5 ways to turn school libraries into collaborative learning spaces

February 2, 2016 Jim Chatas

Transforming traditional school libraries into media-rich, collaborative learning commons can be beneficial for students.


The pressures on our school communities never seem to relent. Chief among them:  do more, with less. This is especially true in my home state of Pennsylvania where funding for education has been severely curtailed and the state budget is in flux.

As a school architect, I see school administrators facing this reality every day. Learning outcomes and enabling technologies must advance, even in the face of static funding formulas. In many situations, this drives a decision to renovate, rather than replace, aging school buildings.

Sure, it can present a challenge, but I’ve come to see renovation as a golden opportunity, especially when it comes to re-imagining the old school workhorse: the library.

When building new is not, or should not, be an option, our clients are finding success in transforming school libraries from quiet study-focused, print-based spaces into hands-on, collaborative, and media-rich “learning commons.” 

Airport Community Schools Learning Common

What attributes should a highly responsive learning commons possess? At a minimum, I consider:

Technology: Spaces must have the infrastructure to support current technologies and anticipate those of the future. Media activity rooms and technology-rich environments provide students with the ability to view and generate a variety of visual presentations. For example, speech prep rooms allow users to practice, capture, and receive feedback on presentations, and emerging technology rooms provide space to test the latest education delivery platforms.

However, many of these media-rich spaces are beyond the capacity for traditional libraries to support. To this end, implementing mutually beneficial partnerships with other departments, such as Information Technology (IT), can be a creative way to garner this support. These partnerships provide a public face to the IT department while allowing the library to host more robust student interactions.

Collaboration: Collaborative learning pedagogy must also be supported in our new libraries. By anticipating students’ academic needs, libraries are providing areas for team-based projects, informal group learning, and presentations.

Flexibility: Movable furniture and temporary wall partitions serve not only the long-term function of a space but also short-term needs for flexible work environments. When students are allowed to reconfigure their work environment, they will find ways to create the most conducive environment for collaboration and optimal learning.

Sociability:  Social space is a critical ingredient to the success of a learning commons. To fully engage students, learning commons should look to the hospitality and retail industries for best practices: the aroma of coffee, the buzz found in cafes, and the service strategies found in retail and hospitality help set a new tone for the library.

Service: The role of the librarian is transforming into a technically astute navigator of knowledge. They are using a meet-and greet approach to engage and transfer their skills to the library users. They are often found throughout the facility as opposed to stationed behind a single, centralized desk to encourage interaction.

In an ideal world, all learning environments would contain these attributes to effectively support teaching and learning. But if resources are tight, transforming the traditional library to an innovative and interactive learning commons can bridge the gap between maintaining status quo and meeting new challenges with confidence.


About the Author

Jim Chatas

Growing up with an architect gave Jim insight into the life and the vision required in the profession. He has dedicated his entire career to education architecture, focusing on K-12 and higher education.

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