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  • Writer's pictureDr. Kristen Mattson

7 Tips for Making Over Your Learning Space on a Budget

When I started my new role as a high school librarian two years ago, the space was less than welcoming. While the architecture was beautiful – two-story ceilings, lots of windows with natural lights, great traffic flow – the furniture, paint, layout and overall atmosphere left something to be desired. So with very little budget, I set out to recreate the library into a learning commons that people would start enjoying again. Here are a few things I learned along the way that might help you as you rethink your own classroom, office, or library!

1. Don’t be afraid to roll up your sleeves. Sure, there are maintenance crews in our schools who do a lot of our heavy lifting and deep cleaning, but I found that when admin and maintenance saw me doing some of the “dirty work,” they knew I was committed and were more willing to listen to my ideas and work with me to create something awesome. I also tapped on the shoulders of my library staff and student helpers for ideas and their muscles. Moving furniture was a no cost way for me to immediately make changes to the overall flow and feel of the space.


2. Look for opportunities to swap! My library was packed full of long, rectangular tables. Once students were sitting at them, it became difficult for teachers to circulate through the aisles, and the shape of the tables made collaborating difficult. I knew of some round tables with stools that were being used in another section of the building and approached my assistant principal about a trade. It turns out the round tables weren’t suiting the needs of the other space and switching furniture would be ideal for everyone. You should also check with your district office for furniture needs. We had an entire storage area full of “old stuff” that I was welcome to take, re purpose, and use.



3. Ask,and ye shall receive! I absolutely hated the tan, empty walls in the library and knew that a splash of paint could make the space more welcoming. After approaching both maintenance and administration, they came up with leftover paint that had been recently used in another area of the building. I paid for tape and brushes, and my space got a fresh coat over winter break. In the same regard, I knew that my library did not have enough computers to service the kids, and really desired to have work stations at each of my round tables. Maintenance came through again by bringing power and data to each of the tables. The technology department was able to supply me with some refurbished computers that had been in storage. The tables that did not receive computers are equipped for them in the future (as money becomes available) or can be used for BYOD work spots. What I learned is that people tend to have additional resources or are willing to help you find them if you simply ASK. You must be an advocate for your needs and your space!

4. Get your kids to help! The entrance into my library was a long, dark hallway that was completely empty and served no purpose. When I arrived it was creepy, uninviting, and dull. Working with the art department and the students, we turned the space into a lounge and art gallery. I spent a portion of my budget on chairs, but the coffee tables came from student projects done in wood shop class. The walls drew people in once we started showcasing student art on a rotating schedule.

The “Starbooks Cafe” was a set of two Flavia machines leased from our school’s food service company. Students could buy packets of coffee, hot cocoa, and tea from our circulation desk and brew their own beverages before and after school. Student helpers maintained the cafe by keeping it clean, filled with water, and well stocked.

The best part of giving students some ownership in the library makeover was that it became a space they felt a part of.


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5. Rethink the dreams out of your reach. When I first started exploring library furniture and 21st century learning spaces, I fell in love with the idea of chargeable tables and chairs. In a BYOD environment, our students were constantly looking for a place to power up midday, and I often had trouble with kids unplugging computers in order to use an outlet. I quickly realized that this chargeable furniture was way beyond my budget. Instead of getting frustrated, I started looking for alternate solutions. I found a great deal on these little charging stations that actually attach to your existing furniture. We moved student made coffee tables near existing outlets, added the stations and went from single outlets to multiple port plug-ins!


6. Add personal touches to make it feel like home. If your school is anything like mine, industrial carpeting, cold tiles, and concrete walls permeate the space and leave it feeling less than warm and fuzzy. While covering every inch of your classroom walls can be a bit overwhelming to look at, a blank canvas is far from inviting. I spent some of my budget at to design my own large banners for the walls. It was fun to add student pictures and favorite quotes to really personalize them for our space. With some of our book fair earnings, we designed and purchased a custom welcome mat for in front of the circulation desk.


7. Don’t throw away what you don’t want! During any makeover process, it can be tempting to just pull out the trash cans, but remember that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. I was blessed to find a lot of “freebies” around my building and district to help me recreate the library – perhaps what you do not need would be the ideal addition to a colleague’s space.

We were able to make use of the books weeded from our collection in a pretty fun way. One of our maintenance men built shelving into some nooks and crannies that already existed in the hallways, and we were able to expand our library outside of our own four walls. These read and return shelves were the perfect place for unwanted donations, weeded fictional materials, and last month’s magazines and newspapers. The selection was always changing as people took and replaced reading material with their own donations. Even when students could not make it to the library, literacy was just around the corner 🙂


The most important thing to remember in any makeover project is that the space is there to serve students. Listen to their requests, involve them in the process, and have some fun. And when will you know your makeover was successful? Why, when it is spotlighted in the yearbook, of course 🙂

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