Rethinking the Library Media Center

Judy Salpeter w Todd Burleson, Diane Fontinell, Jennifer Lanier, Katie Nelson

When Jennifer Lanier began working as a media specialist at Summit Parkway Middle School in South Carolina’s Richland School District Two, the school library looked like one most of us remember from our own school days. “There were large heavy tables and chairs with shelves lining all walls,” she says.  “It was a very fixed space.”  After a period of intensive research, she was ready to make some major changes. “My library is now split into two main sections,” Lanier explains, “with the circulation desk as the dividing point.  I focused on renovating the back half first.  This would become the Creative Commons area.  I removed the shelves from the corner, purchased six tall mobile tables, a few stools, six white boards, and twenty beanbag cubes.”

The idea, Lanier explains, was not to set up the tables, stools and cubes ahead of time but, rather, to leave the furniture out of the way and let users (both students and staff members) grab it and reconfigure the space to meet their needs.  “The arrangement of the space does not dictate the way collaboration is carried out; instead the collaboration can freely flow in the direction it takes.  Users can gather around on the cubes to discuss an idea.  They can break out to a project table and visualize it on a white board.  The simple act of moving allows the brain to be more creative.” 

Educators collaborating in the Summit Parkway Creative Commons area

The library/resource center at Hubbard Woods Elementary School in Winnetka, IL, has also undergone a huge transformation. According to resource center director Todd Burleson, “The first and most critical element of the transformation was literally breaking apart the bookcases from their bases.  They used to be bolted to the floor and to the walls.  We cut the bookcases apart and created new tops and bottoms and finally put them on industrial casters, allowing us to completely rearrange our library space.”

From there, Burleson set about adding flexible furniture to the learning environment.  “The tables are on wheels, can flip up and be nested.  Our chairs are stackable and slide easily out of the way.  Additionally, we added a mix of stools and foam cubes for sturdy and functional seating.  We created window bench seats that can be flipped up to reveal workbenches along the windows.  All of these elements together allow us to now host at least three classes in our space.  This has worked incredibly well as we have had an entire grade level working in the library at one time.  It works equally well with mixed age groups.”

Diagram of the Hubbard Woods Library/Resource Center

Katie Nelson, resource center director for Washburne Middle School, another Winnetka school, says that, although the overall structure of the space in which the Washburne library is housed has changed less dramatically than at Hubbard Woods, she has done a number of things to add flexibility to the environment, as shown in these two images:

Much of the shelving is now on wheels to allow for different space configurations. 

Tables are covered with “whiteboard” material so students can use them to brainstorm, plan, and collaborate. 

Nelson adds, “I have also been very intentional about creating spaces that are inviting and comfortable for students. I try and create different sections of the library through comfortable seating, distribution of rugs, etc.  This not only allows for students to find their own nooks of comfort, but it also allows for a variety of events to occur in the library simultaneously.”

Makerspaces in the Library

With makerspaces gaining popularity in districts across the country, an increasing number of schools have built space for exploration, building and “making” into the redesigned library media center environment. At Hubbard Woods, for example, the library redesign involved the creation of two separate spaces, one of which used to be the computer lab. Todd Burleson explains, “We took the desktops out of the lab and put them in classrooms.  Now, we have a cart of computers that we can use to turn it into a lab only when we need it.  The rest of the time, the new IDEA Lab is used as a maker space.”

At Summit Parkway, where the current media center also comprises two spaces, the Creative Commons area includes a makerspace. Jennifer Lanier shares how she involved the students from the very start. “At the beginning of this journey, I asked for help from a few students who were in an intro to engineering class.  They proposed how we might hack some of the existing furniture to make it fit our need of flexibility.  I chose one group's solution, sought permission, and hacked some older furniture with help of these students.  We took the back off of the old chairs, added casters to the chairs and tables, added white board to table tops, and painted everything in bright colors.  The students were ‘making’ while helping me ‘make’ the makerspace; they experienced success with a real-life problem.”

Rebuilding the Furniture for the Summit Parkway Makerspace

The Results

At Halstead Academy in the Baltimore County (MD) Public Schools, library media specialist Diane Fontinell explains some of the ways in which various parts of the library/media center have been repurposed for makerspace activities: “An underutilized space was converted to a Creation Station with low-tech options that include paper, crayons, markers, Lego building blocks, and drawing books. In another part of the library, a tinkering table was set up for students completing Genius Hour projects.  Currently, it has an old television on it—some third grade students are taking it apart so that they can try to figure out how it works.” A third section of the library now houses a 3D printer that is used in a variety of ways to support classroom instruction.

