Not My Library, Our Library

I know we all know that the library doesn’t really belong to us but do we really know that? I think deep down, myself included, there is a little voice sometimes that says my library.  It’s hard because you put so much time and effort into the space that you want to call it yours. But it really belongs to your students, your staff, your community. 

But how do you get that community feeling – the home-like feeling – in the library? There are many ways, but the most important that I’ve found is to ask your students and staff what they want, need, and want to see in the library. 

Welcome to All

By asking what my students and staff what they needed or wanted, I was able to get a clearer picture of what the library setup should look like and feel like. 

When I informally asked students what words came to mind when they thought of South’s library the first word that came to mind was their safe space. I knew that the library was the safe space for many students but had no idea that over 100 students would say that as the first thing that came to mind when thinking about the library. (I planned to ask more students, but with state testing, it was hard to get to the kids to ask and I didn’t want to send out an impersonal Google form). 

When I asked them why it was their safe space, many said they felt accepted in the space and knew they would never be harassed or bullied for who they are in the library. They said when they looked around they saw inclusivity:

Students said all of this and more that made the library a safe space. They told me that a huge part of it was me (excuse me while I ugly cry). But they also said the space overall had a good vibe. So how did that come to be? Let’s dive in!

Color and Positivity

Decorations and bright calming colors are where it’s at. The current space is painted tan and gray, which are super uplifting, let me tell you. So after talking with the kids first thing I started finding and making decorations. Now, all the decor didn’t all happen in my first year, because I spent my first year here at South asking students what they wanted to see their library look like. They all said brighter colors that were still calming. 

So I went to work. I found quotes that were about knowledge, books, libraries, being a better human, etc. and created them in cool backgrounds and fonts in Canva. I then printed them in color and either framed them (Dollar Tree and Walmart for the win on cheap frames) or laminated them and hung them with colorful push pins. I also had the kids submit their favorite quotes and used Canva to make them fancy. Some students even created their own fancified version of their quotes, which was all the more meaningful. 

I am a big believer in doing what is best for students and sometimes that means asking forgiveness and not permission. Two summers ago, I painted walls in the old computer lab area in the library to brighten it up as this area was to become our relaxation and meditation area (more on that in another blog post). The students helped me trace and paint a huge mandala on one wall and the other walls were painted a light yellow and light blue. (Tip: be sure to keep the extra paint because you can always use it to paint furniture or walls in the future.)

While I couldn’t paint the entire space myself – that would be too expensive to pay for out of my pocket, I injected color using colored table cloths to cover ceiling tiles. See my post here for the how-to. 

Student Art Displays

We have many talented artists here at South. And I am always looking for student artwork to hang in the library. Many students actually don’t want to keep their art so I ask them if I can keep it and hang it. So many are flattered that they say yes! I also make it known to the art teachers that I am always looking for any kind of art to hang or display in the library and they give me a lot that they have kept over the years – and a bonus is that sometimes they come framed and/or matted already! 

Comfortable Seating

That brings us to furniture. I have comfy chairs, a couch, side tables, bean bags, ball chairs, etc. and the students are allowed to move the furniture wherever they’d like. I try to remind them to put it back when they are done, but it doesn’t always happen, so I do put things back at the end of the day or have a library helper put things back. 

When I first started in the classroom 14 years ago, it was maddening to me to try to keep the desks straight and not to slowly creep up to the front of the room where I would sometimes teach from. As time progressed and I’ve been in the library for many years, I’ve let that go. If you want students to come into the library and utilize it, they need to be comfortable and if that means moving the furniture then by all means – move the furniture. 

We also have Read and Ride bikes (at least that’s what I call them). These are stationary bikes that have tabletops connected to them where handles usually are (and all the gizmos and electronics) so that students can read or work using paper/pencil or a computer. I will say that these don’t traditionally get moved because they are heavier, but the students love to work on them to release their extra energy or in some cases to wake up. 

Spaces for Everyone

We’ve established that libraries are no longer just for books, so one of the things that students and staff said they wanted were spots for different activities. Some students want a quiet place to read and study. Some want a place to relax and meditate. Others want a place to hang out. We also offer a VR station and games (puzzles, board games, card games) which can cause some noise. 

The noisier areas of the library are set to one corner area and the others on the other side to help with the noise difference. I’ve also had game day Fridays and advertised that so if students want total quiet they are prepared for what is happening in the library. I also have hosted quiet study/work days to balance out the noisier days. The activities in the library are truly what helps shape the space. 

Community Events

I am also lucky that the library is used for many after school events. We have sports banquets, PTA meetings, academic booster meetings, team meetings, solo and ensemble, sometimes theater rehearsal, and more! 

Here is another area where I have had to change my way of thinking. It used to bug me endlessly (and sometimes still does) that when the space is used after hours that almost nothing gets reset correctly (or even remotely to the same way). I have to remind myself frequently that this means the library is getting used and the community is seeing what we do in here and gets to learn that the library is no longer what they experienced in school – it is much more than “just” books. 

It is important to me to challenge the fact that a library in 2022 is about more than books – we are about collaboration, technology, knowledge, learning, and more! I want students (and staff) to know that we offer a variety of experiences in the library. And I am proud of the way the library looks and want to show it off to the community. 

If I know about a community event happening, I put on my Welcome to the Library dry erase board (which is located in front of the library doors) a message that welcomes that specific group. I also make sure tables are cleared and clean and anything that looks like a jumbled mess is either put away or cleaned up to make the space look inviting. 

The Bottom Line

So what I’m saying is to give up control, even if it’s little by little. Show the space off to community members knowing it is their space, the students’ space, and the staff’s space, and not yours. You can do this! 

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