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IDEA WATCH: Reinventing Libraries for the Future–Part 2

By Carolyn Foote - Posted Mar 1, 2016
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To reinvent libraries, we have to be the future we want to see. In my previous column, I wrote about trends that hold opportunities for libraries, many based on the Center for the Future of Libraries’ trending blog. Another document influencing public libraries is the Aspen Institute’s “Rising to the Challenge: Re-Envisioning Public Libraries” (, the outcome of a dialogue on the future roles of public libraries. The institute’s dialogue “is a multi-stakeholder forum to explore and champion new thinking on U.S. public libraries, with the goal of fostering concrete actions to support and transform public libraries for a more diverse, mobile and connected society.” Like public libraries, school libraries and librarians are in transition. Identifying trends in the Aspen Institute report can provide valuable insights into new thinking about school libraries.

According to ALA, there are more than 98,000 school libraries in the United States ( The sheer number of libraries gives teacher librarians tremendous opportunities to engage with students and lead conversations about the future in their schools. “Rising to the Challenge” reminds us that, in the digital environment, people need the ability to access information in quick bites, learn how to interpret that information, and have spaces to gather and have creative conversations around that information. The report identified three areas that are central to libraries: people, place, and platform. How can we leverage those three capacities for school libraries in our practice as innovative teacher librarians?


Libraries are a people center for the school, a hub that connects teachers and students to each other and to information. The concept of a school library has broadened from a warehouse to “their house”—a student hub for meeting, learning, reading, and collaborating. It encompasses the Learning Commons concept, where people and skill sets from around a school may be localized in one central location (although this is still rare in schools). For example, our campus locates the instructional ed-techs near the library, the iPad help desk inside the library, and has transformed our former ninth grade library into more of a gathering spot for students and large groups of classes. And now the campus instructional partners are located there as well.

This powerhouse team can step into our New Teacher Academy, for example, and work together to help teachers to develop new lessons. I might give the teacher resources for the lesson, while our ed-tech provides the tools that will work best for that class. Embracing these broadened roles is a trend that is energizing innovative school libraries across the country. As the “Rising to the Challenge” report notes, librarians “serve many roles, as coaches, mentors, facilitators and teachers more than as sources of information.” The report also states, “An intelligent community, not large circulation numbers, is the primary library goal.”

Buffy Hamilton, media specialist at Chattahoochee High School (Fulton County Schools, Ga.) exemplifies those roles. She shares many examples of these collaborations on her blog, The Unquiet Librarian (, such as one with her AP studio art teacher Dorsey Sammataro, with whom she co-taught the write-around process. As Buffy told me, “School librarians wear so many hats these days, and the roles we play vary widely depending on the needs of our learning community. In the last few years, though, I feel the most important and interesting work I do with teachers is to serve as an instructional coach. I help teachers tweak assignment/instructional design, introduce new strategies or learning structures, explore alternate formative and summative assessments, and co-pilot the implementation those approaches and adjustments—it’s easier to take a risk as a teacher and learner when you have a partner!” This change in the profession to amplify the teacher role of librarians deepens the work we can do with students.


As we do the people work, we also work to create a place, a “third space” for students to interact with one another and ideas of their own choosing. The Aspen Institute report identifies libraries as places that help users “establish personal connections, provide an anchor for neighborhoods, strengthen community, provide a safe location and create other connecting spaces.” Trends around library redesign are creating a lot of buzz in schools, as the idea of book warehouses begins shifting to what librarians always knew they were—flexible instructional spaces. The trend in mobile furnishing toward flexible spaces is exemplified by pieces from companies such as Bretford, VS, and Steelcase. The moveable curved shelves in the VS Shift line of furniture, for example, emphasize that even the books can be “mobile” and an active part of the learning. Current library design focuses on the learning, bringing students together in collaborative settings, making spaces for what Randall Fielding calls “watering holes and performance spaces” in his book, co-authored with Prakash Nair, The Language of School Design: Design Patterns for 21st Century Schools.

As well as creating future-proofed, wired, flexible spaces, librarians are creating spaces that are responsive to the current trend of SEL (social emotional learning). Remembering all types of student needs, libraries are carving out cave spaces for students who need alone time, quiet spaces (in active libraries), and hosting activities to engage students in building relationships. In our library, we even use “passive” design to connect with students—using Plexiglas boards as conversation pieces with students by posting surveys and questions. Michelle Cooper, librarian at White Oak ISD (White Oak, Texas), created a “Wonder board” with a question of the day posted on a whiteboard at the entrance to the library. We have created a similar board with places for students to post their own “questions of the day.”

In regards to technology, we are beginning to observe a trend of students not having just one device, but multiple devices. This also impacts design. We have to design spaces that incorporate enough power to support the technology. Our own libraries in the district have pulled in the iPad “help desk” into the library so that it is easily accessed by students. This trend toward convenience for students mirrors consumer trends like “fast casual” restaurants (i.e., Chipotle or Zoe’s). Teacher librarians need to embrace this by making their own spaces and services less “institutional” and more responsive to students who, at the secondary level, may only have a few minutes to come by the library.

Library as Platform

A third component of libraries that the Aspen Institute report identified is libraries as platforms—vehicles for programs that empower students and staff. The trend of makerspace areas in libraries has become so powerful because it empowers learners to become creators and inventors, using the library’s platforms (stuff, space, web resources) as a jumping-off point. Makerspaces can go far beyond the typical robotics style setting, however, and public libraries have led this trend with sewing spaces, crafting spaces, writing spaces, and more.

School librarians can also consider how building a variety of “making” into their libraries can be powerful, whether it is making video book trailers, such as Naomi Bate’s students did in Northeast ISD in San Antonio, or making spine poetry like our elementary library students do. “Rising to the Challenge” identifies the role of libraries as bringing resources together, helping students find what they need. The entrepreneurial trend that is starting to sweep through high schools is an example of how libraries can become resource bridges to the community outside their campuses. Our own campus has several Shark Tank and entrepreneurial efforts, including a project in our AP environmental science classes for students to form their own nonprofits. As the librarian, I’m the liaison to the “research” team in the class and an advisor to the marketing team as well.

Entrepreneurship in school curriculums is a trend librarians need to engage in. Similarly, passion projects, genius projects, or efforts such as the Sherry Glick and Matthew Winner collaboration, GeniusCon, are trends that are focused on personalized learning for students. Libraries are ideally positioned to meet the personal needs of students in a way that no other part of the school really can from a system standpoint.

Unified Library Services

Another trend or need identified in the Aspen Institute report is the need to unify library services. Libraries jumped on this trend with their catalogs far before many other institutions, but bridges between types of libraries are quite limited in other respects. With the ability to network so easily, how can we reach beyond our own walls as librarians and connect with other libraries (or supporting institutions such as museums) so that we are no longer educational silos within our own walls? Vendors are recognizing this trend and starting to build connections between one another, but libraries are quite siloed. We share a mission, and those siloes do not serve us well, either economically or for our patrons’ sakes. Looking beyond the school library silo at the kinds of documents the Aspen Institute report provides will allow us to identify and build on the best practices of the library profession.

As school libraries move forward, identifying trends such as those pinpointed in the Aspen Institute report helps us to be more responsive to an ever-changing environment. We can create the future of what we want libraries to be by making changes today, embracing consumer and educational trends, and identifying the needs of our students as they move forward. Raising students who understand that libraries are vibrant, active places that support their learning will help create lifelong library users. And, more importantly, lifelong learners.

Contact Carolyn Foote at

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