Recently, I’ve been looking back through photos of my media center at Stewart Middle Magnet from the past five years. I’m working on a conference presentation for the Florida Association for Media in Education about transforming library spaces. As I look back over these photos, I’m struck by how the space slowly evolved over this span of time. It’s easy to just focus on all the big sweeping changes we made in the summer of 2014 when we got our Lowes Toolbox Grant for $5,000 and used several DonorsChoose projects to create a makerspace and flexible learning commons area. But a lot of important changes happened before 2014, and I realized that many of them are very budget friendly and easy for anyone to do, no matter what situation they’re in. So rather than focusing on the big, overarching themes about learning space design or big, transformative renovations, I want to focus on simple changes that are approachable for anyone.
Less is more
One of the easiest changes to make to your space is to get rid of the things you don’t really need. When I first got to Stewart five years ago, the library had been badly neglected. There was an excess of furniture and shelving, making it difficult to walk around without bumping into things. It had been decades since anyone weeded–there were books on the shelves that hadn’t been checked out since the seventies. We still had a set of card catalog drawers and an atlas stand that wasn’t used. My first few years were mostly spent purging. I weeded aggressively. I cleared off unneeded floor shelving units that were taking up huge amounts of floor space and had the district remove them. I got rid of the random unused teacher desks that were scattered throughout the library. I gradually got rid of the reference section as I realized that our databases were much more current. Removing so much from the library was a little scary, but it was also liberating. Suddenly, there was breathing room again. Students started to feel more comfortable in the space. And it paved the way for further improvements, like grants for new books that the students actually wanted to read.
Don’t have wall space? Make some.
When I first got to Stewart, every inch of available wall space was taken up by shelving (which was all picture book deep, but that’s another story). There were even wall shelves in odd dark corners behind teacher desks. As I weeded and weeded and weeded, shelves were starting to clear out, and I realized that I needed to make my own wall space. I cleared out some shelves and had the district come and remove them. Suddenly, I had space for a repurposed bulletin board that wasn’t being used in another classroom. And a wall-mounted magazine rack that I was able to purchase with bookfair money. Later on, having shelves removed allowed us to mount a whiteboard and projector for our instruction space, and cleared up room for our Epic LEGO Wall and whiteboard wall. I did have to reduce our collection size over time to do this (from 20,000 books when we were stocked to the gills to around a comfortable 10,000 now) but the weeding mostly focused on books that had never been checked out, so I wasn’t cutting into the books my students were reading.
Play house and rearrange your furniture
I’m a bit of a nerd for organization, so early on in my career, I created a to-scale rendering of my library in Excel, complete with each of the items of furniture as movable objects (I realize there’s probably better programs for this now). I can move around the furniture and try out different layouts without having to break a sweat. This let me see the possibilities that we could have with our space. Eventually, it helped me to do things like rearranging our wooden tables to create more room in our instruction space. It helped me see that we could turn around our fiction floor shelving units to make a better use of the space and create reading nooks. It took a little sweat and effort (and recruiting several custodians to help move the heavy shelves), but it was an easy and free way to change things up for the better.
Get creative to source new ideas
Many school districts have furniture warehouses for items that schools have gotten rid of. Get to know whoever is in charge of this space – I’ve used old circular cafeteria tables in our makerspace, gotten free whiteboards and bulletin boards, and more. Since it’s already owned by the district, I don’t have to worry about having a budget for it.
Depending on how strict your fire code is, garage sales and IKEA are great places to find affordable and student friendly furnishings. There’s also funding sources out there if you know how to look. DonorsChoose is a great way to get Hokki stools, cozy carpets and decorations. Many grants can be used to get furniture if you can frame your essay around how the new furniture can facilitate collaboration and improve student learning (I’ve gathered some resources on finding grants for your library on my blog).
Keep on dreaming
All of these changes are easy and budget friendly, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t still dream big. Rather than just accepting the heavy wooden tables that came with my library, I kept dreaming and eventually got a grant to replace them with flexible furniture. Rather than accepting that the library would always be a dull beige, I gathered together a group of volunteers and repainted everything over the summer. And I’m still dreaming that one day, a generous benefactor will help us build a brand new, state of the art library building (or at least tear some holes in the walls and give me windows). Always be dreaming.