Time was when school and college librarians loaned out and date-stamped a collection of out-of-date books and the odd audio or video cassette. But with the advent of multimedia resources their roles are changing considerably. Just how much was revealed by the Libraries of the Future project, which was completed last year. Although it officially ended then, support materials are now being published and its insights are relevant to the Government's plans to network all public libraries by 2002 .
Funded by the National Council for Educational Technology (NCET), the British Library, the Department of Education Northern Ireland (DGNI) and Northern Ireland's five education and library boards, the project provided 11 primary and secondary school libraries in Northern Ireland and England with multimedia and communications technologies, Internet links, subsidised access to Reuters Business Briefing, training and support. The project report (see below), is now available and DGNI is giving a CD-Rom to all Northern Ireland schools (the NCET intends distributing it to schools in England and Wales).
According to Laura Plummer, a South East Library Board project officer, the schools had "differing levels of expertise, but quickly showed terrific enthusiasm and commitment and could all put an impressive multimedia package together by the end".
Pat Brown, a librarian at Friends Co-Ed Grammar School, Lisburne, Co Antrim, says that she gained confidence while working with a top-stream geography group aged 12 to 13, timetabled into the library for a term. Using the Internet, Reuters and books, they studied rocks, volcanoes, earthquakes, fuels and energy.
"To our surprise we found there are lots of tremors every day," she says. "A whole new world developed for the children. They exchanged e-mail with experts in America, Greenpeace and Volcano World."
The report says that primaries could encounter problems locating equipment in the library, since they may not have a full-time librarian (if there's a library at all).
But Roisin Scaffington, IT co-ordinator at St Peter's Primary School, Belfast, managed two successful projects with her special needs pupils aged 10 to 11. One, on people who have helped to make a better world, such as Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King, was linked to the religious education curriculum, and the other, on tropical rainforests, to geography.
"They had difficulty finding information when looking randomly through encyclopedias on the shelf, but could go quickly using the Encarta CD-Rom, which contains the whole set", she says.
Multimedia authoring brought new skills into play: capturing text and pictures from CD-Rom and video clips, sound from music CDs and recordings of their own voices, linking pages, cutting and pasting, sequencing and summarising text. "They became perfectionists and were inspired to work at a much higher level than they normally would," says Roisin Scaffington.
The project was not all plain sailing. "There were horrendous technical problems," says Laura Plummer, "but schools remained committed. One group lost a week's work, but wasn't daunted and learned from its mistakes."
Another disadvantage was what Pat Brown describes as "the vast telephone bill". Although her school's bill went down from Pounds 800 to Pounds 300 a term when Irish schools switched to using local rather than national lines, she says, "We are careful to define searches and not spend too long on the line."
In the ideal future world envisaged in the report, institutions would have free Internet access and "their own leased line and pay a fixed rental rather than call charges, reducing anxiety about escalating phone bills".
Life has certainly changed for the project librarians. Pat Brown says: "Everything became a lot more hectic and we've made many contacts on the Web, including researchers from America, Hong Kong, Australia and Canada."
Laura Plummer's main concern is that, although the report has been out for some time, "the implications haven't yet been thrashed out - research is only good if you act on it". Should the project's findings be followed up, its vision of the future educational library as a multimedia learning resources centre linked up by networks to other curriculum areas and to pupils' home computers could soon be realised.