Part A: Case Report

Case development

The Central Library was built on the fourth floor as a traditional K-12 shared library space in an international school in 2004. At the time, the design brief included two large open spaces for the library floor (split level), with a high curved ceiling over one level, a separate contained computer lab (shared between the library and ICT department), a small room which has metamorphosed to suit different purposes over the years, staff work/storage spaces, utility rooms and a multipurpose room that continues to be used as the teacher librarians’ office.

It now services over 1160 students for the upper elementary and middle schools, often simultaneously.  The library has undergone several design changes since its original conception. As the primary teacher librarian for the first four years following its opening, and now returning to teach in the same space after an eight year hiatus, the author is in a unique position to recollect and consider first use of the space and current occupancy.

In the intervening years, other librarians and stakeholders (e.g. ICT department) have impacted upon the space, including removal of the computer lab (both computers and walls).  Current postgraduate studies for the Masters coursework in Designing Spaces for Learning provided an impetus and inspiration for further consideration of the Central Library space. Following a design thinking process, the upper elementary and middle school librarians have engaged informally and collaborated to consider how the current physical space can be changed to impact on student learning,

This is timely as the school has expanded over the years with other library spaces built throughout the school. The school continues to extend with new buildings planned for opening in 2017.

With these numerous constraints, including the possibility of a future reorganisation of all the library spaces across the school, and the prospect of a renovation to the Central Library (Barrett, 2015, September 17),  the main objective is to consider what is possible in the ‘here and now’. The challenge is to consider the users – students, teachers, parents – to engage with them, observe, experiment, reflect and feedback  through a process of ‘play, display, watch the replay’ (Kuratko, Goldsworthy & Hornsby, 2012, p.117-120).

 Critical analysis

Eight years on, re-conception of the design space of the Central Library is underway. This reflective journey has been tabled within Reflections for a Digital Age ThinkSpace Blog and Storify: Reflections on design – learning journey. Along, with close reference to literature, these journals allow for an analysis of how choice of process, existing attitudes and assumptions, collaboration and communication, and exterior pressures and design constraints, then and now, impacted changes within this library space. These are considered herewith to provide for future recommendations.

Choice of process and existing attitudes and assumptions

While all key stakeholders need to be involved and share the sense of purpose of the innovation (Hunter, 2007, p.64) it would appear that the design of the Central Library followed the tenet of being ‘more architecturally-focused rather than learning-focused’ (Whisken, 2012, p.2) with the original design led and managed by the architect and leadership team. Input from the Head Librarian was minimal and while certain recommendations were included, for example, large staff workspaces, overall major input was  largely discarded, for example, placing the library on the ground floor and separate discrete teaching areas for primary and secondary to allow for simultaneous use.

While the author was involved peripherally in the first installation of the library space, reflection on the initial design brief and processes undertaken is now somewhat problematic as the ‘paper trail’ has apparently disappeared. Recent conversations (Barrett, 2015, September 17) indicate that documents may have since been discarded, as new Heads of Library Services have come through.  This is very likely, considering the transient nature of international schools, where high turnover of staff and leadership occurs over relatively ‘short’ periods of time.

With little understanding of how space ‘shapes’ and changes the social (formal and informal) relations, practices and experiences (Blackmore, Bateman, Loughlin, O’Mara & George. 2011, p.3) the ‘then’ librarians’ existing attitudes and assumptions, in hindsight, ensured the continuation of a traditional view of the school library. The result was an emphasis on visual impact, storage, traffic flow and small areas of actual interaction (Whisken, 2012, p.2).  Focus was therefore more upon the built environment of the library space (Blackmore, Bateman, Loughlin, O’Mara & Aranda, 2011, p.iv) which included both external and internal spaces, shared community facilities as well as associated technologies rather than the more significant built pedagogy.  Separate spaces were created using the collections to determine the spaces: a picture book area, and distinct primary and secondary fiction and nonfiction areas, providing nominated table areas for student users, in addition to the computer room. This was the choice of process, rather than considering beforehand how the design of built spaces influences the behaviours and actions of individuals within those spaces (Monahan, 2002, p.5; Long & Ehrmann, 2005, p.48).

The current study instead has endeavoured to look more closely at the function of the Central Library and ‘built pedagogy’. Initial reflections in the choice of process developed through immersion in research literature. The nature of the Masters coursework allowed the author to consolidate an understanding of design and design thinking in educational spaces through reflective writing. Early considerations (Barrett, 2015) recognized the need for a design thinking framework. The librarians have circled through a reiterative process of inspiration, ideation and implementation (Brown, 2010) which looked at available opportunities, to generating ideas, and creating prototype spaces to trial changes within the library.

