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Between the lines of library matters

Guidelines on school libraries issued by Her Majesty's Inspectorate and the Libraries Association often attempt to express quality in terms of numbers - so many square metres of space, so much seating, a minimum number of books. It's surprising that, in this customer-oriented decade, little attention has been paid to what matters to students and teachers. However, a Loughborough University team has collected data from some 200 teachers and 800 secondary school pupils on attitudes to the school library, as well as patterns of use.

Only 19 per cent of students were infrequent users: most felt confident about using the library and turned to it for school work, leisure-time reading, private study and a range of social purposes. While most (87 per cent) borrowed books, nearly 40 per cent used the computer facilities, and 30 per cent sought advice or help from the librarian.

The findings for teachers were similar. Most regularly directed students to the library and used it themselves, looking for information related to their subject (85 per cent), information on other topics (58 per cent), and working with students (63 per cent). Over half enjoyed browsing in the library and roughly the same number came to read newspapers.

The high use of computers by staff and students (46 per cent and 39 per cent respectively) confirms the importance of the library as a technology centre, something encouraged by the expertise of the librarians in the 12 schools studied. The national curriculum was perceived by the vast majority of teachers (87 per cent) to have generated an increased need for information skills. It had certainly brought greater collaboration between teachers and librarians in curriculum planning and delivery: significantly, 73 per cent of teachers said that they worked with the librarian on such matters.

Overall, then, we have a picture of the library being integral to both school and personal purposes. When we asked students to tell us one thing they particularly liked about their library, the book stock came top (28 per cent). However, such factors as atmosphere, physical environment and staff helpfulness added up to 37 per cent of responses, indicating that stock alone will not make a good library. Students appreciated the quiet, the feeling of being welcomed, the relationship with staff.

The importance of having easy access to a comfortable but stimulating space cannot be overrated: the value given to quiet points up the stress of the noise and bustle of school. "It is quiet, and you can read without getting interrupted." "It's large and comfortable and easy to use: it's a good place to concentrate."

For most students the library was a multi-faceted place, not just a source of information. "I like quite a lot of things, because you can meet friends, and play chess, use the computer, do some quiet reading, or finish homework. " Running equal in rating to the physical environment was the psychological one: the helpfulness of staff was a major factor in continuing use. "The librarian is there to help, and often knows things you want." "The librarian makes us feel welcome and the help is always of high quality."

For teachers, atmosphere and physical environment (34 per cent combined) were more important than stock (9 per cent), and the highest score (39 per cent) was for the helpfulness of staff. "The quality of personal contact, and the librarians who go out of their way to give genuine assistance. This applies equally to pupils and staff." "The co-operative attitude of the librarian and the vitality in the library."

It was when we asked for suggestions on improvements to the library that stock came top, and inadequacies were revealed. Both staff and students wanted more recently-published books and more books on specific subjects - with requests ranging from mountain biking to global issues.

The comments indicate the scale of need. "Masses of investment. Get rid of old books and buy more copies of well-used ones." "More updated books, especially in subjects that are changing rapidly, which means most of them."

A 1985 survey (School Libraries: the foundation of the curriculum, published by the Office of Arts and Libraries) found school libraries both under-used and under-funded, in a related cycle of decline. Even more so today, libraries have to justify their cost. Those in the schools we studied certainly did, and their budgets had been either maintained or increased - a striking mark of their value when set against the financial pressures schools face.

This country's overall record on school library expenditure is poor, a point which has been noted by Opposition politicians, most recently in the Labour party's "white paper". A national investment is needed here. However, the Loughborough research shows that the effective library does not arise through stock alone. It depends on a complex of factors, with staffing the crucial one. At the core of any success are partnerships between teachers and library staff: our evidence is that these are strengthening.

School Libraries at Work by Peggy Heeks and Margaret Kinnell has just been published by The British Library. ISBN 0-7123-3283-9.Dr Peggy Heeks is a fellow at Loughborough University.

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