School libraries as incubators – where good ideas hatch

Sunny South shares her journey of discovery with school libraries as incubators!

Image: Sunny South, Teacher Librarian, Sydney Secondary College, Leichhardt campus

Create and connect

School libraries need to be much more than a repository for books and print resources to maintain their relevance in the digital age. Teacher librarians must keep moving forward and push the boundaries of what libraries can and should be as a response to changing clientele profiles, attitudes and usage patterns. As well as maintaining their traditional roles, libraries are a great place for students and teachers to create and connect in environments that encourage and enhance a sense of innovation, play, tinkering, creativity and entrepreneurship.

The journey I embarked on in 2014 as the new teacher librarian in a busy middle school was to take inspiration from everywhere, including a kit bag of ideas from my previous position as a technology integrator. Today, the original school library space is barely recognisable; it offers a range of activities and events that are more akin to what is happening in the public library space or in a museum. Student and staff input is crucial for improving what the library offers to the school community. It is a work in progress and a constantly changing learning space.

Creating a future focused library, or a library as an incubator, has been a journey of discovery with a huge amount of satisfaction, a lot of hard work and a bit of fun thrown in. The Library as Incubator Project connects creativity and the arts to the public library space and invites librarians from all over the world to contribute their ideas. Adapt this idea so that the school library becomes a place to trial new ideas, a space to venture into creativity and technology without fear of failure so the whole community can grow as learners. The school library as incubator is a space where teachers and students can innovate and experiment with the support of the teacher librarian.

Here are six ways to begin creating a library as an incubator – where good ideas hatch.

Offer a range of learning spaces

We are all talking and thinking about more flexible learning spaces. There is plenty of support information for schools to move towards learning spaces to reflect a variety of pedagogies. Spaces that promote collaboration, connection and creativity, while enabling students and teachers to work and learn independently, are key to a successful environment. Teacher librarians can be at the vanguard of this change, offering an incubator for trialling, practising and learning in different environments.

Find ideas for exciting uses of space from many quarters. Develop flexible and innovative spaces in the school library by:

* gathering ideas from museums, art galleries, public libraries and airports

* browsing the online environment for ideas

* visiting different spaces, including exhibitions, festivals, pop-ups and events as well for ideas

* investigating new coworking spaces in major cities, including the amazing spaces created by WeWork and others.

In a flexible library space, teachers can experiment, innovate with their teaching styles to incorporate multi modal learning, digital and non digital creation and presentation tools, and plan for individual learning experiences as well as collaborative investigation with greater ease than in a traditional classroom environment. Students need to feel comfortable about choosing how they sit and work together or individually for the best creative output. Libraries that offer a range of environments encourage different teaching practices that allow learners to grow and meet the challenges of rigorous and creative investigation, creation and presentation.

Look at the space and begin to create zones. Try using David Thornburg’s (2007) concept of the cave, the watering hole and the campfire for flexibility and variety. Each space should be able to seat at least 30 students and be reconfigured in several ways depending on need.

Make sure there is a place to gather a group – a campfire – to launch a session and share presentations. Our campfire has tiered seating which can be moved around. It becomes many things and has even been transformed into a robotic arena.

A conversation zone – ours is called the Café – where students can meet more informally, read quietly, and join a discussion group or game, is a must. This is our most popular space in the library. It has comfortable sofas, cushions, ottomans and huge beanbags that seat four students. The furniture can be rearranged and students create new seating configurations as needed.

Utilise rooms connected to the library for different purposes. Our cave houses a maker studio. Its open space allows students to bring in furniture for a particular activity. The inCubator is a group learning space with as many write on surfaces as possible, including desks at varying heights and an ideas wall where students can collaborate and brainstorm large scale.

Lastly, our cubes are small seminar rooms with whiteboards, comfortable seating and traditional desks. The video, Tour the Google Ventures war room in San Francisco, inspired these more intimate sharing spaces.

Provide the right furniture and fun

Purchase portable and stackable furniture – desks with multiple heights and write on surfaces, chairs and stools – for flexible use of open space. Our high density foam fruit cushions are popular. They are used to sit on, as a back rest or on a student’s lap to stabilise a laptop or tablet device. Stored in inexpensive plastic tubs, they can be moved around the library and put away easily.

Our school library continues to evolve. Over three years the spaces have all changed. We develop the spaces according to need, combining some high end purchase items with some low cost in order to make sure that any experimentation is not a costly mistake.

An important element of our library is the incorporation of playfulness and whimsy. Many of the spaces offer something for students to play with or think about – the fruit cushions are practical and are even juggled at lunchtime. A major purchase for us, Norva Nivel’s Mis-shape bench collection is a focal point at break times and students create all sorts of structures with the nine ottomans in the set. A Genga wall from the same supplier is another great addition for student interaction and playfulness with furniture. Other spaces house boards with magnetic poetry, a Lego wall, a three storey dolls house and areas to create pop-up displays and galleries.

Nothing is too precious. The space looks different at the end of the week to how it began at the beginning of the week. That is the beauty of the flexibility.

Provide a variety of tools for learning

Flexible learning spaces require flexible teaching and learning practices. Teachers choose from a range of digital and non digital tools to facilitate great thinking and innovating, prototyping and drawing. Some of our desks are writable surfaces, and we also have stick on white boards that can transform a wall or desk quickly. Rolls of butcher’s paper enable student groups to work on brainstorming and visual notetaking – Ikea’s rolls and holders work well. Coloured felt pens and highlighters, sticky notes of all shapes and sizes and liquid chalk for writing on glass surfaces are well used.

Use these tools and your knowledge of the physical space to inspire pedagogical shifts at your school. Become an expert in the design thinking process and in a variety of Visible thinking routines and reflection methods. Be part of the curriculum planning to ensure teachers undertake collaborative and individual thinking routines into their lessons and model these techniques during team teaching sessions.

