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THE NEW MEDIA CENTER–Integrating Technology Then … And Now: From Computer Lab to Design Flexibility

By Mary Alice Anderson - Posted Mar 1, 2017
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Integrating technology in education was a catalyst for significantly repurposing the physical structure and programs of school media centers. As my district reconfigured existing media centers and constructed new facilities, we included multiple labs within each. The labs were a natural fit, heavily used, and often booked weeks in advance.

That was then; this is now. What was once essential is now obsolete. What is happening to all of those labs and computer areas now that 1:1 technology is widespread? How are labs being redesigned, dismantled, or repurposed for new learning environments? What media center design features no longer work?

I shared these questions with discussion groups and received numerous insightful and interesting responses. There are exciting changes taking place as media specialists continue to respond to change.

The first response, from an elementary media specialist, echoed my thoughts regarding a list I posted (see below). “Some I fought against at the time and some I fought for and feel really dumb about now!”

• Dedicated computer labs with desks and rolly chairs

• Hardwired internet

• Study carrels

• Lots of shelving for nonfiction books

• Not enough comfortable seating at both high school and elementary

Repurposed Labs

Not surprisingly, many respondents reported labs are no longer used for whole class instruction or activities. The elementary media specialist noted above explained, “We took the old boat anchors out and kept the tabletop desks and rolly chairs. The elementary computer lab was repurposed as a Makerspace but really only stores stuff such as OSMOs, robots, picture puzzles and Legos and coloring books.” The lab has extensive storage cabinets, a good feature, no matter how the space is used.

Labs that were centers of curriculum activity are now used for testing, printing, or specialty software that cannot be used on tablets. Typically, labs in many schools are being converted to makerspaces or spots for STEM and coding activities. One individual wrote, “One of our labs became a classroom; one became a flex room with moveable desks and white board walls; teachers reserve the space as they did the lab.” Virtual reality rooms and filming areas were also mentioned as new uses for “contained” labs. A former “open lab” situated on tables in the middle of a senior high media center was dismantled to allow for more collaborative space. Staff want to replace a permanent wall between two semi-open labs with a moveable wall for more collaborative spaces.

From my perspective, labs that are open to other parts of the media center, U-shaped, and have enough space to allow for movement and collaboration are the best and most functional. Although it was separate from the media center, a “team lab” in one of our schools was intentionally designed for collaborative learning with bean-shaped seating areas; it was a great learning environment. These types of lab designs may work well in newer learning environments. Classroom-style labs, sometimes a teacher preference, were the most difficult for teaching and made collaboration impossible; it’s hard to imagine those labs having a future.

More Changes

Check-out desks are on the way out in one district. “They are dismantling check-out desks; we now have more room and more stands with iPads for looking up books and checkout,” said one of my respondents. Dedicated online catalog stations are a thing of the past in other districts because students can access the catalog using mobile devices. Media staff are managing Chrome books or iPads along with traditional resources through various check-out systems for students and classrooms that do not have their own devices.

Charging stations are a possible reuse for dedicated catalog stations. A middle school media specialist said, “I put in a lot of electrical outlets, but now could use some USB charging areas.” Knowing how power adapters and cable are too easily lost, I envision a pretty decent-sized bank of assorted cables to accommodate charging needs that invariably arise.

The Need for Quiet

Numerous comments about noise caught me off guard:

• “We moved towards creating a collaborative environment but we swung the pendulum too far; students came back to us and asked for more quiet spaces.”

• “My students have asked specifically for quiet space and we don’t currently have the ability to provide that. I would like to turn the lab into a quiet room.”

• “We have struggled to create quiet spaces that the students are asking for. We don’t have anything to absorb sound either.”

Senior high students find quiet in a large multipurpose room that is part of the 10-year-old media center in one school. The media specialist said, “The soft seating area overlooking the lake is crowded and noisy in the morning; kids are asking for quiet spaces so we open the multipurpose room up for them.” He also rearranged the rectangular room to include a center presentation area and curved seating so it is more intimate. Teachers like to use the room for collaborative projects that can’t easily be done in smaller classrooms.


