October 23, 2021

Ryann Uden and Shaun Kelly on “Active Learning in the Library” | TDS14


Young patrons play at the Barrington Area Library.

Creating an active learning space can be a great undertaking, but according to Ryann Uden and Shaun Kelly, who transformed Barrington Area Library in Chicago, it’s both a manageable and worthwhile one. In “Active Learning in the Library,” presented as part of LJ and SLJ’s virtual event The Digital Shift: Libraries @ the Center, held October 1, the two provided advice and suggestions for creating learning environments in libraries, based on Barrington’s successful model.

Uden, head of youth services librarian at Barrington, and Kelly, who works at architectural firm Engberg Anderson and is project manager and architect at Barrington, laid out the steps they took in preparation. Looking to the needs of their community was crucial. According to Uden, Barrington serves more than 44,000 patrons, many of whom are busy and overscheduled families. With a local children’s museum closing recently, Uden said, filling that gap by providing options for families was important. Kelly described how staff members visited museums, schools, and other libraries for inspiration: “We really tried to experience the different things that we [wanted] to incorporate.” Communication among the team was key, he added, and Pinterest was used to share ideas and present ideas.


Ryann Uden

The team then organized potential activities using two categories: individual vs. group and quiet vs. active, said Kelly, and ultimately came up with a plan that placed noisier activities in the middle, with more individual ones on the outside. They also created factsheets for activities—which included a Lite Brite, a playhouse, a dress-up area, a puppet show, a LEGO area, and a chalk wall, among others—listing size, age group, noise level, number of users, and skills involved.

Uden warned that transforming a library’s space can mean tough decisions. “If you want to do a lot of new things or add new services, you have to take things away,” she said, suggesting that libraries reevaluate collection size, reallocate funding, or reassign staff to other duties. Easing staff into the transition is also important, and Uden emphasized the value of making staff members as much a part of the process as possible.

In the case of Barrington, which involved construction and renovation, as well as a fairly big change in atmosphere, being sensitive to staffers was important. “The space was going to be louder than a traditional library,” said Uden, so “helping them understand what the new world was going to be like” was key.


Shaun Kelly

Uden also stressed the importance of balancing expectations. Because the potential for mess is high, she advised being realistic about tidiness, while describing her own attitude: “We make sure things are picked up off the floor. I have staff scheduled. They go through hourly or half-hourly” to sort through the spaces.

In examining the results, Kelly broke down activities by both up front cost and staffing requirements, noting that both are factors to consider. For instance, he said, the Lite Brite was initially expensive but required minimal staff members to maintain, while the chalkboard wall was an initially inexpensive purchase but generally needed more upkeep.


Kids play with a giant Lite Brite.

However, Udin acknowledged that it can be difficult to measure the success of learning spaces. “[In general], we rely on statistics, but in a space like this, how do you measure engagement? How do you measure learning?” Udin emphasized that there aren’t any easy answers, but she raised the point that librarians may need to reevaluate assessment.

Though creating a new space can be a challenge, Udin said, ultimately it’s a potentially very rewarding one. “If you give [kids] wings, you’ll let them fly.”

Mahnaz Dar About Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is an Associate Editor for Library Journal, and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.


  1. Our library is lucky to have a large anteroom called “The Story Cottage” that was created by my assistant librarian, Sherrie Hornaday. It is a make-believe environment that is decorated anew every month. Sometimes, it is a castle, sometimes, a swamp in the Everglades, sometimes a pirate ship. You can see it on our web site http://www.thebenjaminschool.org. Put “story cottage” in the search block and be amazed.

  2. Melissa Henderson says:

    Thanks for highlighting this new and innovative children’s department. I think one of the most important sentences in this article is “With a local children’s museum closing recently, Uden said, filling that gap by providing options for families was important.” Barrington Area Public Library developed this dramatically different children’s department in response to community needs.