Walk into the Wright Library at St. Catherine’s School on any given day and you’ll be greeted by girls gathered around a table, laptops open and phones out, as they chat about a class project or just what’s going on that day. A student grabs a magazine from the racks on the wall and settles into a seat on a couch. On your left, the feet of a six-foot tall St. Christopher’s School student stick out from a nook under the stairs.
Directly ahead, librarians smile from a desk in the center of the room. It’s waist-high, nothing like the former circulation desk.
“By opening up the front of the library, we created a welcoming and productive atmosphere,” says Courtney Lewis, Director of Library Services and Innovative Research. “Our new location allows us to be easily accessible.”
From their new vantage point, the librarians have a 360-degree view of students working quietly at carrels, talking about banned books in a corner classroom, or searching for the next book in their favorite series.
They’re also looking out on a whole new way of experiencing the library at St. Catherine’s.
Physical to Digital
In the age of ebooks and digital publications, the need for libraries full of physical books may sound like a relic of days gone by. Audrey Church, president of the American Association of School Librarians, argues that’s not the case. The needs of patrons are just evolving.
“We’ll never move away from print materials,” she says. “But as we move into the virtual, electronic, and digital realm, we see a shift. There’s less shelving and more space for instruction.”
In other words, students working on research projects may trade large reference books and bulky microfiche machines for online databases, but they still need guidance on searching for information, evaluating and synthesizing it, and ultimately communicating what they’ve learned.
“Google does not have all the answers. Wikipedia does not have all the answers,” says Church. “Doing research in a college or university environment requires the use of those subscription paid resources. The library is the place and the librarian is the person that allows students to use those resources and gain those skills prior to stepping out into an academic environment at the higher education level.”
Even the communication aspect has changed. Traditional research papers are still a mainstay, but professors are asking students to think far beyond their final grade.
“Students no longer give their teacher a paper and get an A or a B,” Lewis says. “Modern-day professors want students to realize they’re part of a community of scholars. They’re part of a social network of people who are interested in a topic and who can inform research and give feedback that [helps you] get better.”
That means students may be asked to write for academic blogs and websites, or find more creative outlets to share their work. Familiarity with a wide spectrum of technology tools is a must, which is why the Wright Library’s old AV storage room, full of overhead transparency machines and film cutting equipment, is being upgraded with green screens, GoPros and drones.
“We asked and the girls said, ‘We want to know how to produce great YouTube videos. How do we interview each other? We need a room that’s soundproofed,’” Lewis says. “The ninth grade physics teacher, during his sound unit, is actually going to get different kinds of acoustical soundproofing foam and the girls will design the soundproofing of the room.”
Similar thinking also applies at the elementary level. Story time might still mean a group of children clustered around a librarian reading a book. Rather than straining to see the pages of a physical book, though, they might see an ebook projected on a wall.
This approach is evident in the Lower School Library, which is undergoing its own renovation. The first step was to create an open floor plan allowing for a variety of activities. Moveable tables and flexible space will accommodate small groups and station-based activities, as well as a recent partnership between Christy Irving, Lower School Librarian, and Ann Hamilton-Dixon, Lower School Technology Coordinator.
Beginning in the second grade, Irving introduces information literacy and research skills, such as the library catalog. In the third and fourth grades, a combined class with Hamilton-Dixon incorporates online encyclopedias and periodical databases, iPad presentation apps and a 3D printer.
“Technology and research and information literacy, they definitely go hand-in-hand, and having good research skills is so valuable,” Irving says. “I never expect the girls to leave the Lower School being experts, but we give an introduction to the resources that are available to them and a process for research.”
While technology and research may be front and center, the Lower School library is still a space for young girls. With the large nook gone and new paint on the walls, the room is now lighter and brighter, with plenty of room for movement — even when students are in their seats. New chairs will allow girls to wiggle and fidget without disrupting their neighbors; studies show that the more kids can move, the more they’re actually paying attention.
Back in the Wright Library, a handful of innovative Brody chairs also prove how every detail of your work environment can enhance productivity. The chairs are encased with a small wall to encourage quiet study, and some have attached lights and power outlets. They also have a stool, as psychology studies show technology-driven work is best accomplished with feet at an angle.
Upper School student Emma Walker is most excited about the improved seating options. “The Brody chairs provide more comfortable work spaces and are great for working at a computer for an extended period of time,” she says.