Open design concepts and close proximity to the school’s core—popular ideas in recent decades—contribute to noise problems and basic daily functioning.

One of my respondents wrote, “Our building is only 20 years old; the worst design mistake was designing a two-story media center. The semi-open second floor is noisy, and noise control is our biggest issue.”

Another concurred: “I honestly thought I was losing my hearing when I started working here because I couldn’t hear students speaking to me from the other side of the desk. I moved the teaching area to another part of the media center. Students comment on how much quieter it is there, and that they feel as if they can concentrate better.”

Here are some other design errors not conducive to new ways of learning:

• Media centers not large enough for faculty meetings or very large groups

• Too few electrical outlets

• Too many large windows that let in morning or afternoon sun

• Multi-level or sunken spaces that limit flexibility

We cannot return to the days of “Shhh,” closed-in box-like spaces, or a location that is not central. But a balance is needed between spaces for collaborative, engaged learning and spaces for quiet pursuits—a balance that falls somewhere between boring, box-like designs and wow-factor facilities.

Fewer Books, Fewer Shelves

It’s no surprise. We saw this even before the rapid onset of 1:1 learning. Nonfiction use has especially declined at the secondary level. Staff are continuously weeding and rearranging existing shelving to create new spaces, improve site lines, and provide better supervision. This also gives more space to other things and makes the area a learning space rather than a book warehouse.

However, most media centers still have books! And students still enjoy reading. One librarian noted to me, “Our middle school students love our reading loft, which is a very special place.” Have a look at the video “Design for Learning: Media Center,” from Minetonka (Minn.) Schools, in which a middle school student shares excitement about finding books for language immersion programs.

Flexibility, Portability

Flexibility and portability are the key takeaways from the responses. As shown in the “Design for Learning” video, almost everything (except for a few wall-mounted TVs and curtain partitions hanging from the ceiling) is portable, on wheels, and easily reconfigured in a middle school redesign. There are spaces for everybody; students like different shapes for seating and different heights of tables. It all provides a new dynamic and a change of pace for both students and teachers.

Heavy, oversized furniture is out; folding tables you can reconfigure or movable and smaller furniture is ideal. One media specialist would like to acquire multi-modal flexible seating centered on group work. He wants something “that can be torn apart, torn down, and rearranged for group mentality and up to 8 people. The area should also have media connectivity for devices, or small flat screen.” Several people mentioned a need for portable, rather than fixed, smart boards to serve changing needs. Flexibility includes serving the community. Said one respondent, “I am so glad I fought for an outside entrance to the high school media center and its own restroom. That room can be used and is for public meetings and gatherings.”

Flexibility and adaptability are essential skills for media specialists. One librarian explained, “We are no longer seeing 600–700 students a day like we did in the past when the labs were busy. We went from being a zoo to totally different. It really hit us that we have to reach out more.” Instead of managing book collections and labs, they are managing devices and working staff and students in new ways. Some noted the role that media center coffee shops and cafes have in creating the collaborative and welcoming atmosphere and, in one school, providing job training for students.

The dynamics of the media center are changing: As one media specialist put it, “We’ve used our library media centers as the ‘sandbox’ for experimentation to find what works, because we know that every dollar you spend in the library has the potential to impact every student, versus outfitting one classroom.”

Flexibility is today’s natural fit.

Thank you to more than 20 media specialists from Minnesota and other states who responded to requests posted on Minnesota’s ITEM list and LM_NET. January 2017. Extra thanks to Minnesota media specialists Wanda Erickson (Upsala) and Lisa Gearman (Chaska), who shared extensive comments and a video; Dave Eisenmann (Minnetonka), who shared the “Design for Learning” video; and Jeremy Graves (Winona) for the phone interview and reconfiguring a media center I helped design less than 15 years ago.

Contact Mary Alice at


Anderson, Mary Alice. Facilities: Designing School Library Media Centers;

Eisenmann, Dave, Minnetonka (Minnesota) Schools, “Design for Learning: Media Center”;

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