Have you heard the old proverb about the moth being drawn to a flame? That’s me, but I’m drawn to disorder. Crazy, right! Having a deep need to reorganize the messy things in life is both a blessing and a curse, but it makes for a natural pairing with the library. Libraries, by their very character, are prone to gather items that clutter the landscape. Technology, discards, cords, posters, and many mystery items can accumulate astronomically in no time.
No one feels included in a library that is a mess. As a matter of fact, the converse is true. It is the antithesis of welcoming, and soon you find that students and staff avoid it.
Changes should be considered when:
- People audibly gasp when they enter the library
- The fire marshal has threatened to shut down the facility
- Clean up may take weeks, months, or even years
Rusty Hall, the principal at Old Town Elementary School (OTES), hired me as the librarian in May 2016 and told me it needed a little work. Of course, that didn’t bother me at all. I knew I could handle it. However, my first look at the OTES library made my heart sink. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do the clean-up, but I wasn’t sure I had the energy for the task at hand. The job was just too big.
Take a deep breath
At first glance, I saw tattered posters, boxes stacked everywhere, and way too many shelving units and tables. There was not a clear sight line to any corner. Did I mention my heart sunk? Standing there, unwilling to cross the threshold and claim the space as my own, I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. I’m sure I took several more before I pulled out my phone, stepped into the room, and started snapping pictures to chronicle what I knew would be an adventure.
No doubt about it, transforming a library is hard work. At the same time, it’s a long-term commitment. Consequently, before you ever start, you need to take the time to mentally prepare yourself for that fact. Equally important is to keep your end goal in mind: it is worth the effort! Keeping your students and staff in mind makes the job a bit easier. Because, first and foremost, your stakeholders will be the benefactors as you begin to transform the environment into one that is inviting, safe, and flexible.
First step: Plan of action
Initially, I had no idea where to start. In addition, it was the first week of summer, and we had a family vacation planned. As much as I needed every minute of work time, starting would have to wait. That vacation turned out to be the perfect respite. It gave me precious planning time. That along with those pictures as a point of reference gave me the time and information I needed to create a thoughtful plan. While it went through several iterations, the outline below is what I ended up with.
Adopt a vision
In addition to wanting the library to be clean and safe, I really wanted much more. I wanted a bright and shiny library that was a warm, inviting space that would be easily accessible to all the students. At the time, this still seemed a pipe dream, but I tried to picture my vision in this library. OK, so it took an enormous amount of imagination! But with each little bit accomplished, that vision became clearer and clearer. There was actually one more item in my overall vision. I wanted to use what we already had to keep costs down.
I did not have to do this alone, and neither will you! Family and friends pitched in, and the custodians were incredibly helpful. Besides those near and dear to me, I’ve recruited businesses, church groups, and high school students looking for community service and project opportunities to help in the library.
When items are everywhere, the temptation is to just start tossing. The first thing we did was to make piles of anything that looked like it could be used again (like posters) or just saved for a more careful perusal (financials). Everything else went directly into the recycle bin. While our fabulous custodian team willingly agreed to help take out the trash, they had no idea how much trash they would be carting to the dumpster and recycle bin!
With the landscape clear, a more careful look was in order. My husband not only stripped years of posters, but he also became a master at getting old dry adhesive to break free. In the meantime I reorganized books into three distinct sections: picture books, chapter books, and nonfiction. I also color-coded those sections. Everything had moved, so the colors helped define the new sections to say nothing of adding just a little bit of pop into the bland space.
One of my goals was to eliminate a few of the many shelving units, while making the remaining shelves attractive and accessible. In addition, I completed the first round of weeding, targeting books that were old or in disrepair, so shelves were quickly condensed in this stage. One other challenge we faced was that the fiction section was in mid-genre-fication. Mr. Hall liked this idea, so he asked to keep the genre-fying moving forward. So, in addition to shifting and weeding, we continued genre-fying.
After the first round of purging, file cabinets, storage cabinets, and book shelves sat unused, and they needed to be removed. Finally the library lost its small, cramped feeling and really opened up.
Reflect and reassess
Breaking the work into stages worked well for me. I have a terrible tendency to jump into things and make a big mess, then decide that wasn’t the best approach! So the plan was a definite time saver. As we worked, I reassessed the plan almost daily. I wanted to do huge amounts of weeding as I moved books, and I soon realized that there wasn’t enough time to make that happen with any kind of fidelity. We needed to move quickly, so any weeding that didn’t involve physical condition would have to wait.
Not surprisingly, there were times when work stopped completely for problem solving. Other things just had to be worked around until a solution could be found. As a matter of fact, what turned out to be a big problem was the location of 12 desktops. They and their accompanying computer tables sat right in front of the interactive board making for an awkward teaching area. As much as I wanted to move the desktops and free up that space, I worked around them for a full year before a solution presented itself!
The final product
At the beginning, I thought I knew what I wanted the library to look like. I’m pretty good at stripping a room clean in my mind, or at least I thought I was. In reality, I had no idea how this library could shine until we reached a certain point in the process. Different area layouts became clearer as now unused furniture was removed. As a result, a beautiful and extremely large space was revealed. A space that provided unlimited possibilities for furniture arrangement, station locations, and all types of equipment like the Read and Ride bikes that I got with a Donor’s Choose project!
Due to the huge square footage, I tried numerous possibilities before semi-settling into something workable for all stakeholder groups. My rearranging habit is a running joke at OTES, so I don’t know that things will stay this way!
It’s too common
Once I began sharing my experience, I started hearing from other librarians in similar situations to say nothing of my own district. Librarians Kristina Morris, Easton Elementary School, and Michele Hughes, Philo-Hill Magnet Academy, are both transforming their libraries to make them inviting and safe.
Kristina has been at Easton for a little over a year now and has made tremendous progress. Look at how she utilized the stacks of VHS tapes by turning them into shelf signs. The Easton library transformation has been amazing to watch. I was fortunate to be on call to see this beautiful library emerge and wish we had more of the before pictures to show you. Please make sure to include picture taking in your plan!
In contrast, Michele just moved into the library at Philo-Hill, but look at the progress she’s made in just a few short weeks. Volunteers from a regional bank helped her by adding wheels to many of her shelving units. What a great way to add flexibility to the space! And look at how much more inviting the fiction section is by shifting and weeding.
How about you?
Are you facing a similar challenge and looking for ways to make turn your library into a warm and inviting, not to mention safe, place? Or have you already met the challenge and transformed your library to one that is inviting and flexible? Please share your stories and pictures about your plans, progress, and exciting outcomes!
Author: Bitsy Griffin
Bitsy Griffin is the school librarian and technology facilitator for Old Town ES in Winston Salem, NC. She has 25+ years experience in elementary, middle, and high schools as a math teacher and librarian. She serves on the Board of Directors for the North Carolina School Library Media Association and is active in ALA as a Councilor-at-large and AASL Affiliate Assembly as the Region 4 Rep. Find her blog at http://www.bitsygriffin.com