At Stewart, we had a pretty loud library. There were robots racing through the stacks, the rustle of tubs of LEGOs being dug into, and the chatter of excited students talking about their favorite books and collaborating on projects. At my current school, the previous culture of the library had been one where a whisper was as loud as it got. In both cases, balance is needed. Yes, libraries are collaborative and active and having a space for conversation without worrying about being shushed is important. Yet at the same time, we have students who need to decompress, hunker down to study for an exam, or get lost in a good book. We can support loud and quiet in our libraries, but it takes effort to make it happen.
How to Create Conversation Zones to Support Learning Styles
Why do we need conversation zones?
We all have different learning styles and they can change depending on the task. When I’m writing, I love to be in a coffee shop or at an airport with lots of ambient noise and activity around me. Not loud, just background noise so I can focus (seriously, I got a ton of writing on my two books done at airports). When I’m designing and building something, I like lots of noise. There’s active conversation, maybe some music playing. When I’m reading or studying, I like it to be super-quiet. Maybe some jazz or classical music turned down low in the background, but that’s about it. And all these different learning needs come from an introverted-kinesthetic-visual learner.
In our libraries, we need to do our best to support all the various types of learning needs our students have. They may change from day to day, but they are crucially important. There are the physical spaces themselves, like the Six Active Learning Spaces and Thornburg’s Primordial Metaphors. Creating physical zones in our spaces can go a long way towards changing the space. When we are constrained by space or furniture, we can also create indicators of what level of conversation is expected in different areas. This can make it clearer to students so there’s less confusion and frustration.
Choosing Where Your Zones Go
Think about the acoustics of your space and the regular day-to-day activities. Which areas of your library have the most traffic? Where does collaboration naturally happen? Where do your students tend to congregate? You don’t want to put your quiet zone right next to your makerspace. You also don’t want it right in the line of traffic where students go to get their printouts. Try as much as possible to go with the zones that naturally form.
In my current library, it’s busiest at the front entrance of the library, where the printer, computers and fiction section are. The farther side of the library tends to be quieter. There are a couple of clusters of comfy chairs where students tend to hang out. They also gather near the outlets in the middle of the room. My library also has a huge domed ceiling, making the acoustics a challenge. For my space, the quiet zone is the farthest from the entrance and the computers. We have some Steelcase Brody cubbies over there and several individual tables. A low-volume zone buffers the quiet zone from the collaboration zone in the middle near the outlets.
Reflections One Year In
We started the conversation zones in my library one year ago. Our high school students have study hall in the library, so there’s students in here every period of the day. There’s usually about 20-30 students in each period, though it varies. When we first started the conversation zones, it was a bit of a challenge. Teachers were used to things being quiet. And the majority of the students wanted to be in the collaboration zone, which made it too loud overall for the quiet zone students. We re-arranged the zones a few times, and while it’s not perfect, it is definitely better overall.
In the future, I’m hoping to create clearer divisions of the zones with mobile shelving units and variety in our furniture (right now all the tables and chairs are the same traditional wooden library tables). I also want to get more soft furniture and acoustic tiles to help absorb the sound. I have heard feedback from students in both camps that they like the switch. There are still some who aren’t happy with it, particularly students who make-up tests in the library – I let them sit in my office if they need complete silence. But with any change, there’s always going to be hiccups along the way.
Conversation Zone Signage Tips and Tricks
I created signs to designate each of the zones. I created a 4”x6” template in Canva and choose my colors, names and images there. There’s lots of great 4 x 6 signholders out there that can work as tabletop signs. The IKEA Tolsby frames are only $1 each and thus are super-budget friendly. But I have found in the past that students will sometimes fiddle with them and take them apart. You could tape the pieces together with cute washi or duct tape to avoid this (see below). I had the fancier IKEA frames with cork (Karlsnas) for the past year, but we had a few unfortunate graffiti incidents that are making me replace them this year. The also tended to crack and look dingy. I’m using these 4” x 6” acrylic sign holders from Amazon this year – I’ll update you later in the year on how they work out. You can see them in action below.
UPDATED with BONUS tips:
- Use 4″ x 6″ cardstock and set your printer to A6 size. This way you can print your image directly without having to cut it down to size
- Use a solid color masking tape or washi tape to seal open sides of your sign holders. This will help keep students from taking them apart (which they love to do) and it’s easy to remove when you need to change out the sign
Feel free to download these images or use the pdf for your own signs, or take the idea and create your own.
(Note: The signs you see in earlier versions used emojis from Emojipedia, but after some research I’m not entirely certain if they’re copyright-friendly or not. To be safe, I switched them out for similar icons available in Canva.)
Want to learn more about how I transformed my library space, read about other schools’ transformations and get practical tips for changing up your own space?
Check out my book: Reimagining Library Spaces: Transform Your Space on Any Budget
In this practical guide, I go into detail about planning a library space transformation, from brainstorming to ideation to surveying your students. I include tips for dreaming big as well as simple, budget-friendly changes you can implement right away. Each chapter includes action steps and connections to the ISTE standards.