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Reinvigorating School Libraries

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HINTS & TIPS BY LIZ BROWN, M.D. AND SPECIALIST LIBRARY DESIGNER

When I was at school, the library wasn’t the most inspiring place around. It was the 1980s, so everything was basically brown. Brown shelves, brown furniture, brown curtains... The most exciting thing about my secondary school library was the fact that it had a new synthetic carpet (brown, unsurprisingly), which meant that we could shuffle our feet on the floor as we walked through and give one another electric shocks.

However, the drab surroundings didn’t really matter because we enjoyed reading and we all expected to read. Admittedly books had fewer rivals for our attention in those days, but it was just a normal thing to do. We all grew up devouring Enid Blyton and then Adrian Mole before moving onto the classics. Books were our escape and our pleasure. Until, that is, Duran Duran came along and John Taylor became my mullet-haired, pixie-boot clad Mr Darcy! But I digress...

Trying to engage today’s teens with the simple pleasure of reading is far more of an uphill struggle because books have to compete with the instant gratification that technology provides. Engaging young readers is no longer just a matter of trying to sell the idea of the magic to be found in books. The reading environment also has to be right. To be frank, a brown library is never going to be somewhere that kids want to hang out, even if it does have an electrified carpet!

But let us not be downcast. I firmly believe that if you create a space which youngsters truly feel is theirs and has been designed with them in mind, they are much more likely to want to spend time there. And if you get them through the door of their own volition, half of the battle is won.

Here are my top tips for creating a fantastic library space for teens and kids, whatever your budget:

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1. Bye Bye bland

“Safe”, “neutral”, “won’t date”, “goes with anything”... this is grown-up thinking. You are not furnishing your own front room, so put aside your personal taste, think like a kid and make it fun. Ditch school colours like navy, maroon, bottle green and (of course!) brown and instead pick bright, popping colours that will breathe life into your scheme. Be brave with clashing and contrasting shades that are fresh and modern. Think zesty lime green, turquoise, hot pink, rich purple, orange. Blocks of colour against a neutral backdrop make a bold statement and bring a room right up to date.

2. No more shushing!

Let’s face it, the days of silence in the library are long gone. The best libraries are abuzz with kids working collaboratively and discussing projects together, their laptops pinging as they access information to help them complete their homework. The layout of a library has to address this more social need as well as providing quieter, contemplative areas. Use furniture to screen off zones that can be used for different purposes. Units on castors will help to keep things flexible and enable you to reconfigure the space to suit. Zoned schemes can pose more of a challenge from a supervisory perspective, but again (controversially?) think about who the library is actually for. Don’t fixate too much on sightlines but be prepared to move around whilst keeping an eye on what’s going on.

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3. Multi-tasking spaces

With space at a premium, most school libraries nowadays don’t just have to provide book storage and relaxed seating. They often also need to cater for IT provision, intervention and teaching space, a location for meetings, somewhere for exams to take place, you name it. The furniture has to work hard so items that can double up as something else are ideal. Stool seats that can be pulled up to work tables are always useful, as are bench seats that have storage incorporated within them. Tables that can be put together or split to accommodate smaller groups will make your space much more versatile. However, one caveat. Be realistic about what can be achieved in the space you have (unless it’s a Tardis!) If you try to make your room all things to everyone, you risk ending up with something that is nothing to anyone.

4. Be age appropriate

Aim your library at the age group that will be using it. Older primary school children and teens need grouped seating where they can hang out with their mates, study tables or carrels plus plenty of spine-on book storage. KS1 children on the other hand need cosy, safe spaces with soft furnishings and rugs for carpet time. Younger children also like to see the pictures on the covers of books so include face-out display units and kinderboxes. Features such as archways and dens will add an element of fun, making the library a place to explore, as well as somewhere to sit down and read or listen to stories.


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5. Accessorise and decorate

Use the walls. Stick-on graphics, pictures and wall displayers add a nice finishing touch and are also cost-effective. If you are on a tight budget and fancy a project (and if your wooden shelving is basically sound but tired), paint walls and furniture in brilliant white then use match pots in vibrant colours to pick out architectural features such as window recesses and columns. Adding in colourful seating and maybe a vibrant rug will give your room a fresh and contemporary feel for a fraction of the cost of a fully fitted, brand new library.

 

So with a little imagination, daring and – yes – investment, your school library can become a facility that youngsters will love. Time and again, research backs up the fact that a good school library will enhance learning and nurture a love of reading, even in these fast-paced, tech-laden times. Perhaps now is the time to wave goodbye to brown and say hello to a fresh new look!