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It's cool to hang out at the library

Sighthill library has received three accolades for work to improve young peoples' lives. Raymond Ross retraces its route to success

Vandalism, graffiti and anti-social behaviour used to be a daily occurrence at Sighthill library, in the western reaches of Edinburgh.

Over the past 18 months, however, the library has become the cool place to hang out. More than 100 children are now involved in various library activities, with teenage boys writing football match reports and footballers' biographies for a literacy project called Reading the Game.

Others were involved in Tartan Week in New York last month through a 3Ps - photography, painting and poetry - project for 4-to 20-year-olds, which encourages them to record their lives and local area, resulting in exhibitions and a DVD.

The catalyst for the turnaround of behaviour and attitudes in one of Edinburgh's most deprived areas has been the work by library staff to make the library the key to the community, says Jane Milne, Sighthill library's team leader.

"That was our origin in the late 19th century and it's our future - to deliver learning and information to our designated communities, to work with young people to give them a sense of ownership and to promote mutual respect," she says.

The achievement by the library team has gained widespread recognition. Last week the staff were named Outstanding Team of the Year and won the local government team award at the annual Public Servants of the Year awards run by Public Finance, the business weekly of the public sector. Last month they won one of the most prestigious UK libraries awards, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals' (CILIP) Libraries Change Lives award. And last November they won an award under the Scottish Executive's Standing Up to Antisocial Behaviour scheme.

"Until 2004 vandalism, graffiti and abusive behaviour towards staff were a daily occurrence," says senior library officer Evelyn Kilmurry. "But in the last 18 months there have been no incidents of anti-social behaviour in and around the library itself. There has also been a 60 per cent reduction in recorded anti-social incidents in the community.

"We now have more than a hundred young people involved in various library activities. On any given night there will be around 30 of them in the library, which has become the cool place to hang out," she says.

To tackle anti-social behaviour, the library aimed to encourage young people to make more positive use of the resources, to read and enjoy books and to develop their literacy and information technology skills while seeking to make the library service more customer focused and responsive to needs of the whole community.

The Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme - the first open group award in the area - was launched at the library. Activities include a girls' dance group and a graffiti art project. Several participants have achieved bronze awards and now aim for silver.

Youth Boox and Teen Boox encourage young people to help choose books and CDs for the library and to review them. Regular participation is rewarded with vouchers for music CDs, sponsored by a local music shop.

Chatterbooks is a fortnightly reading group for 5-to 12-year-olds.

Computer Crazies is a club where 5-to 12-year-olds can develop IT skills and design websites with help from library staff. The Gamers' Workshops allow teenagers to design their own computer games and take part in tournaments.

The library also hosts regular drop-in sessions to support young people in job applications, interview preparation and building confidence. Many who have received help have been successfully employed.

The number of books being borrowed has gone up by a quarter and computer use has risen by 60 per cent, says Ms Milne.

"We had to engage with the young people to find out what they wanted. They didn't want traditional teenage fiction which often divides into horror for the boys and love stories for the girls. The boys preferred books and magazines about cars and football, the girls chose topics such as dance, make-up and hairdressing as well as celebrities and gossip, and they all wanted computer games and up-to-date CDs.

"We also found these preferences were shared by young parents," she says.

The library has been re-designed, making it more like a bookshop, with face-on titles and pyramid displays. There is a curved wall of CDs with listening posts, modern seating and shelving. There are designated youth areas, an IT bar of screens with high stools and several inquiry pods instead of the traditional customer services counter.

"Libraries have to become the cool place to hang out for all people. We have to be more consumer friendly. Customer relations are a priority," says Ms Milne.

"In the present world you have to be interested in people as well as books to be a public librarian."

The key to winning the CILIP award was the young people themselves.

"When the judges arrived, they must have been impressed," says Evelyn Kilmurry. "It was very relaxed and informal and the kids were on brilliant form. It must have been apparent that they had invested in their library, that they got on with the staff and just liked being in and around the building."

What the Sighthill team has achieved so far has been done with little extra funding. The pound;5,000 from the Scottish Executive award will be spent on developing youth facilities within the library and the pound;4,000 CILIP award will be used to help roll out the project to other libraries across the city.

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