A concerted effort by librarians in my school district, Williamsville Central Schools, to upgrade our library facilities finally bore fruit when I was given the given the opportunity to renovate the library at Heim Middle School, where I have been the librarian for more than twenty years.
I was fortunate enough to be able to select both new furniture and carpeting. The furniture in the library was original to the opening of the school in 1965 (first named North Forest Junior High), and the carpeting was from the late 1990s.
In thinking about the future of the library, planning for flexible use of the space as well as creating a variety of zones for various activities (e.g.: class space, quiet reading, collaborative small group work space) was paramount.
The process has taken close to an entire calendar year, and the results have been amazing! Feedback from our students and staff have been great. However, it was not without a few speed bumps, and I learned a lot. I’d like to share some of the lessons I have learned with the ALSC community.
1. Involving your community is crucial to success and buy-in to the project. At Heim Middle, we got feedback from our staff and students in a variety of ways, including:
- A survey was given to all staff members on what they wanted to see the library space used for. The results reinforced a lot of the thinking I had done. Overall, our staff wanted less of the library use for whole-class teaching, and more devoted to small group work, individual work, and quiet reading. It was great to be able to proceed knowing I had the support of our faculty and staff in what I wanted to do. It also go our community on board in supporting the library renovation.
- Samples of several different types of chairs were obtained from our vendor, and were set up in the library for more than a month. Students and staff were encouraged to stop by and sit in the chairs and vote for the one they found most comfortable using stickers on manila paper. Luckily, the chair I liked the best was also selected as the winning chair by our school.
- Samples were left out for quick consultations with colleagues about table finishes, formica tops and lounge chair samples. Some of my colleagues had great ideas and insights I was able to incorporate in our renovation.
2. Plan for flexibility – The low book shelves are on wheels, the tables, and lounge chairs move easily for flexible use of the space. In fact, the only non-mobile furniture is the circulation desk. This has already paid dividends in staff development workshops and community events, where the flexibility has allowed us to hold events that we wouldn’t have been able to host otherwise. Carpet squares, rather than carpet rolls, are in use so that stained or damaged carpet could be replaced easily.
3. Less is more, when it comes to furniture – Previously, the library had enough furniture for two classes to use the library at once. But in surveying the staff, space for whole class instruction placed last as a use option. This allowed us to take one of the class spaces and repurpose it for quiet reading and small group work. In addition to this, we ordered fewer tables and chairs, and that has opened our space, and the feedback has been great. Our community really appreciates a library that is more open and light, and our students feel much less crowded when using the library.
4. Expect the unexpected – Lots of things happened for which we didn’t plan:
- The library renovation was supposed to include new windows (a school-wide project), but a vendor issue caused that part of the plan to be postponed. However, we didn’t discover that until late summer, and I had already spent weeks in June getting portions of the collection moved and packed away.
- In removing the carpeting, asbestos tiles were found in the library office (but not the library itself). Why the tiles were removed from the library, but not the library office is still a mystery. This discovery caused a delay of several weeks while our facilities department decided what to do.
- The carpet squares installed in my library were not the exact ones we selected originally. A mix-up caused our squares to be sent to one of our high schools, and theirs to be sent to us. The two were very similar in appearance, and half the squares were installed before the mistake was discovered. Fortunately, we were okay with them. This, combined with the impending start of the school year, caused us to keep the squares that were given to us.
- Several of our lounge chairs had issues with the fabric and needed to be sent back for work. I had to assure our worried students that they were coming back!
The cumulative effect of these things put our timeframe off. Fortunately, our administration was very good in letting our community know that the delays were not our fault, and got extra help to get us up and running in the fall.
5. Plan for the next step – So now that we have this beautiful space, what comes next? I am going to focus on the collection, and making more accessible and user-friendly. Our main project this year is to do “genrefication” with the fiction collection. We will weed, make more space for fiction books to be displayed with the covers facing out, and organize books so that students have an easier time finding books that appeal to them. After that, I will tackle non-fiction.
Renovating the library has been a great experience. It has garnered a lot of positive attention, and the library is seen as a showcase. This is a great springboard for building a strong program in the future. If someone were to ask me for advice, I would tell them to involve their community, expect there to be unanticipated events and plan for the next step. Hopefully, the lessons I learned will help you with your own renovation!
Dave Said is the Library Media Specialist at Heim Middle School in Williamsville, NY and a member of the School-age Programs and Service Committee.