Modern school libraries are designed as multipurpose and flexible spaces that allow for various learning activities to take place. Unlike its traditional purpose, a library can have a class of students under instruction, a group study session in progress, a kid catching cartoons, and a bookworm escaping to a fictional world. 

Libraries are now required to function as a classroom, a breakout zone of silence and a space to accommodate group work. Architecture and modern teaching methods require an open plan or open cell type, dynamic layout, allowing teachers and staff line of sight to students at all locations.

Whangaparaoa Primary School recently refurbished their school library with Autex Composition, an acoustic wall covering chosen for its ability to eliminate noises and distractions in the learning environment.

According to Principal Kevin Cronin, modern learning spaces, libraries included, are designed to promote the cycle of learning.  Students focus alone or in pairs, to generate ideas, plan or digest information, then come together to learn, share, present or build on ideas creating a shared point of view, collaborating, then break apart to take the next steps.

To enable this cycle, the spaces are typically laid out as zones, areas within the space designated to support the two typical activity types – instructed, collaborative work and focus work, solitary or in pairs. There can be multiple zones in any one space creating a dynamic, tailored facility. 

Commenting on the functionality of the retrofitted library’s zones, Cronin says, “We have lots of students in different pockets and different areas [in the library] and their work and learning can be separate from children who are quite close. They are not being distracted by others [as] the sounds are just being absorbed by the environment.”

Zones can be demarcated in different ways using pathways inlaid in the carpet, blocks of colour, ceiling elements or installations, curved walls, feature finishes and purposeful furniture. The zones work like islands where the feel, layout and furniture elements define the space’s use. Students will gravitate towards them naturally, and move between them based on the activity.

The architectural and acoustic separation of these zones is created using space, dividing walls, and strategically placed acoustic elements, with movable screens and partitions used for additional flexibility.

The finishes of each space can enhance the activity. In the modern multipurpose library, best practice includes full coverage acoustic ceiling, and acoustic wall coverings lining walls and partitions around focused work areas, to offer a change in colour and absorption to reduce the reverberated sound energy. Suspended ceiling elements are a means of defining space without interrupting the floor area.

Good acoustic design makes a facility like this possible. The Ministry of Education’s ‘Designing Quality Learning Spaces – Acoustics’ specifies the ambient sound level in a library. There is a wealth of information available on the design of quality learning spaces and New Zealand has some of the best acoustic consultants in the world, with Autex on hand to aid at any step of the design process.  

Autex assisted Cronin throughout the retrofit of the Whangaparoa Primary School library to achieve excellent outcomes.

“We’ve been lucky enough to have people who have been very accommodating and prompt in their response. They have worked with us to make sure the design options are discussed and that we are happy with things. They have shown us things along the way and kept us informed so we are always in a position to say yes or no or how about this,” says Cronin.