Libraries by design

An Engaging Places network 2008/09 case study | 19 August 2009

Key stage 2:
English, design and technology, mathematics, science

Key stage 5:
Advanced Diploma in Construction and the Built Environment

The traditional image of public libraries as dusty, silent places has long been overturned. Visit your local library today and you’re as likely to see children playing on a computer or being entertained by a storyteller as people falling asleep over the newspaper.

What did the teachers want to achieve? To increase students’: self-esteem and confidence; imaginative engagement, independent thinking and teamwork skills; ability to express their ideas verbally and visually; connection with the local community and understanding of people’s diverse needs.


Despite this, when year 12 students from Thamesview Vocational Centre in Kent were asked to come up with ideas for redesigning the local library, their response was distinctly lukewarm. ‘Never noticed it,’ said students who walked past the building every day. One of them even thought it was a public convenience!

Yet a month on, the students were working with more enthusiasm, energy, imagination than ever before. So how did the local library prove to be such an inspiring place after all?

Photo of four students reviewing work

Students from Riverview Junior School © Thamesview Vocational Centre

Creative connections
The key to the success of this project was creating links – with organisations, experts and, perhaps most importantly, a local primary school.

Down the road at Riverview Junior School, the school council – 32 children from years 3 to 6 – were already designing a new interior for a different local library in Gravesend. Both schools were working with South East Planning Aid, who put the two schools in touch.

How was the learning organised? The project involved two groups of students: year 12 students studying the Advanced Diploma in Construction and the Built Environment who redesigned a local library; students from years 3 to 6 focused on the interior of a different public library.


The pairing proved an instant success, as Thamesview course tutor Anne Schuster explains, ‘Our students were still apathetic about the library design work when we paid our first visit to Riverview. I couldn’t believe the turnaround! They really enjoyed looking at the younger children’s ideas and came away fired up about the possibilities for the project. After that, there was no stopping them.’

Ideas exchange
Soon the two groups of students were meeting weekly to exchange ideas and a remarkable sense of teamwork developed. Sixth formers worked happily alongside seven-year-olds, talking about plans and learning to communicate on their level.

What was the impact? The students: developed the ability to think independently and work collaboratively; gained confidence and self-esteem from having their ideas valued by the community; became more aware of their community and its needs.

Although tackling different briefs, the students were able to share facts and figures to inform their design work. The older students helped the younger children to devise questionnaires that both schools then used to collect views of community members and families.

Local library service managers, historians, councillors, planners and designers all got involved. Whether aged seven or 17, the students gained confidence from discussing ideas and presenting possibilities.

From the outside…
At Thamesview, the library project contributed to the design element of the new Advanced Diploma in Construction and the Built Environment. ‘This project was consistent with the aims and objectives of the Diploma and also links with other A levels our students are working towards,’ explains Anne Schuster. ‘Giving them free rein to design a real building proved a wonderful enquiry-based learning opportunity.’

The students researched other libraries and public spaces, making sketches, taking photographs and talking to experts and community members. Having taken part in a workshop at the V&A Museum on designing public spaces, they decided to communicate their design ideas through modelling.

Photo of students discussing work

Students discussing interior spaces © Thamesview Vocational Centre

The final designs were presented to the local community to great acclaim. Several were inspired by the area’s history as the site of an airfield, drawing on aeronautic design themes. Others picked up on sustainable elements through innovative use of light, heating and space. One student even took the initiative to suggest moving the library to a disused community space.

… to the inside
At Riverview, the focus was on redesigning the inside of the library. ‘We believe that children need to get the chance to use classroom skills in real-life, problem-solving situations,’ explains headteacher Rosemary Dymond. ‘When the library asked for ideas on how to modernise, we leapt at the chance to get involved.’

The students visited the building and took photographs of the interior, looking at the use of space and light. They talked to architects about what they could change and learnt about the impact of the building being in a conservation area. An interior designer explained the theory behind choice of colours and flooring. A furniture designer introduced them to the ergonomics of seating and workstations.

Brimming with ideas, the students wrote reports, produced detailed drawings and made models showing their designs for different rooms. Managers from the library service came in to judge the final designs and discussed the work and its value in a very mature way. The students’ models are now on display in the library and the school is waiting to see how the final rooms take shape.

Photo of students presenting work

Students presenting their work © Thamesview Vocational Centre

Community contribution
Both schools are passionate about the benefits of learning outside the classroom. ‘The enthusiasm this project has engendered and the breadth of learning it has created are immense,’ says Rosemary Dymond. ‘It’s great for the community to recognise the practical and workable contribution young people can make to the future of buildings and places.’

Keen to build on the excitement, motivation and high-quality work that has emerged from this project, the schools are already planning their next initiative together.

Want to do something similar with your class?
We have collated a list of activities, organisations and resources that you can use to give your students opportunities to engage with community buildings and places.

Changing places – Ospringe Primary School, key stage 2

The Engaging Places network
This case study comes from Thamesview Vocational Centre and Riverview Junior School in Gravesend, Kent, who partnered with South East Planning Aid through the Engaging Places network for 2008/09.

The Engaging Places programme is run by CABE (Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment) and English Heritage. It supports teaching and learning through buildings and places.

Engaging Places realises that young people identify deeply with where they go to school and live but they are not always able to adequately communicate their sense of place to others. The physical face of many neighbourhoods is changing fast and schools are being transformed at an incredible pace, despite the recession. These dramatic changes will either involve or exclude a whole generation of young people.

Engaging Places is responding to this situation through the Engaging Places network. This is made up of schools and learning providers across England that work together on projects which seek to equip students with the tools to articulate and critically analyse the places where they live and learn.

The schools involved in 2008/09 followed a process of disciplined innovation using the QCA co-development framework – a rigorous approach to curriculum change.

Read more about the and view the Engaging Places videos.

All Engaging Places 2008/09 network case studies

A new view on design - Graveney School, key stage 3

Street investigation - Ospringe Primary School, key stage 2

Grounds for improvement - Barmby on the Marsh Primary School, key stage 1, 2

A 360-degree journey - Dover Grammar School for Girls, key stage 4, AS level

Tales from the Palace - St John’s CE Primary School, key stage 2

A window on the past – Cardinal Newman Catholic School, key stage 3

Resurrecting the past – St Pius X Catholic High School, key stage 3

Groundbreaking geography - The Royal Grammar School, key stage 5

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