Media Matters

February 10, 2015

Why school libraries are transforming into learning commons

Once-quiet libraries are turning into dynamic learning centers

There is no “shushing” in the International School at Dundee’s library.

Students can talk; they can even get a little noisy while tapping away at keyboards, peppering a guest speaker with questions, or giving a presentation to classmates. Head over to the Makerspace and you will hear the rumbling and beeping of 3D printers churning out their latest creations.

This is the soundtrack of ISD’s new, transformed library. Here, students do not stop by just to check out and read books. They visit more often, come for a wider range of activities and stay longer.

It’s not even called a library anymore. Or a media center. It is now the “learning commons,” a hub for students and teachers. And it is a model that is set to spread soon to other schools, as the boundaries between libraries and classrooms dissipate during the district’s ongoing digital learning initiative.

“I was really looking for this space to become a much more dynamic space,” said ISD Principal Terry Ricci. “The tenets of the learning commons align really well with 21st-century skills and with our International Baccalaureate program. The learning there is now much more powerful.”


The learning commons model represents a new stage in the changing role of the school library. Books are still very important, but the space is not dominated by row after row of towering stacks. There are more commons areas that allow students and teachers to do more collaborative work.

In fact, in a learning commons, teachers and media specialists co-teach classes together — with the media specialists focusing on the digital skills kids need to master.

“One of the first things that I see when people create a learning commons is that kids come in, and they really want to be there because there’s so much going on,” said David Loertscher, a professor in San Jose State University’s School of Information, who has written extensively about the subject. “It’s a space that turns over to the user rather than the user having to adapt to the space.”

ISD launched its commons this school year — a change that was led by media specialist Jeannine Madoff. The traditional model of having all students come to the library once a week for media classes had become restrictive.

“I was feeling frustrated because the kids would start a research project with their classroom, I would be there at the beginning, then I wouldn’t see them for a week,” Madoff said on a recent weekday. “And then I’d come in, and they’d be halfway done. Here, I can take five, six days, however long we need to do it.”

Madoff now has four times as many periods to collaborate with teachers each week than she did last year.

At the same time, the district’s launch in 2013 of its digital learning initiative spurred the need to change how libraries are used. As of next near, every elementary school student will have her or his own tablet, many already do, and every middle-schooler will have a laptop. As a result, kids no longer rely on labs in their schools’ libraries for computer access, and media specialists have become more important because they help students and teachers adapt to the array of new hardware and software.

“We are hoping that this learning commons model really becomes the way we do the library media program,” said Fran Kompar, the district’s K-12 coordinator of library media services. “It is imperative that the library media specialist has time with the kids and teachers in order to make that change.”

The launch of ISD’s learning commons happened swiftly. In the spring of 2014, Madoff attended a learning commons workshop led by Kompar. She then pitched the model to Ricci, who agreed to let the faculty try it out.

“It is nice to be in a different part of the building and to have more interaction,” said first-grade teacher Laura Peters. “You feel that you’re more a part of the school community, out there in the open, rather than just being in your classroom all day with the door closed.”

Reading remains fundamental

Amid all the changes, there remains one constant: books. Monthly circulation at ISD is up 20 percent this year compared to last, according to staff — a rise they attribute to increased student engagement in the commons.

There are fewer books — from about 18,000 last year down to roughly 17,000 now. But the reduction is due mostly to the traditional “weeding out” of texts each year, they say.

“We’re still doing reading initiatives, and we’re still looking for great literature, whether it’s an e-book or print book,” Madoff said. “We’re not leaving any of that behind.”

The learning commons can still function like a traditional library, with space for kids to read or study quietly.

“I think we are very fortunate at ISD to have an administration and teachers that are both open-minded and risk-takers, to adopt a new model that will enrich the learning of the students,” said ISD PTA Co-President Patricia Carey.

What’s next

This year, ISD is the only school in the district with a fully fledged learning commons. But it won’t be the only one for long. North Mianus School is starting its own and will move to a full learning commons next year. Within the next three years, administrators expect to implement the model throughout the district.

“We will continue to provide schools support and guidance when they are ready to make the change,” Kompar said of the districtwide shift to the learning commons. “The timing, though, will be a building-based decision.”

For the foreseeable future, Greenwich will be one of relatively few districts to try a model that has only really started to catch on in the last few years in the U.S.

“I wouldn’t say we’ve reached the `tipping point’ here in the U.S. where the learning commons starts to spread exponentially,” said Loertscher, the San Jose State professor. “In Canada, they didn’t have a lot of professional librarians, so they lacked the drag of tradition. We just have more traditions in the U.S. on what a library has done, particularly in the elementary schools.”

There does not seem to be much of that “drag” at ISD. Madoff said she has no regrets about the changes — even if she has less time to grab a bite to eat.

“It’s definitely busier here now,” she said. “I feel I’m busy 100 percent of the day. Getting lunch in isn’t always as easy as it used to be. But it’s always interesting.”

©2015 The Advocate (Stamford, Conn.). Visit The Advocate (Stamford, Conn.) at [2]. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Posted By Laura Devaney On February 4, 2015 @ 6:00 am In Curriculum,McClatchy,News,School Libraries,Top News

Grasshopper Jungle?

Find out what serious teen readers think about the just -announced ALA Printz Award-winners as the Eva Perry Regional Library Mock Printz Club celebrates its fifteenth year with its own awards program, the Melinda Awards.

When: Friday, February 13, 6:30 pm ET with Red Carpet Show beginning at 6:15 pm ET
Where: Live on UStream at

Please do chat with us. We love audience participation!
Contact: Cris Crissman, with questions about the event.

For a sneak preview, check out the Eva Perry Club blog: And view last year's program at This year's program will also be archived.

NCSLMA Snapshot Day 2015

During National Library Week, April 12-18, 2015, school librarians across North Carolina are encouraged to choose one day to collect data, photographs, stories, and comments to show what takes place in their school libraries on a typical day. NCSLMA will collect, combine, and share information from all participating school libraries. The results will be available for school librarians to share with their school communities and state legislators and for NCSLMA to share through our Association's advocacy efforts.

We need YOUR participation to make this a success. The larger the numbers, the greater the impact. Participating in Snapshot Day is simple. Visit the NCSLMA Snapshot Day website to register and find information and resources to make your Snapshot Day event a success!

For more information, visit the website and/or contact Becky Palgi, NCSLMA Advocacy & Governance Section Chair,