Designing the Research Commons: Classical Models for School Libraries

Article excerpt

School libraries and media centers today are embracing the idea of the "learning commons," an approach to learning which makes use of the facility's physical openness and group meeting places to facilitate current shifts towards computer-based resource sharing and collaborative student projects. How can libraries yet to make this transition reverse a prior, mid-twentieth-century architectural bent toward segmentation of school library resources from the surrounding institution, and implement a more inclusive school library design? The open library paradigm is shown to represent a return to the principles of the earliest democratic libraries and repositories in the Western tradition. A qualitative metasynthesis of both the literature of library architecture and of the history of school libraries was undertaken in order to increase librarians' awareness of classical forms which influence design decisions into the twenty-first century.


School librarians today perform many activities in their libraries including reference, cataloging, research instruction, reader's advisory, collection development, and facilitating group discussions. One or two school librarians may carry out these functions which in larger library institutions are assigned to dozens or hundreds of librarians. Additionally, school librarians today coordinate their work with academic teachers and with school-wide developments in curricula and learning techniques. Studying individual school libraries reveals them to serve as a kind of professional microcosm with valuable corollaries for the librarianship profession in general.

As school librarians and principals consider the role and function of school libraries in the life of an institution, an awareness of architectural elements which support desired outcomes can be valuable. In the 1990s, library administrators proposed that academic libraries reinvent their services to support student learning by providing access to electronic resources. In their view, the research commons would enable librarians to assist students in interacting and learning with digital technologies, while also provisioning space for small group work, projects using digital (and nondigital) technologies, and tutoring in various subject areas. Since the first discussions of the "learning / information commons" in that decade (Beagle, 1999; White, Beatty, & Warren, 2010), librarians continue to incorporate developments in facilities planning and investments in technology as key components, and the idea of the commons is steadily being adopted in school libraries. Bennett (2003, p. 37-38) defines "learning commons" and "information commons" separately, but in this paper, I reflect the term used by the source consulted, and also I acknowledge that both schools and school libraries are oriented toward younger (K-12) students' learning.

With the framework of the school learning commons in mind, this study seeks to integrate examples from classical libraries, from libraries of the Middle Ages, and from nineteenth-century American libraries into the discussion of a commons, with a goal of informing future design decisions in school library facilities. As in architecture more generally, library architecture may be guided by three notions which reflect the surrounding environment: structure, utility, and beauty, or as the Roman Vitruvius stated, firmitas, utilitas, venustas (Bruce, 1986). Recognizing both the role of the library as a central meeting space and the increased use of digital tools to conduct academic research, librarians and administrators continue to transform the library space into an "information commons," an environment which fulfils needs for work and study spaces while making accessible organized shelves and exhibitions of materials by adopting an open design principle. This principle is explored in a qualitative metasynthesis of research on library architecture and the evolution of school libraries, beginning prior to ancient Greece. …


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