Active Learning in the K12 School Library

At a recent daylong workshop on K12 Active Learning, hosted by Creative (a Richmond, VA based Steelcase dealership), BCWH was invited to present to an audience of public and private K12 educators. Specifically, we were asked to share our recent work on public and academic libraries, in the context of ideas or strategies that could be transferable or applicable to a K12 library.

K12 Library Workshop

Shannon and Chuck Wray presenting to K12 educators at an Active Learning Workshop hosted at Creative in the Fall of 2015.

As a firm with 30 years of experience in designing schools, we have seen firsthand how the design of learning spaces has evolved based on changes in pedagogy and technology. The way in which students learn and access information has changed radically within the past 10 years.  As a result, the school library, and its role as the central place for information and academic scholarship within the school, is also changing.

Traditionally, the school library was a place designed for utility – where students would go to check out a book or complete an assignment.  They were static, quiet spaces filled up with books.  They were outfitted with heavy wood furniture that was uncomfortable and inflexible. Simply put, the traditional library was not an exciting place to be.

As the notion that books were no longer the only resource in the library, the name “library” evolved into “media center”, which is the nomenclature many institutions still use today.  But as this space goes through yet another evolution, and becomes less about the “media” and more about the resources combined with the types of spaces and activities that go on, we see more schools returning to the familiar name “library”.

Today’s changing academic and student culture demands a different type of library, and in the spirit of an active learning environment, we believe the library is one of the most important spaces in the school. How does a school library maintain its relevance and attract 21st century learners?  How does it become a destination space within the school, and become more than just a place to check out a book or print a paper?

How does it become…

A place to interact with peers?
A place to connect with teachers?
A place to be social?
A place to explore?
A place to work on projects?
A place to create things?

To answer these questions, one can reference the emerging trends being incorporated into the contemporary public or academic library. These libraries have been undergoing transformative changes in their physical character and the types of spaces they offer for patrons.  We believe that some of these types of spaces are not only directly transferable to a K12 school library, but are the type of spaces critical to the next evolution of the school library.   They include: a space dedicated to technology, referred to as an information commons, a space that has a café atmosphere, spaces for collaboration and group study, and makerspace.

 Information Commons

The Information Commons is a popular buzzword in library planning.  It is an active space that is centered around the technology that students want, with the reference and IT support to help them find and use information. The Information Commons supports sharing and collaboration as well as access to digital content.  It should provide space for students to spread out around technology, and support individual work as well as multiple students working together. The Information Commons should offer connectivity for BYOD (Bring Your Own Device).

Roanoke College Fintel Library  Information Commons

The Information Commons at Roanoke College’s Fintel Library provides ample desk space for all the materials students need to complete their work.

Western Albemarle HS Info Commons

The Information Commons area at Western Albemarle High School.

Internet Café

We first saw the idea of the Internet Cafe introduced at bookstores such as Barnes & Nobles and we’re seeing it more and more incorporated into public libraries and libraries on college campuses. An internet cafe is simply an informal touchdown space that provides a casual cafe ambience and supports connection to portable devices, regardless of whether or not coffee is actually served.  It can be a space that allows access to food and drink, and allows students to network with one another. We recognize that this type of space is more appropriate at a high school level, but incorporating café style furnishings at a middle school library could create a fun space for students to gather and socialize.

Fintel Library Internet Cafe 2

The Internet Café at Fintel Library not only serves as a casual place for students to gather and share food and drink, but also collaborate together or work independently.

Fluvanna HS Internet Cafe

At Fluvanna High School, an Internet Café was implemented as a casual place for students to hang out before and after school.  School clubs can provide coffee and snacks as a fundraising opportunity.

Collaboration Zone

The Collaboration Zone is a broad term that can represent very informal, organic space. It is a space that is defined through its furniture and technology.  It is a space that is active, mobile, reconfigurable, and flexible. It should support a variety of activities and a range of group sizes.  The Collaboration Zone also offers the opportunity for teachers to utilize the library for informal, active instructional space that is outside the classroom.

Fintel Library Collaboration Zone

The Collaboration Zone at Fintel Library gives students multiple options for working together or independently.

Western Albemarle HS Collaboration Zone

At Western Albemarle High School students are able to bring their own devices to the library and collaborate together.  Furniture solutions that allow for connectivity is critical.

Group Study

Group Study rooms offer defined areas for focused work.  They are smaller enclosed or semi-enclosed spaces that are inserted into the context of the larger library that allow two to six students to come together around a specific task.  As enclosed, or semi-enclosed, rooms it is important that they maintain a visual openness for passive supervision.  Group Study rooms should be configured with different types of furniture and technology to support a variety of study activities. It is important to give students multiple options for how to work together so that they can pick the right environment to meet their needs.

Libbie Mill Library Group Study

Group Study rooms in the Teen Area at the Libbie Mill Library in Henrico County offers lots of transparency to allow for easy supervision.


Makerspace is another popular buzzword in library (and even school) planning. It supports the notion that there should be a space in the library for creating, producing, and making things, by allowing students to have a tactile, hands-on experience in the learning process.  Makerspace is a very broad term that can manifest itself in different ways:  ranging from a space outfitted with high-tech machines, special software, and 3-D printing capabilities, to a crafting and sewing space.

A great example of a school that has really embraced the concept of makerspace, and its role in the library, is Monticello High School in Albemarle County, Virginia.  At MHS they are providing spaces in the library, or learning commons, that allow students to explore their personal interests, and create things they are passionate about.  By creating a library that is relevant to students’ interests, MHS has seen student visits to the library go from 700 per year to 70,000 per year!

Check out this video to see more about the transition of Monticello High School’s library.


The shelving chosen for the Libbie Mill Library allows for easy browsing of the collection.

What role do the books play in this dynamic new library that encourages interaction, sharing, and student engagement?   Books are still a vital part of the library,  but it is important that the collection be relevant and tuned to the needs of the students.  Having a fine-tuned collection allows for space previously devoted to books to be freed up for Group Study rooms, Makerspace, or an Internet Cafe.  In addition to having a fine-tuned collection, the way the collection is displayed is equally important.  It should be attractive, accessible, and merchandised like a bookstore with as much face-out presentation of books as possible.

Creating spaces in a school library that are active and vibrant in combination with a fine-tuned collection will ensure your library will be inviting to students and teachers as well as serving its purpose as a valuable resource for the school community.

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