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THE NEW MEDIA CENTER: Media Center Design Principles Worth Fighting For

By Mary Alice Anderson - Posted Sep 1, 2015
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“It’s been such a good thing for the school!” The comment from Julie, a parent involved in planning a new high school media center implemented a decade ago, summed it up well. Yes, it was and still is a good thing. And for me, it was one of several media-center-planning experiences. But what would I do now? Are the media centers we were proud of that many years ago still adequate and functional?

Planning was once relatively prescriptive. We considered the number of square feet needed per student; shelving for books and magazines; designated spots for circulation, reference, conference rooms, storage, and perhaps for some, a video production studio; a teaching classroom; soft seating; and, by the early 1980s, computer labs. Within a few years, school-wide internet access and wireless technology added further complexity to the decision making. The challenge of making good decisions about facilities continues to evolve.


Would we even need much space at all when technology and access is everywhere? Would I still argue for multiple full computer labs in in an age of 1:1 technology or media center labs tied up for testing? Is it better to be a media specialist who goes where the kids are rather than a creating space that students come to? Do we need book shelving and the storage spaces that we fought for in the ’90s now that bulky equipment has gone away? These are tough questions, and there is no one right answer.

This column is not about measuring or planning for today’s educational environment and technology. Instead, it revisits design attributes that helped to make our media centers in newly constructed schools or new media centers in remodeled buildings “good things” for students—attributes that can continue to provide maximum benefits   as needs change. These attributes represent a cross section of general design concepts featured in six small and large elementary and secondary schools throughout 25 years.

Topics addressed are location, a welcoming environment, flexibility, functionality, and aesthetics. Some furnishing topics are also discussed. A few things may seem very obvious ... but they may not be obvious to some of the decision makers involved in the planing process. No single media center has each feature, of course, but collectively they represent what I would do again.

Here is my list!

• Transparent information access in all media centers. Information is information, no matter the format. Students must have equitable and simultaneous access to all formats.

• A true central location that is the heart of the school. Two media centers are located close to all classrooms, school offices, and main entrances to provide very convenient access for students, parents, and community. One is accessed from the central school commons; another has an outside door for community access in the evenings and for students in the summer.

• A location that is conducive to working with natural partners. My first planning experience was a secondary facility in a new wing added to the school. The computer science classroom/lab, the audio-visual department, and media center shared separate but connected spaces. The physical arrangement encouraged partnering and learning about emerging technologies with other staff.

• An inviting, glass-walled and angled entrance with comfy seating and student-friendly decor welcoming elementary students to enjoy their new learning spaces. The angle and foyer were created to make a new media center in former classrooms look less boxy. This design feature added costs that have paid off in aesthetics.

• Entrances that “branch off” to specific areas of the media centers so patrons can enter without disturbing each other. In one case, a walkway leads students past special collection displays and to a conference room and a technology project area.

• Natural light. During the planning phase, Julie said no place in the school ever seemed to make a big deal of the surrounding scenic beauty. It   is  a big deal in the new media center, where a large glass wall provides full view of a lake and hills. A new facility in a remodeled elementary school has huge windows on three walls; another features windows overlooking the school garden. Clerestory windows, skylights, and interior windows bring natural light into a media center that lacks outside walls.

• High ceilings. In many new media centers, this attribute creates a feeling of spaciousness. Windows into the media center from the halls or classrooms above allow people to see what positive activities are going on in the media center. Blinds can be used if needed.

• Spaces within the media center that teachers have  to use. In one school, a large room accessible from both the media center and hall includes tools and supplies that teachers need to use almost every day. The location is ideal is for touching base with teachers and staff who might not be media center users. (Better yet, a similar design in another district was also connected to the school office and teacher mailboxes.)

• Staff leisure reading collections and spaces within the media center. The collections are appealing to staff who like to read. They also encourage another type of media specialist/teacher interaction. (Our collections are donated, appreciated by readers, and well-used!)

• Stand-up, dedicated OPAC access that can be accessed quickly and without logging in. (This removes barriers and helps students become independent searchers.)

• Open technology using spaces (labs) that are not separate rooms and are visible from other parts of the media center, including the circulation/information desk. These spaces are on either side of large staff work areas in two schools. The locations enhance both supervision and assistance. School-wide and mobile technology access may make labs obsolete, but technology users still need space!

• U-shaped technology areas. The configuration offers a clear view of student work, making it easy to assist students. Student/teacher project work areas in the center add flexibility and support collaborative work. (An inflexible classroom style lab in one media center school inhibits both assistance and collaboration.)

• A “team lab” with bean-shaped work centers. Each has five to six computers for group work and enough space for students to work together. The space is also ideal for staff development or teacher planning.

• Accessible and functional conference rooms with a window to the rest of the media center, visible from the staff work area, available for use both by teachers and by students, including elementary students. (It proved worth fighting  
for in an elementary school.)

• Multi-purpose rooms that “belong” to the media center and are used for instruction, student project spaces, staff meeting rooms, and even community rooms. These are wonderful public-use and public relation spaces.

• Clearly defined areas for primary and intermediate level collections and activities in an elementary media center. Structural limitations dictated two separate but equally visible and equal sized areas.

• Nooks that create natural spaces for special resources or student use areas. (Think multimedia, technology, or makerspaces.) Nooks, like angles, add to construction cost, but contribute to functionality.

• Flexible, reconfigurable spaces that allow students and staff to use spaces for different activities during the course of a day, week, or academic term. (One-level media centers with easily reconfigured spaces will prove to be a good decision if building grade levels are redistributed.)

• Shelving and furnishings that can be reconfigured or moved to create different types of spaces as needs change. (Lightweight square tables that seat four offer more options than the heavy rectangle tables for six to eight which cannot easily be moved.)

• Information/circulation desks that accommodate multiple staff a workstations at varying heights.

• Abandoning the concept of a “work room.” The “control center” described just below can function as both, encourage staff visibility and be a storage center for often requested supplies or items.

• Opting for more student space over an office for the media specialist whose office is the “control center.

• Storage cabinets in storage rooms, technology use areas, and multi-purpose areas can be used to store supplies, seldom used resources, or ongoing student projects.

• Display spaces/cases for student projects that can be seen from both the hallways and within the media center. (Displaying student artwork is a huge draw.)

• Display spaces for school archives, community history, traveling exhibits or whatever might add to student learning and interest.

• Relaxation areas. My favorite? A large space in the media center “with a view,” defined as separate from the  carpeted area of the media center by wooden flooring, soft seating, and bistro tables. The space is popular with students and also for special school events such as press conferences, celebrations, unveilings, or athletic signings. It gets folks (and the press) into the media center!

Yes, Julie, we did some good things!


For a lot more on this subject, plus some great pictures that illustrate some of what I've discussed here, see Facilities: Designing School Library Media Centers, a collection of journal articles reflecting design experiences between 1999 and 2007.


Contact Mary Alice at

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