The strategic placement of Brody chairs, traditional study carrels, and collaborative tables in quiet and noisy zones also reflect the needs of girls at a rigorous school. Lewis says students at St. Catherine’s want to work near their friends, even when they’re completely focused on their work. “Two girls might pick Brody chairs right next to each other and be totally quiet and working, but occasionally send a text to the person next to them,” she says. “They want to be able to take a break from working alone, find a few friends, share how they’re feeling and get some empathy. It satisfies an emotional need and that level of openness, I think, is part of an all-girls school.”
Small Details, Big Wins
A workstation that looks like it was plucked from the first-class cabin on a flight to Dubai might catch a visitor’s attention, but many of the library developments are low-tech solutions to seemingly simple problems — like finding a book to read for the weekend.
Irving and Lewis refer to it as the “bookstore-ification” of libraries. Selected books are turned face-out on shelves to increase appeal among passersby. In the Lower School, picture books are moving to bins placed around the library’s perimeter, making them easier for little hands to manage.
“A lot of the local public libraries have transitioned to picture book bins because they allow the younger children to flip through the books,” Irving says. “It’s so hard, if you’re five years old, to take a book out and get it back on the shelf.”
The Upper School has incorporated genre and series labels to help students easily find what they’re looking for. Lewis estimates that library staff used to spend upwards of 45 minutes a day looking up the next book in a series. Now that information is at the girls’ fingertips.
Still other additions acknowledge the needs of high-achieving students neck-deep in midterms and college applications. Nineteen therapy dogs came in for a visit during spring break and hot chocolate days are planned for the winter. In the future, a library classroom may double as a meditation zone, complete with aromatherapy, soft music and coloring books.
“Eighth, eleventh, and twelfth graders, while they absolutely were doing homework and academic work, they showed higher rates of watching videos, sleeping, and things that were escapist behaviors,” Lewis says. “Obviously we have a great information literacy program, but girls need things outside of the classroom, too. It’s important for us to maintain that balance of what they need from us to help with their work, and here’s what they need, period.”
The Heart of a School
“It’s a pet peeve of mine when you go to an independent school that has a really strong sense of self and culture and you go into the library and you have no idea where you are,” says Lewis. “We wanted to show you’re at St. Catherine’s School, you’re at a girls’ school.”
Lewis is referring to design details, like a subtle daisy pattern on the couch upholstery, but every inch of the Wright Library reflects the ideas and input of the St. Catherine’s community.
In fact, the library renovations originated with the 2015 and 2016 graduating seniors and their parents who wanted a better space for the students they were leaving behind. The girls knew what they wanted in a library, and the Senior Parent Gift Committee raised the money to make it happen.
When Lewis came on board in 2015, she sent a survey to the entire Middle and Upper schools with a promise of fresh-baked cookies in exchange for their time.
An eighth grader might not be an expert in space design, but she is an expert in how she spends her day. To that end, students were asked to detail the campus spaces they use for collaborative work, quiet study and relaxation; their interest in ebooks, research databases and other tools; and even their furniture preferences.
More than three-quarters of the student body responded — and they didn’t hold back. The library staff learned that the original study carrels had to stay. Old rules banning food and drink needed to be rethought (after all, says Lewis, “you can’t learn if you’re hungry or thirsty.”). And student after student said quiet space was a must.
Once initial design concepts were in hand, they were plastered on the library walls with stacks of blank Post-Its, ready for feedback. Within days, hundreds of notes peppered the designs with thoughts on colors and space layout and everything in between.
The library staff also took notice of what was happening in the space and found solutions to problems students didn’t even know they had. For instance, after watching girls sketch out ideas on a whiteboard and text a photo to their group, St. Catherine’s purchased a whiteboard with built-in Bluetooth connectivity that allows students to view their notes in real time and share snapshots along the way.
Wright Library is still evolving, but it’s clear the changes are winning over students. Lewis says they were lucky to have 70 or 80 kids a day before the renovation, but they now see nearly 300 students voluntarily visiting the library every day. They’re not just hanging out, either; book circulation is up 329 percent.
Girls are also finding the library offers a cozy alternative to places like the Grove Avenue Starbucks for after-school study sessions. Wesley Wright, Governor Emeriti and the library’s namesake, is fond of saying the library is the kitchen of the school. It’s the informal gathering place at the heart of St. Catherine’s, the place where anyone feels at home.
Lewis believes they’re fulfilling that vision. “It’s almost left over from when it used to be a boarding school here,” says Lewis. “They don’t just leave at 3:30; they can continue to be in that library space. I love that.”
This feature appeared in the fall 2016 issue of St. Catherine's Now, a publication of St. Catherine's School.