The teacher librarian’s kitbag should also contain knowledge on how to implement and facilitate learning through project-based learning, Genius hour , inquisitive research techniques such as A Google a day and School in the Cloud’s With dynamic learning spaces and a range of learning tools, the school library easily becomes the most sort after learning environment in the school.

Ignite passion for learning A library as incubator is a great opportunity for the space to facilitate learning by students and teachers that reflect their passions and interests. Makerspaces, maker studios or fab labs are springboards for creativity and innovation. The maker area may open all the time or on specific days. It needs good storage, with areas of shelving or containers to keep ongoing projects. As well as a range of technology equipment, provide lots of craft and stationery in order for your makers to be creative. There are plenty of guides on creating a makerspace and Invent to learn is a really good starting point. Buying equipment and providing resources in response to students’ needs and interests will ensure its success.

Our maker studio is used well and often by the school community. Several maker groups, including a learning and leading technology group, the Tech Ninjas, and GirlsMake, a girls and technology group, meet at exclusive times through the week.

Provide materials to inspire students as well as examples of student made products. We have a growing resource of instructional materials for self discovery. Our maker studio has VR viewing and creation equipment, a 3D printer, Littlebits, Spheros, Ozobots, Raspberry Pis, Makey Makey’s, Arduino, and 3D printing pens. iPads with Minecraft, movie making, music making and animation tools are available to document making and offer apps for students interested in media creation.

We encourage a range of craft and communal activities such as knitting, badge making and large format colouring-in. Students display their creations in gallery spaces. Pop-up studios occur from time to time. For example, a local florist donated unsold flowers. This inspired the Florography studio. With tripods, backdrops and the flowers, it was set up over a couple of weeks for students and staff to experiment with photography and photographic editing. Best works were printed on photographic paper and displayed.

Maker spaces include card making and Christmas decoration, book sculpture workshops, paperform sculptures and a sketch book gallery to encourage our manga artists to share their illustrations.

These activities all contribute to students and teachers thinking about the library not just as an academic space for learning but as a space for experimentation and creativity. Studio and pop-up spaces meet the needs of student creators and innovators. They provide access to information and technical resources that support discovery and the creation of new knowledge and artistry.

Hold large scale events

Make the library a focal point for school activity and celebrate the variety of interests across the school. Book Week and special days, such as World Read Aloud Day, are times when libraries can be in the spotlight. Other learning opportunities include:

* Hour of code – promotes coding and programming

* Ada Lovelace day – highlights the importance of women and technology

* Rube Goldberg challenge

* Star Wars Day (4 May) – celebrates puns, science fiction and film making.

Keep innovating

What else can the library provide to continue to be a relevant and dynamic player in the school community? This year, Sydney Secondary College, Leichhardt campus community will investigate and experiment by:

* creating a Library of Things – science and art equipment, musical instruments like ukuleles with sheet music, craft making tools, costumes and some technology equipment may be on offer for loan

* providing more video/computer gaming tools – encouraging movement away from consumption to creation

* looking at the possibility of volunteer residential programs – artists, writers, designers and musicians in residence

* thinking about how to promote and encourage entrepreneurial ventures for students – providing authentic experiences, including in house publishing, for students to share their output with the wider community

* expanding our events and exhibitions – Sculpture Month, Frocktober, Augmented August (a look into the future of AR and VR) and Vivid Library (a celebration of light and sound).

It is a bright and diverse future for the library that adopts an incubator approach and one which is sure to keep the school library relevant in our changing learning environment.

References and further reading

Ada Lovelace Day, accessed 28 February 2017.

‘The art annex: creative art tutorials’, Library Arts, accessed 28 February 2017.

Bubbler, Madison Public Library, accessed 28 February 2017.

Damon-Moore, L. & Batykefer, E. 2014, The artist’s library: a field guide, Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, accessed 28 February 2017.

The Edge, State Library of Queensland, accessed 28 February 2017.

Flexible learning spaces, Furnware, YouTube, accessed 28 February 2017.

A Google a day, accessed 28 February 2017.

GV 2014, Tour the Google Ventures war room in San Francisco, YouTube, accessed 28 February 2017.

Hour of code,, accessed 28 February 2017.

Hughes, H., Bland, D. & Willis, J. 2013, ‘What makes an innovative school library learning space? Teacher-librarian perspectives’, ASLA online, accessed 28 February 2017.

Invent to learn – resources, CMK Press, accessed 28 February 2017.

Kesler, C. 2013, What is genius hour? – an introduction to genius hour in the classroom, YouTube, accessed 28 February 2017.

The Library as Incubator Project, accessed 28 February 2017.

Library of things, accessed 28 February 2017.

Martinez, S.L. and Stager, G. 2014, Invent to learn: making, tinkering and engineering in the classroom, Constructing Modern Knowledge Press, Torrance, USA.

Norva Nivel, accessed 28 February 2017.

Rube Goldberg Challenge, accessed 28 February 2017.

School in the Cloud, accessed 28 February 2017.

Star Wars Day, accessed 28 February 2017.

Thornburg, D. 2007, Campfires in cyberspace: primordial metaphors for learning in the 21st century, Thornburg Center for Professional Development.

Visible thinking, accessed 28 February 2017. WeWork, accessed 28 February 2017.

Whisken, A. 2012, ‘Library learning spaces: one school library’s initial design brief’, Synergy, vol.10, no.2, accessed 28 February 2017.

YouMedia, Chicago Public Library, accessed 28 February 2017.

Keywords: Library design;

How to cite this article: South, S. (2017) 'School libraries as incubators – where good ideas hatch!​' in Scan 36(1)

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