An Elementary Library Redesign with Very Little Money, Part 1

I’ve been thinking about how library spaces can be improved for a long time. When I was a Children’s Librarian in a public library, I often marveled at how architects treated certain aspects of libraries as their chance to be noticed (at a big price) without really understanding how libraries might feel to children. As a career-switcher with an alternative path Teacher’s Certificate added to my MLS, I wanted to wait and really understand schools before I tackled my own library. Two years ago at the School Library Journal Summit 2009 in DC, I heard about several impressive projects at a session moderated by Dr. David Loertscher. This school year, the time finally came for me to re-think my space.
Our superintendent, Pam Moran, proposed a small seed project to help several school libraries move away from the rigid overpriced library environments of the past (think 1940s in some cases) toward more configurable spaces that would promote the library as a center for learning. Luckily, my new principal Kendra King was all for it. We discussed technology, lighting, color, shelving and learning activities with an eye for how to accomplish our vision with very little money, but with some help from parents and the community. We mapped out what we wanted in several sections, what should go, what could be added and which jobs were for maintenance (electrical and window work) and which could be done by volunteers. Our focus was how to revamp the library into a place where students would have more choice and be more invested, not only in the physical space, but in their own learning.
The first thing I did was commission a giant clipboard from Shadiah Lahham, an illustration/multimedia wiz and graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, because I’ve always wanted one! It is mounted on the wall and the top is 8 ft off the floor in the entry to the library. It sparks immediate interest, as well as lesson ideas for math, animation, and student work. Then I set up a working wiki:
and gathered ideas from other teachers, school librarians, artists and designers.
I began weeding like never before. In terms of books, my goal was to shrink my nonfiction section down from 3 long shelving ranges to two. This took about 3 months and nerves of steel, but it was the only way to free up the space we needed. My main considerations were:

1. What’s of interest?
2. What’s not just factual, but has narrative power and beauty?
3. What books have lower reading levels and therefore will not be easily replaced by database articles or websites?

Weeding books was hard enough, but I weeded the walls and furniture too. I wanted a lot of space for intriguing art, posters, installations and student-made displays. As I weeded furniture, the part of the library with table and chairs began to look more appealing and less like an area waiting for the next PTO or faculty meeting.

Melissa Techman, MLS

Melissa Techman

I’m a Teacher Librarian and Tech Lead Teacher for Albemarle County Public Schools at Broadus Wood Elementary in Earlysville, near Charlottesville, VA. I have been a Children’s Librarian as well,  at Houston Public Library (Go, Mosquitoes! Oh wait, libraries don’t have sports teams). I’ve taught for 9 years and am currently putting together an informal day camp for grades 5 through really old (me) to learn how to make apps and e-books. My interests include art/design, usability (especially truncating the heck out of stuff), Special Ed, and encouraging students to have strategies in all areas, not just math and reading. Best current use of Twitter: asking Scholastic to show good customer service by sending popular book in promo video, after 6 email and phone requests. They arrived by FedEx the next day.


Twitter: @mtechman


About mtechman

K-5 School Librarian in Charlottesville, VA. Former Children's Librarian in public library. I read, write, and share info about learning, books and technology. I teach at Broadus Wood Elementary School in lovely Earlysville, VA.

Posted on April 22, 2011, in Ideas and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I am so happy to see the post here. It is very encouraging and motivating to see the faces of students in the redesigned space. Their faces light up like little lightning bugs that never go out. Once students enter the space it’s like the shades go up for them on the possibilities to the learning work they can do. I truly have enjoyed being on the team!

  2. Would you mind posting some of your after pictures? I think you are doing some great things. Thanks!

    • Yes, after pictures coming soon!
      I just finished the 2nd post and have “in progress” pictures of our workday to post. Monday I’ll post after pictures – this week, every time I started to take pictures, I got pulled to help with standardized tests. I don’t know why I didn’t put cameras in the hands of 4 students and get them to do it!
      I really appreciate your kind words. One thing that was hard but necessary (in times of budget cuts) was the decision to take $900 out of my books and materials budget to spend at IKEA. I comforted myself by remembering that I didn’t need to buy any book trucks this year, and I was OK for processing materials, and it was going to be even better than the $600 I spent one year on 2 big words: Fiction and Nonfiction. (Yes, I purchased those from a big profitable Library Catalog – never again!)
      So, my principal gave me a Professional Leave Day and my number one volunteer rode with me in my husband’s truck to IKEA outside D.C., 2 hours away.
      We filled that truck! I got a new cute office desk and chair, 13 different lamps and lampshades, 3 mountable book shelves that look like flying green and blue Vs, 20 colorful square bath mats for story time “sit upons”, 4 long green and yellow body pillows, 6 Lack plastic side tables (3 yellow, 3 red), 3 lap desks, fabric for a wall hanging that has billy goats, flowers, mountains, a GI Joe AND makes me happy, 2 giant green nylon leaves, 2 long kitchen utensil rods that hold removable plastic cups (for pencils, markers, etc.), and I can’t remember the rest. Besides buying stuff, we also jotted down clever ideas: “Get poster shop to donate enlarged photo from nature walk around school”; ” have display helper group that can put pictures of learning in library on powerpoint for big screen TV in front Hall”; or “cut down one big table to coffee table height and paint with Idea Paint (that turns flat smooth surface into whiteboard”.
      More to come : )

  3. Having taken over a middle school library that was mired in the 1950s, I always get excited when I read how someone has changed their space to make it more interesting, more flexible, more useable and more attractive. I love the giant clipboard idea! Unfortunately, I have no money to spend at all and my principal, while generally supportive, has vetoed the idea of D-I-Y renovation. Oh, well.

    • Thanks for the comment, Deven. I always feel that Principals who have no money and won’t allow cheap volunteer-aided projects need to have those facts on billboards for taxpayers to drive past!
      I’ll be posting part 2 in a few days, showcasing pictures of the volunteer parents, college students and HS students who covered chairs, painted walls and did carpentry. Today 2 parents offered to:
      1.paint several species of beetles
      2. put up a wood wall in my office to hold a changing tableau that students can decorate and view through the new windows into the library (formerly bulletin boards AKA “vertical junk bunkers”).

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