The next stage was building an understanding of the culture and context of the library and empathizing with how our students and teachers use the space, initially through observation, photographs, reflective writing and discussion between users of the space (Barrett, 2015). The purpose of this part of the immersion stage was to look and listen for anything being used unconventionally within the library, think about available resources, and empathize with the needs of the school community (Doorley & Witthoft, 2012, p.36). Like all libraries, the Central Library is a hybrid community space that must respond to varied needs of multiple users (Hughes, Bland, Willis, & Elliot Burns, 2015; Partnership for 21st century skills, p.20).  As such, it is a very different place depending upon the time of day. This is complicated further, by having separate schedules for primary and secondary levels. Hence, one may be in class session, while the other is using the library for their recreational or lunchtime breaks.

 hot spots student use


Part of this surveillance, revealed students re-purposing spaces within the library to meet their individual needs, as evidenced in the visual, with red markings indicating ‘hot spots’ of students. It clearly shows how human spatial behaviours such as privacy, territoriality and personal space exhibit themselves on one hand; but also incorporate the collaborative, social aspect where people come together and feel they belong to a community of learners (Webb, Schaller & Hunley, 2008, p.409). It was interesting to observe how students gravitated toward corners confirming that these spaces provide a sense of place and have a profound effect on the sense of ownership in an open space (Doorley & Witthoft, 2012, p.142).

Design thinking recommends paying attention to user-changes and to respond by modifying space, and with this in mind, the librarians started small and acted quickly to move mobile and standalone shelving to create nooks and corners and make zones more explicit within the library space based on student’s space seeking behaviours and how they repurposed the library floors and spaces (Barrett, 2015, October 6). Part of this process was defining intent and function and knowing what was required from the spaces (Doorley & Witthoft, 2012, p.66).  Signs were erected to communicate the change of zones, and the behaviour now expected to conform to these spaces, such as the ‘quiet’ zone, while also providing students with verbal instruction about variations that had taken place.  Other early changes included introducing music to help curate the experience in the library.  The small room was promoted to teachers and students for use as another ‘quiet’ zone instead of being locked and restricted for technicians to take student photographs. Computers have been moved from a set of the enquiry tables to provide students with perches to stand and work from. The creation of different table configurations to support different purposes of areas such as group, collaborative work compared with individual work is under consideration (JISC, 2006, p.23).

While the Central Library is engaged at a ‘prototype’ stage, the author continues to reflect on how different taxonomies of spaces such as Thornburg’s campfires, watering hole and cave (Thornburg, 2007) or the design grammar of ‘places, properties, actions and attitudes’ (Doorley & Witthoft, 2012, pp.39-53) of Stanford’s or ‘the seven spaces’ (Locke, 2007; McIntosh, 2010) may provide a common language for the library users.  Whatever language is adopted or adapted, the Central Library space needs to offer various possibilities for learning to take place, including these reflective, creative and interactive learning environments (Kuuskorpi, Cabellos, Gongzlez, 2011, p.6). Ultimately, what was recognized is the importance of using different sizes of space, so that the flexibility lies in the provision of variation rather than just one big area that can be subdivided (Barrett, 2015; Blyth, 2012, p.267).

The librarians have utilized what we have within the library to try out these changes on a small scale. The next stage was to give the community a chance to experience the change, to watch how they react to the different zones within the library and absorb feedback (Doorley & Witthoft, 2012, p.136). This is where the case study exists at this point in time.

Collaboration and communication

Space and choice of process are closely connected to collaboration and communication.  The research literature indicates that both are essential between key stakeholders in the design process to ensure a strong sense of ownership by enabling individual and collective responsibility (Brown, 2009, pp. 27, 59; Hunter, 2006, pp.64-65). However, for this to happen, the organizational culture and leadership needs to initiate dialogue and put into place different kinds of structures for strategic planning and management of learning spaces (Hunter, 2006, p.62).  The design process does not finish at the opening of a new school building. Leadership needs to ensure appropriate and timely staff development and student induction of the learning spaces (Hunter, 2006, pp.65-66). Teachers and students must know the intended uses and how the new or re-conceived space/s can be best used to achieve desired outcomes (State of Victoria, 2008, p.12). As Monahan stated, the creation of flexible spaces does not necessarily guarantee flexible practices either (Barrett, 2015, September 11; Monahan, 2002, p.6). None of these criteria were instigated with the original design brief and opening of the original Central Library space.

