By Debbie Hall
We sent the letter below to the HISD Building Dept. today in response to our increasing awareness of problematic library designs in new and renovated HISD campuses. Everyone should speak up when they see these issues, to campus admin, parents and school board representatives.
I am a former HISD librarian and a current advocate for HISD and particularly the district’s library program. I have seen the impact that libraries can have on the lives of our students and presently I am very concerned with the direction HISD is going in regards to designing new library spaces for students.
At a time when we know that literacy rates are declining, HISD should be following best practices in school library design and being more strategic when planning library spaces for its students. From the results, I am seeing in new buildings and even in renovations, I cannot understand what the current HISD library design guidelines are or if there are any guidelines. I see spaces that restrict the types of interactions available between the student, the teacher, and the librarian. I see libraries without walls, libraries in hallways, and libraries with no identifiable space at all. I see some new schools being built without a library. The current designs may look good on paper but I seriously question how these spaces will function serving the needs of students and teachers both now and in the future.
Libraries are for learning and instruction. The most obvious flaw with HISD's current school library design is that large group teaching space has been eliminated in some cases. The effect of this lack of instructional space is that the library becomes a space for only small group or one-on-one interactions. Schools with this type of floor plan cannot support the instructional mission of the library. Too many of the new HISD "libraries" are merely shelves with books in an open unsecured area, often a hallway.
Guidelines for library design address multiple activities. In a school library, there should be a space for large group instruction, comfortable reading areas, viewing areas, study carrels, shelves, computers, tables to write or design, maker spaces, and areas for quiet reflection/thinking. Where would a librarian introduce research skills to a large class or small group in a library without an area dedicated to instruction? If the elementary library is in a hallway, how can a story be read aloud to engage readers? What about security? The library collection is typically one of a school's most valuable assets. If there are no walls and no way to restrict access, how is the inventory of its contents kept safe for all to use? Does the fact that Lamar High School has placed library books and shelves in a hallway - without a librarian even - make that space a library?
The following schools were recently built with two-story open-concept library designs: Condit, Braeburn, Kolter and Scarborough. The open-concept plan was very popular in 1965 and it was largely a failure. The idea is being resurrected. While you can find positive and negative reviews of this model, I think most librarians would find it very challenging to manage students where they can be spread over two floors. The acoustic issues, including student distraction and strain on teacher voices not to mention discipline issues when students are out of sight on a different floor, have been common complaints in many such designs.
I have talked to several librarians who shared their experiences serving on their building committee to plan new HISD schools. All of them expressed frustration about getting their concerns answered. Most recently I have spoken to the former librarians at HSPVA, Bellaire, and HSHP who expressed their dissatisfaction with the process. They were able to get some but not all of the changes that they felt were needed to make the spaces work for their students and staff.
The schools that do not have a librarian on staff have no one speaking up for a functional library design in a new facility. This is especially problematic if the principal has no idea what a good 21st-century library should look like. The district’s office of Library Services should take part in all meetings where important decisions about the library design are made. In any large school district, the Department of Library Services is tasked with providing expertise on what school library programs should offer and how library spaces should look and function. Until recently, all HISD school library designs were a result of a collaboration between the Library Services Department, the school librarian, and the school building committee.
I hope that HISD will reconsider this aspect of the building program and once again return to the idea that the library is an instructional hub for the campus. Having bookshelves in the hallway is not the same as providing a library; books in the hallway without a trained librarian is a waste of money. Don’t waste taxpayer’s money, build libraries that are based on design guidelines that take into account the library's mission of connecting readers to books and information. Use the experts on your staff (certified school librarians and the Department of Library Services) to create world-class library spaces.
Library Advocate/ volunteer
This blog is primarily authored by Debbie Hall and Dorcas Hand, but guest authors are welcome. If you have an idea to share, please contact our email below. Debbie is a retired HISD librarian and Library Services Specialist. Dorcas is a retired school librarian who remains active in AASL/ALA. Both support increased equity in school library access and support for all HISD students and campuses.