Four surprising findings from community-centric space transformations


There is always something creative and educational waiting for us at the library.

That’s what one library user and parent said about the Ronan District Library in Ronan, Montana, after the library participated in the Small Libraries Create Smart Spaces project, led by OCLC’s WebJunction program with funding from an IMLS National Leadership Grant. The Ronan library, along with 14 other small and rural libraries in the US, transformed library spaces into places for social, active learning.

Thanks to the original program’s success and supplemental funding from IMLS, the WebJunction team is bringing this opportunity to 15 more public libraries in 2019. We often say libraries are the heart of a community, but one key to successful transformations involves placing communities at the heart of the library. The libraries each led a community discovery process, which helps them see their library through the eyes of community members. This opened a path to rediscovering the unique personality of the library and the ways people interact with it.

1. Sometimes you need to pave your own path

Half of the users of the Ronan District Library, (service population 8,645) are children and teens. The community discovery process revealed that concern among book-categories-croppedadults over youth drug use was high, and many of the suggestions focused on engaging kids of all ages, making them feel welcome, and providing stimulating activities. Like staff at many libraries, Ronan staff wanted to convert to flexible, modular space, but they also wanted to design a learning environment that’s open and nonjudgmental. To this end, the library staff created their own cataloging system for children’s books, including a reclassification of “early reader” books to “let’s read.” This change in phrasing destigmatizes easier-to-read books for older kids who are reading below grade level.

2. Outdoor spaces are learning places, too

The Wilton Public and Gregg Free Library (service population 3,400) in Wilton, New Hampshire, was the only library to choose an outdoor space as a locus of active learning. Drawing more community members to activities on the library grounds aligned with a town-wide effort to enhance livability and conviviality in Wilton. Library staff used surveys and dot board voting at local events to gather information about the community’s needs. An outdoor performance space won the most votes.

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When inclement weather put a halt to construction on the space, the staff worked all winter on planning programming that included concerts, open mic nights, ukulele lessons, and community sing-alongs. The library staff were so happy with the process and the results that they applied the same principles and techniques to completing the renovation of their youth space inside the library.

3. A variety of data collection tools can unlock creativity

The team at James Kennedy Public Library (service population 5,000) in Dyersville, Iowa, was amazed by the number of creative ideas they gathered from their community. They used a variety of strategies to truly listen to and discover what people care about. They deployed surveys, dot boards, in-person interviews, and group brainstorming sessions to encourage as much community participation as possible. When it came to talking to the library board, there was concern that familiarity with the library would hamper creative thinking. Instead, Library Director Shirley Vonderhaar says, “The session with the Board surprised me—they had so many ideas and were so excited sharing those thoughts. Contents of all the interviews were so divergent, they blew me out of the water.”

4. Embrace what makes your library special

HSL_After Transformation_former-closet_croppedHot-Springs_Space_Before_sizedThe Hot Springs Library (service population 500) in Hot Springs, North Carolina, is the smallest branch of the Madison County Library System. (The system was named Best Small Library in America 2018 by Library Journal, thanks in part to the renovation enabled by the Small Libraries Create Smart Spaces program.) The Hot Springs Library is located directly on the Appalachian Trail and serves a community of outdoor enthusiasts.

The team wanted to honor their community’s passion for environmental preservation, while also responding to their desire for hands-on play centers for children. As part of their dramatic conversion of a former storage closet, they created a sensory wall that reflects the nature outside. They now offer children’s programming centered around nature, preservation, and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, math) activities.

Want inspiration for your own small space transformation?

You can read more about the community discovery journeys of the other participating libraries in my September 2018 blog post, and meet the next 15 libraries that have been selected for Small Libraries Create Smart Spaces 2019. Interested in transforming your own library? Take the free, three-part Making Space for Active Learning course online.

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You can find additional community engagement resources at