While the skills of design thinking need to migrate outward into all parts of organizations and upward into the highest levels of leadership (Brown, 2009, p.147), the Central Library management/teacher librarians have driven this particular case study in order to promote an informal ‘prototyping culture’, working within exterior pressures and design constraints to enact change and support student learning.

Internal and external networks were central to knowledge sharing and stimulating new ideas (Barrett, 2015; Brown, 2009, p.243). Communication has extended from collaboration between librarians of the sub schools, to engagement and discussions with students and fellow teachers. Learning from other institutions to see first-hand how innovative learning spaces are being used in libraries and meeting with other librarians from the external network to discuss their experience was invaluable (Barrett, 2015, October 8; Hunter, 2006, p.64)

Communication with key actors, the students and considering the importance of their voice and imaginings about what constitutes an ideal library should not be underestimated (Hughes et al, 2015, p.3; Kuuskorpi, Cabellos, Gongzlez, 2011, p.2; Woolner, 2009, p.2). Within a participatory design process, this includes listening to and working with children and teachers to transform both learning spaces and pedagogical approaches (Blackmore, Bateman, Loughlin, O’Mara & Aranda, 2011, pp.10, 37).  Upper elementary and middle school students were approached within class and informally to think about the library space and how  it would could improve, based on the concept of ‘it would be even better if’  certain changes could be made.  Small groups of students keep coming back to this idea, adding suggestions and even prototyping themselves by moving furniture around (Barrett, 2015, August 25).

student post its redesign


While participatory processes are happening in the Central Library, it is still in the immersion stage, and admittedly, only superficial collaboration occurred. It is mindful to remember Woolner’s caution of how periods of collaboration can go ‘off track through not casting the net for participants wide enough’ (Woolner, 2009, pp.3, 5). Similarly important, is that participation is iterative and encouraged throughout all stages of the design process, with a range of ages and interests represented at the very least (Woolner, 2009, p.9). However, we also cannot dismiss the fairly basic level of participation which has been achieved to date as it is appreciated by students, and has produced interesting insights (Woolner, 2009, p.7; Barrett, 2015, October 6). Student recommendations focused upon creating comfortable spaces with more lounge and furnishings, charging tables for connectivity, creating discrete spaces e.g. “move the biography shelves to create an L shape” and other aesthetic elements.

The contention still remaining though is how to involve the ‘extreme users’ of the library, specifically those teachers and students, who traditionally do not use the library or seek collaboration with the teacher librarian (Brown, 2009, p.382). This has not as yet been done, and needs further input to allow for insight into smaller challenges and possible new strategies and visions (Brown, 2009, p.231; McIntosh, 2014, p.69). As Brown stated, watch what people don’t do, listen to what they don’t say’ (Brown, 2009, p.42).

 Exterior pressures and design constraints

 Brown declares ‘without constraints design cannot happen’ (Brown, 2009, p.17). Exterior pressures and design constraints are connected to what is feasible and can be technically achieved;  what can be done successfully within the organization (commercial viability) and what is desirable – what our school community want or will come to want (Brown, 2010, p.3).

The viability of ‘future proofing’ in order to keep the Central Library space appropriate for a rapidly changing educational environment, has been constrained by operational drivers, as sustainable management by (Hunter, 2006, p.62) the leadership structure as the school enters another new building phase. An alignment with this exterior pressure, is the viability of funding constraints in play as a result. This was pondered early in the design process when reflecting upon the library space (Barrett, 2015). The result was to concentrate on space utilisation and rezoning of functional spaces and low cost, small scale refurbishment.

The existing building structure of the library space itself was a major technical design constraint. Any redesign has to work within this parameter.  The management of sound is critical to the success of any learning centre (JISC, 2006, p.8). All library ceilings need to absorb sound (Schlipf, 2011, p.242). However the structural design of the Central Library has made this difficult as it has a high non-acoustic curved ceiling on the lower level of the library floor which transmits sound throughout the library space, which continues to create interference and affect ambience and obstruct productivity for multiple users (Barrett, 2015, July 23, Treasure, 2012). This was also noted during a lunchtime observation period (Barrett, 2015, August 7).  Even fixed shelving configurations have not provided a solution. Headphones have also been placed on the library floor for access by the students, and casual observation shows students ‘tuning in’ to their own sound, and ‘tuning out’ of the library noise by using their mobile devices. Significantly, the contained spaces, such as the computer lab, that were previously designated to provide discrete zones were uninstalled to create an open space. The result was to negate acoustic privacy which is a significant feature for collaborative and reflective spaces (Doorley & Witthoft, 2012, p.129).
The history of the Central Library has been influenced by external pressures such as changes in policy, demographics or community needs (Monahan, 2002, p.1). The Central Library has been able to accommodate existing space/number pressures and to adapt to changing needs and circumstances because of the construction of other libraries within the school (Long & Erhmann, 2005, p.56).  These have allowed collections to be separated and reduced student numbers (in the short term) within the library. The reality of how well the Central Library meets the varied needs of all users is thus still problematic. Libraries need to be able to expand for future needs. As Schlipf maintains, in most cases libraries are either brand new, overcrowded or both (Schlipf, 2011, p.251).

