By Rebecca Schmitz
Walk into Western Albemarle High School’s newly-renovated library on an average afternoon, and you’ll see students doing just what you’d expect: speaking in hushed voices while clustered in study groups, reading quietly while lounging in cozy chairs, and wandering the shelves in search of reference books.
Scan the room more closely, however, and you’ll notice some significant changes. A storage room has been purged of outdated equipment and converted into a “makerspace,” complete with a 3-D printer and laser cutter. A former conference room has been repurposed into a sound studio, with students writing and recording their own music and learning real-world audio production skills. A student-run help desk—whose members are known as “The WAHS Squad”—has been set up near one of the library’s entrances to provide technical support to students and teachers.
The changes reflect the evolving role of libraries as schools nationwide become more focused on project-based learning and student experimentation. Western’s new librarian, Melissa Techman, who joined the staff this fall, said that “As part of the backlash against standardized and rote learning, school systems have a renewed commitment to hands-on and project-based learning. School libraries serve the whole school community, so it’s natural that they’d want to be a hub for these activities.”
As schools acquire more advanced technology, libraries (as well as some classrooms) have designated areas deemed “makerspaces” where students can learn hands-on how to use these new technologies to enhance their schoolwork. Such spaces are designed to encourage student creativity. “This is where students can try, explore, and learn,” Techman said. Although Western’s makerspace is not big enough to hold an entire class full of students, small groups can take turns working in the room. The entrepreneurship class, for example, is using the 3-D printer to print keys developed for a class project. The Aircraft and Drone Club also uses the room for its meetings. Because the room is separate from the main library space, the club can meet without disturbing other students with equipment that could be noisy or distracting. The club is new this year, and its members have already visited Henley Middle School to share their knowledge of drone technology. The club also has plans to visit the elementary schools.
The conference-room-turned-sound-studio is another new feature that encourages hands-on learning and experimentation with real-world technology. Under the supervision of math teacher Kip Chatterson, students can use the room to record music, write songs, repair instruments, and learn to record, edit, and produce audio files using digital audio workstation software. “This is different from band, choir, and orchestra. Those things are instruments, even if it’s your voice. This is more like writing songs or doing electronic music,” Techman explained. The sound studio was heavily lobbied for by sophomore James Krasner, who used the studio to record sound effects and write an original song for Western’s production of the play Anne Frank. “It’s wonderful to have students involved in all parts of the school in productive roles,” Techman said.
The county has donated some of the equipment in the room, such as speakers and electronic keyboards, and “Much of the equipment I brought in myself, or from public contributions,” Chatterson said. He said they are always looking for more donated equipment. “We would gratefully accept serviceable contributions, and those contributions could be things that need some TLC.” He notes that the students can fix worn or broken instruments. “At the moment we could really use an acoustic guitar.”
Next year, Chatterson will use the room to teach a class in audio production. “This isn’t necessarily a music class,” he said. The classes will cover the basics of sound and standard recording techniques, with students learning to record music and do voice-over work for podcasts.
Another important addition to the library is the WAHS Squad. Because this year Western is a “one-to-one” school (one laptop for every student), Techman believes the squad provides a particularly valuable service to both students and teachers. “They can do all kinds of things. They can give advice—they give me advice all the time. They function as first-level tech assistance. They can repair parts. They are a tremendous help. The library has become kind of the de facto help site.” The WAHS Squad’s 15 skilled students, who take turns working at the help desk during their study halls and lunch periods, are enrolled in computer science or web design courses. Senior Isabella Fernandez finds working at the help desk, “almost like a real tech job,” and is glad for the opportunity to practice her skills in a more “real-world” setting.
The library has undergone structural changes as well. Librarian Ginger Lejeune said she and Techman helped shape what the new space would look. “We were given parameters. We didn’t get to completely design it. But we decided how to arrange the shelves. The old shelves were dark and metal. They were gloomy and uninviting. This looks much more open and light.” The new shelves are also easily moveable, even when full of books, which means they can be reconfigured to accommodate meetings and events. The ceilings were raised after being torn out school-wide to upgrade the air conditioning systems, creating a more spacious, inviting atmosphere. The furniture and carpeting are also new, and one wall in the back of the library has been painted with whiteboard paint so students can write on it when meeting in study groups or doing presentations. Outdated technical equipment has been purged, and books have been weeded through to keep only the most relevant and useful.
One of the most significant changes is a new entrance, so that the library now has two entrances instead of just one. “It turns it into a path in between classes,” Techman said. “We are thinking about how to capitalize on that.” She thinks the space has potential to be used as a gallery space, to display students’ work in art or robotics.
Techman noted the renovation is not complete. Hanging LCD projectors will be installed, and plans are in place to build a low-platform stage for guest speakers or student presentations. “Libraries have alwaysbeen responsive to community interests, and in the last few years, they’ve responded to a surge of interest in art and electronics,” she says. The library opens at 8 a.m. and Lejeune said with a smile that “By 8:30 we are crowded!” She said that the library has always been a popular place, but the new makerspace and other features are attracting new and different students: “There has been a great deal of excitement.” Students can eat lunch, work, or talk quietly in the library, and Lejeune says that one of their goals in renovating the library was “about providing new choices and opportunities for the students.”
More changes are sure to come, and Techman believes that libraries will continue to evolve: “I feel libraries are essential and are changing to meet new needs. There’s a lot of talk about ebooks, but they’re definitely not free and not all titles are available in ebook format. Many students prefer print books, and libraries model an approach in which users have a choice of formats. Librarians are instructional partners, and have tech skills and big-picture understandings to help students in many ways.”