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Environmental Psychology in the Field

How does library design impact librarians and teachers at work?

Do you remember your high school library? I don’t. OK, that’s a half-truth. I remember one library of the three high schools I attended. The school library in Saskatchewan did not seem used to its full extent. Teachers stayed in their classrooms—perhaps they knew they’d lose a few students during a class-wide relocation from one room to another. My high school’s library in British Columbia wasn’t on my radar either. I remember watching a movie there in grade 11. “Uncool” students would often eat their lunch at the tables near the door. Thus, the library was uncool, too. Sad but true.

The secondary school library I remember vividly was in the state of Minnesota. My family moved there during the last 6 months of 10th grade. I had two study halls in my timetable and, as a consequence of being the “new girl,” lacked a social network to spend breaks with between classes. So, I went to the library a lot. It seemed like a neutral zone for someone clique-less, but keen to keep up academically with new peers.

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The architecture of this particular school was such that the library had an abundance of natural light. The large skylights meant that the space brightened before other parts of the school. This was important because classes began very early in the morning, and many students used the library to meet their friends and chat before the bell rang. The library was a hub. I don’t recall staff telling students to be quiet, or to leave if a congregation got too large. The librarians seemed to think that the more people choosing to use the library (regardless of purpose), the better. This was a fortunate thing for me; I met my first friends in the library. Had it not been for the open attitude of the librarians, my formative conversations with new pals would have been shushed.

This summer I consulted on the renovation of a local high school’s library. There is a movement in educational literature toward altering school libraries to a ‘learning commons’ model. This model functionally and spatially integrates information technology and media services to assist users with learning and creativity. In a school, a learning commons can help students be fluent in technology and collaboration. It makes sense for 21st century school libraries to be social, knowledge-building spaces that offer virtual learning options along with traditional resources. Another goal of a learning commons is to help librarians transition students from schools to universities by centralizing access to technology, information, and human resources essential to academic life. Cool, ‘eh?

However, for a learning commons to work, smooth access to technology is a must. So is ensuring appropriate support for learning. Basically, the physical design of this new kind of library needs to encourage time spent planning, studying, and socializing. It must also offer defined spaces and furniture arrangements for isolated and collective work (this was what I was helping the local high school do over the summer).

As I considered the design advice I wanted to give the school, I came across an apparent gap in the literature concerning studies done to assess the effectiveness of the learning commons model with respect to teachers and librarians. The research seems weighted toward the measurement of student outcomes: achievement, engagement, retention, and satisfaction. Of course, this is not altogether surprising or uncompelling. But teacher and librarian engagement, collaboration, and efficiency on the job are important aspects that impact the variables against which students are measured in a learning commons. One study I came across acknowledged that modernizing library designs to reflect a fuller spectrum of knowledge suited both for academic research and personal enjoyment ought to enable school staff to better connect, and pursue shared educational goals. I like this line of thinking and feel a study measuring teacher outcomes with respect to recent library renovations to a learning commons is both timely and prudent. Luckily, the local school agreed!

Stay tuned for another blog post about this project when I’m further into the research process. My next task is to create valid and meaningful Likert scale questions with which to measure teacher and librarian attitudes and behaviors concerning their collaborations and efficiency in the school's new learning commons. As always, comments, ideas, or helpful hints are welcome; feel free to email me or post a comment. Be a part of environmental psychology in practice!

Lindsay J. McCunn, MSc is a Ph.D. candidate in environmental psychology at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.

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