Space and the Elementary School Library

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“The question is whether the library is capable of transforming itself from the industrial society’s book-library to meet the demands of the knowledge society.” – Hellen Niegaard, 2011

Context

I am particularly interested in how school libraries, elementary, middle and high school levels, are responding to twenty-first century challenges and beginning to reconstruct and reimagine space along with information systems and services. I chose to look at Olympic View Elementary in NE Seattle because it is my child’s school and I am invested in its ability to respond to the question: “What’s the point of the library when we have Google?” (Niegaard, 2011).

The Olympic View Elementary School is located in the Maple Leaf neighborhood, north of the University district. The first civic institution, the Maple Leaf Post Office opened in 1889 when the neighborhood was a subdivision of Green Lake Circle. The neighborhood boundaries remain the same: NE 85th and 105th and 5th Avenue NE and 25th Avenue NE.

The Maple Leaf School District was organized in 1907. Initially it was made up of dirt roads and a collection of orchards and residential houses.  As of 2007, the demographics of the 400+ students are 14% Asian, 63% Caucasian, 9% Hispanic, 10% African-American and 3% American Indian. It has a teacher ratio of 20:1. The latest building erected in the late 1980s includes: a day care center, staff parking and an expanded bus and passenger loading zone. One of the school’s architectural landmarks is its sundial built in 1998 and draws visitors from outside Seattle.

Layout

The school’s library is on the second floor next to the arts studio both of which, due to budget cuts, classrooms visit once a week. The library has a traditional information and reference desk close to the front door–positioned so that the librarian can scan the entire space, approximately 700 square feet quickly.  The rest of the library is divided into four sections; a section of computer terminals (30); a section of shelves (the outer perimeter of the room and four rows) organized by Dewey Decimal Classification scheme along with two supply rooms.  One supply room contains a small meeting table (for up to six people) for private teacher conversations. The other supply room contains instruments related to book repair and books that have been weeded. In the main space, there are two six-foot tables with chairs and three cushioned benches that can be moved or removed depending on need (the annual book fair and other special events). Mostly teaching staff uses the computers and generally off-limits to students when not used for specific assignments or tests.

New Technology

The library has an online presence and a public website with access, both in and outside of the school building, to online resources through a student/parent login. The online resources, that are created at the district level, include eBooks (i.e. Tumblebooks); encyclopedias; health and literary databases; magazines and newspapers; bibliographic guides; and subject-specific sites. There are two computers that can be used by students, with guidance from teachers, parents and/or the librarian. These computers are on a table next to the information desk, away from the computer lab and are used for ad hoc searching for materials. The computers are heavily filtered and only library-specific sites can be accessed.

In 2010, the librarian created a Facebook account but as of mid-2012 it only has an audience of six otherwise known as “fans” and the library specific content the librarian creates: book reviews; lib guides; event notifications; photos have moved to a password-protected PTA website via Ning. The school library’s digital identity is faint at best.  Due to current age limitations on access and use of Web 2.0 tools in the public domain, it is understandable that an elementary school library would be hesitant to jump onto the open web.

The Future

Fred Schlipf (2011) suggests that libraries need to be “well-lighted, comfortable, safe, secure, flexible in use, expandable, and with low occupancy costs [and] attractive.” The Olympic View Elementary School Library is most of these things. However, its transition from book-library to knowledge-library is incomplete. In order to become a space for twenty-first century knowledge acquisition, the library must create additional opportunities, through its space, for the development of a true “expermentarium” (Niegaard, 2011). To stay relevant, the school library must be a space of creativity and reflection, of making and thinking.  This means buying interactive whiteboards, laptops, flat screens and other videoconferencing tools. It also means embedding and extending the library outside its designated space, bringing programs, tools and new experiences into indoor and outdoor subject classrooms, for example, the learning gardens of PS 19 in Queens, New York. Libraries must embed themselves into the school’s culture fully.

The joys of books will remain, however, the facilitation of book acquisition, as the library’s primary goal will most likely fade away.  Instead of mourning its loss, librarians must see the possibilities in this change. The designers of the Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park and the Brooklyn Botanical Garden Visitors Center (Weiss/Manfredi) have started to re-imagine public school libraries in New York City, funded in part by the Robin Hood Foundation. With its movable furniture and technology infused open-spaces their libraries create opportunities of quiet reflection and dynamic project-based team interaction, which this is the school library’s future.

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