Toronto library redesign for modern learning and collaboration

Late last week I was in a dingy hotel room in Toronto, and in search of a better place to work I decided to try the main branch of the Toronto public library. I had no idea that I was about to experience a modern example of creative use of space that builds on digital technology, and is an example for every school thinking about how to foster creative learning and collaboration environments. The library is well into a $34 million revitalization to transform it “into a library of the future - one that will meet the diverse needs of today's and tomorrow's learners.” The new design includes the following features:

  • Small group discussion “pods”—these are small, circular, glass-encased areas with a table in the middle—that allow for two or three people to converse while not disturbing others nearby, and also, because they are glass, maintain the wide open feel of the overall open floor plan.

  • Tables with different configurations, so that a single person or a group of many different sizes could easily find a spot to work. Many of the options for people working alone were next to large windows allowing in abundant natural light.

Toronto library work area

  • Small rooms to the side of the main room that were bigger than the pods, and had whiteboards.
  • A bank of televisions set to different channels, with circular seats in front of all of them collectively. Above each seat was a cone that directed the audio from one of the TV programs down to the seat below. If you were standing anywhere other than directly below the cone you couldn’t hear the audio, so it didn’t disturb anyone working nearby.

Toronto library tvs

  • Wifi was available for those with their own computers, and desktop computers for others to use.
  • Power outlets were distributed throughout the building.
  • An excellent coffee shop connected to the library, which allowed visitors to bring coffee in.

On this sunny Sunday afternoon the Toronto library and coffee shop were both crowded with people of all ages, in seemingly endless configurations, alone or in groups, using various computing devices and/or paper materials.

It’s going to be a long process to get to the point where most learning environments in middle and high schools are creatively geared toward multiple types of learning and collaboration, given the development time and capital costs involved. It’s notable that many students will start their education in an elementary school classroom that encourages different types of learning and collaboration, perhaps end their formal education in a college or university with similar spaces, but spend six of their most formative in-between years largely in classrooms with rows of desks in front of a teacher in which active learning and collaboration have to overcome the physical space instead of being nurtured by it.

See the Toronto library web page for details and more pictures.