Following the recent American Association of School Librarians National Conference, held last month in Columbus, Ohio, and during the lead-up to ALA Midwinter in January, we spoke with a number of school library professionals about issues and trends they and their colleagues have been seeing in their work.

Makerspaces and Learning Commons on the Upswing

The makerspace and learning commons movements remain hot topics as more and more school librarians and their administrators embrace the idea of changing physical library spaces (and sometimes even their names) to support and encourage evolving learning and teaching styles, as well as curricula. As their names suggest, makerspaces and learning commons provide opportunities for students to work with materials and technologies to be creative and solve problems, in a more collaborative and communal environment than a traditional library or classroom. Depending on a school’s funding and available space, a makerspace can be as simple as a small table or corner spot stocked with donated jigsaw puzzles, Legos, and K’Nex blocks, or as complex as a 3-D printer and robotics lab. And setting up a learning commons can be as minimal as reorganizing existing furniture and other fixtures, or as grand as purchasing flexible tables and comfy chairs: either tack will produce different seating options and group-work areas. No matter what they look like or how they are labeled, the key is to have spaces where students will be engaged and stimulated to learn effectively.

Librarians who have become comfortable with this type of transformation are moving beyond the basics and are setting up more focused makerspaces, often with themes. That’s the observation of Heather Moorefield-Lang, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, who researches emerging technologies and libraries. “One library has a ‘Libratory’ [a makerspace/idea lab featuring low- and high-tech materials], another has a STEAMpunk [science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics] makerspace,” she says. “One library focuses on the culinary arts in the makerspace and another on robotics.”

Leigh Ann Jones, director of libraries at Parish Episcopal School in Dallas, noted that “while some libraries are adding STEM makerspaces, I am also seeing a movement to add makerspaces for the humanities.” She pointed to changes at her school as an example. “We have recently renovated our library to include two glassed-in areas to make the space more flexible and collaborative,” she says. “Our furniture is completely on casters to allow for flexible group configurations, and we have writeable walls, which encourage brainstorming. We have three large-screen TVs so students and faculty may share media easily, and three charge bars so students may easily charge their phones or laptops while working. All this provides support for our English and social studies classes to read, research, and share their work easily.”

Coding Continues to Click

One particularly hot topic in technology these days is coding, another word for computer programming, or creating a set of instructions that powers a computer’s functions. “Coding has been very popular for a while now,” Moorefield-Lang says. “Many sites like are reaching out with efforts to train teachers and librarians in coding so that they can work with kids. It’s great.” This week, the nonprofit begins its annual Hour of Code event, which is a global initiative to introduce students to computer science, “designed to demystify code and show that anybody can learn the basics,” according to the Hour of Code site. The organization was founded in 2013 with a mission to expand access to computer science and increase participation by girls, women, and students of color.

As explained on the Hour of Code website, people can host or take part anytime, but the goal of the grassroots campaign is to get millions of students to try one hour of coding during December 7–13, which is Computer Science Education Week. The site contains tutorials, promotional materials, lesson plans, and additional support for educators and students of all ages and skill levels. Last December, President Barack Obama launched Hour of Code by writing his first line of code and becoming the first U.S. president to program a computer. This year,’s target is to have 100,000 Hour of Code events take place during the designated week.

Once educators and students explore the basics of coding, Moorefield-Lang says an increasing number of them promptly put their new computer science skills into practice. “Oculus Rift [a PC-based virtual reality headset] and other fully immersive experiences—Google Cardboard, Hololens—and creating coding for those types of glasses are really big right now, and they aren’t expensive,” she says.

Integration of Technology

More broadly, integrating technologies and an emphasis on STEM are “changing the learning environment in the library,” according to AASL president Leslie Preddy. Preddy, who is the library media specialist at Perry Meridian Middle School in Indianapolis, Ind., stresses that although a broad spectrum of technologies may be more prevalent in school libraries, “reading is still a key factor” in librarians’ work with students. Many educators find that a makerspace or learning commons is the ideal place to integrate more technology into their school. Preddy echoes her colleagues’ observations when she says that makerspaces and learning commons not only house technological tools, they help prepare students for “true analytic group work. These environments help develop niches for small groups and individuals.”

But with technology taking a more prominent spot in students’ learning toolboxes, Preddy points to what she calls the “myth of the digital native,” noting that a mastery of critical thinking and critical analysis cannot be assumed just because students have a facility with technology. “Yes, they play with technology right away,” she says, “but they don’t necessarily know how to create with it or use it in a forceful manner.” She also notes that school librarians are staying abreast of research and other efforts to “figure out if, or how much, screen time is harmful” to children.

As part of that ongoing research, last month the American Academy of Pediatrics—which in 2011 advised that children under age two have no screen time, and only limited screen time after that—announced that it is revising its guidelines to incorporate new scientific data since the development of the iPad and the proliferation of apps for young children. The AAP convened the invitation-only Growing Up Digital: Media Research Symposium in May; the key points that emerged from the gathering will inform the new AAP guidelines at the 2016 AAP National Conference in San Francisco next October. Early findings indicate that digital media can have both positive and negative effects, that the quality of content is more important “than the platform or time spent with media,” and that very young children learn better with two-way communication (“talk time”) while using media with a caregiver.