Lighting is also problematic due to the high curved ceiling. When extreme weather is evident e.g. storms, then lighting is diminished on the lower library floor. Part of this issue is the use of windows covered by external shades in this area, which while it may provide temperature reduction, also reduces natural light. Installation of indoor metal halide lighting which requires warming up does not improve this scenario (Schlipf, 2011, p.239).

The design thinking process influenced the librarians in the re-organization of the Central Library to consider how zones for different modes of learning could be implemented (JISC, 2006, p.22). The split floor levels have been designated as ‘quiet’ and ‘interactive’ areas. At this pilot stage, more feedback and experimentation is required to judge the use of the zones.

The library space has and continues to be constrained by the use of immobile, traditional shelving and furnishings. The original fixtures have not allowed for agility so the library space can be quickly emptied and reconfigured (JISC, 2006, p.8; Blyth, 2013, p.264). There are consequently limited possibilities for flexibility and creating different furniture configurations which is an element of dynamic teaching and learning spaces (Kuuskorpi, Cabellos, Gongzlez, 2011, p.5). Furthermore, the style of furniture is very traditional. Tables and chairs are standard sizes with minimal flexibility. ‘Comfortable’ seating and lounge furnishings are second hand and minimal considering the space. Interestingly, these are the issues that students respond to as major items needed to transform the library. However, even aesthetic refurbishment has been curtailed by budgetary exterior pressures.


 This case report explores the early stages in reconceiving an educational shared library space revealing how small changes can have a profound impact (Doorley & Witthoft, 2012, p.120). Understanding of the design thinking process and research literature has been an essential element to ensure that re-conception of the Central Library has been based on how the design of built spaces influences the behaviours and actions of individuals, to consider closely the function of the spaces to ensure efficient and effective use of the library and to consider all stakeholders in the process. School libraries are seen as ‘an extension of the classroom’ requiring space to ‘embody new pedagogies, including collaborative and interactive modalities’ (Freeman in Watson, 2011, p. 111) and to be flexible, pedagogically and physically able to reflect the different knowledge areas (Blackmore, Bateman, Loughlin, O’Mara & Aranda, 2011, p.8).  This case report endeavours to move the Central Library toward this vision.

Design is more than an agent of change, it is change.

(Doorley & Witthoft, 2012, p.136).


Recommendations emerging from this case report to represent effective leadership practice to manage change in learning spaces in the future, and also with specific reference for the librarians to support change of practice and design in the Central Library are:

  • Professional development in design thinking, with consideration to external providers.
  • Transparency, communication and participation by all key stakeholders in the design process of new or reconceived learning environments. This includes developing greater community voice (teachers, students, parents, non-teaching staff), with particular focus on eliciting feedback from the ‘extreme users’ – those at the edges (Brown, 2011, p.382).
  • Professional development for teachers across school to develop understanding of how spaces themselves are agents for change (JISC, 2012, 30); how consideration of room layout & choice of furniture can make a significant difference to learning outcomes (JISC, 2012, 25)
    • Including student induction of new learning environments
  • Design with multiple situations in mind (Doorley & Witthoft, 2012, 24).
    • Move away from traditional design with ‘sage on the stage’/boards at the ‘front’
    • Writable surfaces everywhere
    • Flexible furnishings to allow for agility to provide for multiple learning spaces
  • Space management where sound, visual cues, layout and style of furniture in different configurations signal the different purposes of areas (JISC, 2012, 23).
    • Address sound management issues by spray on acoustic surfacing of Central Library curved high ceiling; acoustic furnishings; soft boundaries to partition open spaces; installation of sliding glass wall/door top level Central Library to delineate space and provide for maximum visibility with minimum interruption and acoustic privacy.


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