One of the stations in the Halstead Library Makerspace

With makerspace activities gaining momentum, they will soon outgrow Halstead Academy’s existing library media center space that gave them their start.  “Because of the success we have been having,” says Fontinell, “a space adjacent to the library will be made available in January that will serve as an official Makerspace Lab for Halstead Academy.  In designing the lab, current makerspace activities will be integrated with new ideas that include Lego Mindstorm, Makey Makey, and Little Bits kits.  Towson University will work in partnership with Halstead Academy in the development of this space.”

The Role of Books

“What about the books?” people often ask as the library media center evolves  “Are they being phased out?” Not at all, say the specialists who contributed to this article. In fact, many of the changes have made the books more accessible and the reading spaces more inviting. For example, explains Fontinell, “I have been working to make the space more student-centered by transitioning from a traditional, Dewey-based shelving model to a book-store configuration that makes locating books more intuitive for students.  In addition, I have tried to create more comfortable spots in the library for students to work through comfortable chairs and benches.”

Comfortable seating at Washburne Middle School makes reading more inviting

At Washburne Middle School, says Katie Nelson, “We have a building initiative this year to expand the reading culture of our school. This initiative has brought the focus of books and reading back to the library, which has been an interesting development. Though this trend towards books and the library might seem backwards, it has been great to see both the space and staff recognized as leaders in supporting a community of readers.  Circulation (both print and digital) is at an all-time high!”

According to Todd Burleson, his school “provides every class with a set ‘quiet’ time in the library in which they come to check out books.  We use this time to introduce kids to new authors, prepare for visiting authors, and to teach specific library skills. This happens for most classes on Monday.  The rest of the week, each class has a one-hour block of IDEA Lab time.  This is where the students explore through design thinking and problem based learning.”

Not surprisingly, some of the newest books being acquired focus on making. Burleson explains that his school added nearly 150 new ‘maker’ books to their collection.  “These books encourage the exploration of ideas and making,” he says. “It’s pretty common for students to walk over to the shelves and pull a book about robotics while they are exploring or researching a new robotic tool.”

At Summit Parkway Middle School, says Jennifer Lanier, “We continued a second phase of renovation with district support.  With the creative space on the back half, and a new lounge space on the front half, we have the best of both worlds in a library.  During renovation, I had to reassure the users we would keep our print books and only rearrange the space.  While doing this, however, I was able to complete some much-needed weeding of outdated titles.  That has given rise to new allocations.   My readers’ demands have pushed most fiction/novel allocations to be print and informational allocations to be digital.  Students are becoming more skilled in research with the support of searchable informational eBooks.   Whether they’re working with print or digital resources, the students absolutely love sitting in the comfortable seating to read independently.”


All of the contributors to this article shared ways in which students have embraced the changes to their library media centers.  According to Diane Fontinell, “Halstead students love making and creating and love having both low-tech and high-tech options to choose from when completing assignments or projects.”

Todd Burleson has had similar experiences at Hubbard Woods Elementary. “The students ABSOLUTELY LOVE coming to the IDEA Lab.  It is their favorite time of the week.  They are so eager to learn and use the tools we have that I have had to offer lunch and after-school classes to meet their needs.  Students are talking about programming, coding and making constantly.”

Katie Nelson sums it up as follow: “I am most proud of the fact that the [Washburne] library is a place where students feel comfortable and want to be.  The students use the variety of resources constantly. Whether it is before school, after school, during lunch periods, or with an academic class, the library is always full of energy and learning.  Even as the concept of a ‘library’ continues to shift away from just a space, it is great to see our library media center as a destination students are drawn to.”

Jennifer Lanier also points out that the redesign of the library media center, using design thinking principles, has provided a model for others. “The design thinking process has been used by several of the faculty already.  This is the best way to impact the larger student body.  Our goal is that this type of learning will continue to expand through the entire building."

At A Glance

Contributors to this article are:

  • Todd Burleson, Resource Center Director, Hubbard Woods Elementary School, Winnetka, IL
  • Diane Fontinell (@Halstead_LMS), Library Media Specialist, Halstead Academy, Baltimore County Public Schools, Baltimore, MD
  • Jennifer Lanier (@LanierinLibrary), Media Specialist, Summit Parkway Middle School, Richland School District Two, Columbia, SC
  • Katie Nelson (@lookitup1514), Resource Center Director, Washburne Middle School, Winnetka, IL 

Learn More

The Zen Librarian -- Todd Burleson’s blog

The Creation of SPMS Creative Commons -- Jennifer Lanier’s blog

Make Space by the design institute of Stanford

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