Balance in Library Transformation

Dovetailing with the school library’s changing role and physical appearance, Mackin Educational Resources, a company that distributes print and digital resources and digital content management and other services to schools and libraries, announced last month the launch of its Transform Your School Library initiative. The TYSL movement is intended to be a forum where “like-minded educators who are excited about the transformation of school libraries can have an arena to work within and help to secure the future of school libraries and school librarianship.” Via the TYSL site and blog, Mackin will host experts in the field and share best practices for facilitating changes in school libraries. Mackin hopes that the site will become a resource that can help guide and support school librarians who are considering changes, or who are already in the process of implementing them, and a place where success stories can serve as templates for others.

Jones says that when it comes to making various library transformations, librarians are talking about the importance of balancing the new with the old and “how not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.” For example, she says, “I just saw a post from a librarian who is weeding her library from 25,000 volumes to 10,000 volumes in order to make room for more open study area. So while the open area is important, it’s tough to lose more than half the print volumes in the library. Even though online resources are used almost exclusively for research, I’m still seeing that most middle and upper school students prefer print books for pleasure reading to e-books.”

Advocacy: Librarians Toot Their Horns

Transforming a school library’s functions and space is never done in a vacuum. Such efforts often require an all-hands-on-deck approach involving students, teachers, administrators, parents, and more. Librarians are typically charged with making a case for implementing change, and in some cases, they must also provide information to administrators that demonstrate the effectiveness of the school’s library—and the librarian—as aids to student success.

To help librarians and other stakeholders in this cause, Scholastic released a report called School Libraries Work! on November 5, during the AASL conference, a compendium of research that provides evidence of the positive impact that school libraries and librarians have on student learning. This new report is an updated and expanded version of the 2008 edition and includes statistics from research performed at the state and national level. At this year’s AASL conference, there were 15 sessions that focused on various types of advocacy. During one such presentation, “Your ‘Principal’ Partnership: Communicating Library Program Success Is Key to Your Success,” Mary Kay Biagini, associate professor and director of the School Library Certification Program, at the School of Information Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh, and Debra Kachel, instructor and scholarship director for Antioch University Seattle’s Library Media Endorsement program, offered school librarians tips on how to prepare information that helps a school principal easily and fully understand the scope of the librarians’ collaborative work with teachers and students, and which clearly communicates the value of the library program. Among other strategies, the presenters showed attendees how they could use the PA School Library Project to study the impact of school library programs and librarians on student achievement in Pennsylvania.

The ALA has bolstered its ongoing library advocacy efforts with the Libraries Transform campaign, which kicked off on October 29, as announced by ALA president Sari Feldman. The three-year nationwide public awareness initiative has been designed to highlight the ways that various types of libraries—public, school, special, academic—and library professionals play an essential role in communities in this digital age. The campaign was developed with support from digital content provider OverDrive, with the ultimate goal of not just increasing awareness and appreciation for libraries, but rallying critical funding and support for them as well. The campaign has a website that features a toolkit containing downloadable banners, postcards, and posters containing thought-provoking answers to the question of why libraries are transforming; one example is, “Because the world is at their fingertips and the world can be a scary place.” In addition, librarians and library supporters are encouraged to share stories, thoughts, and discussions on the topic using #librariestransform on social media.

Eye on the Future

For AASL president Preddy, one of the most important discussions school librarians are having these days is about how to consider the next generation of students and focus on what their needs are going to be in the future. “We have to consider what students will need to survive and be a participating member of a democratic society,” she says. “That means looking at how to develop autonomous, autodidactic learners. We need kids to be independent learners and thinkers.”

Advocacy obviously has a part to play in mapping a road to the future, too. “We need to be focusing on the value of the school library media center,” Preddy says. “It’s the one place in the school where all are welcome. It’s the place where students can come to think, share, and grow as a group, or as individuals. We want to expand the learning experience for students so that we are helping the next generation to not just be consumers, but also contributors, of knowledge.”

Carl A. Harvey II, a librarian and instructor of school librarianship at Longwood University in Farmville, Va., who frequently writes and speaks on school library issues, has a similar take. He says that the buzz following the recent AASL conference focuses on “the conversation and concept of how we continue to decide what to add, subtract, and modify in our school library programs to meet the needs of today’s and tomorrow’s students.” As one example of assessing what students in the future will need to learn, he cites the current review of AASL standards: earlier this fall, AASL solicited comments from school library professionals via an online survey and will be using those responses, along with other data and research, in the assessment and revision process. The association’s plan is to complete its work on the project (including efforts by focus groups, an implementation task force, and editorial board) in time to release a revised and updated set of learning standards and program guidelines at the next AASL National Conference in Phoenix in November 2017.