."

The more traditional route won out when the superintendent and staff decided that Simsbury High School's 1,630 students needed somewhere to go to borrow books, load up their e-readers, collaborate on homework assignments, and learn the intricacies of media literacy in today's information-rich world.

Snyder estimated her budget to be $20,000 annually for digital media and $4,000 for print. "I don't allocate a lot towards print because we can get so many books electronically," said Snyder. "Plus, it just doesn't make sense to purchase a lot of high-end reference books when I can access a database that includes those resources." Students retrieve those digital databases on a 24/7 basis at school or at home, according to Snyder, who said most of the library's print content comprises recreational reads, including biographies, fiction, and non-fiction titles.

Recent Modifications
A recipient of the National School Library of the Year Award in 2008, Simsbury High School has modified its library over the last few years. The original plans called for a distance-learning classroom that teachers would use to provide instruction to students on a remote basis. "The idea of distance learning was short-lived for the library because we now have a virtual high school," said Snyder. "Another lab on campus handles that type of instruction."

The lab was converted into a second library classroom/computer lab where students can use the computers independently and also attend classes on media and information literacy. Through a library program called "assured experiences" students learn to become effective and efficient users of information. Snyder said her staff works together with the school's teachers to develop classes that combine educational content with the information literacy component.

"There is so much information out there, but that doesn't mean students know how to use it and evaluate it," said Snyder, who said she sees the marriage of classroom lessons and information literacy as an important asset for today's young learners. "In the past a class would come into the library to learn how to use the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature in isolation," said Snyder. "That's changed. Now we're collaborating with teachers across all subjects on their lesson plans, and we're conducting instruction on research, information, and technology."

The library's layout has also been tweaked since 2005. The open space that was in the original plans has been altered slightly to include more of a "learning laboratory" feel, she said. Bookshelves were moved to improve the flow of traffic through the library, Snyder added, and a silent area was added to accommodate students who want to work without interruption.

Snyder said the library/media center team works closely with the district's IT department when purchasing new and maintaining existing equipment and resources. "We couldn't do what we do without our IT team," she said. When the facility's laser printers went down during freshmen orientation Snyder called on the IT team for help. "They were here the next day to fix the network problem and get us up and running again."

Other challenges haven't been so easy to tackle.

With 33 years of experience as a school librarian under her belt, Snyder said getting adults to understand the changing role and "look" of the library is an ongoing battle.

"A lot of people still think of the library as a warehouse where you go to get a book or a magazine," she said. "To deal with it we just strive to be a model for helping people understand that a media center is a lot more than just a place for physical books."

Library Redesign: Lessons Learned

Maureen Snyder offered these five tips to schools looking to overhaul their traditional libraries.

  1. Think of the space as a media and learning center as opposed to just a place to house books.
  2. Be ready to tweak floor plans, move furniture, and take other steps once the facility is open and in use.
  3. Accept the fact that adults will expect the library to look and feel like the one they used in high school and college.
  4. Create a space that integrates media and information literacy with classroom lesson plans.
  5. Serve as a model for those who may need a little extra "push" when it comes to accepting the new digital role that school libraries play.


About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at [email protected].