It is lunchtime at Hinchingbrooke School, a l,800-pupil comprehensive in Cambridgeshire, and the school library resource centre is alive with activity. Pupils are sitting round the tables working, or chatting quietly in comfortable chairs in the informal areas, or reading. Some are hunting for books, CD-Roms, audio-tapes, magazines or videos on the shelves.
At one end of the huge room young people at computers are working on a project, playing games or finding their way round the CD-Roms. Hai Huynh, a Vietnamese girl who arrived in the UK six years ago, is accessing a Vietnamese chatline on the Internet, "talking" to people in Norway who like herself have strong Vietnamese connections.
This library is no hushed sanctum, through whose hallowed portals only the very bookish, brave and able dare enter. It is the vibrant hub of the school, filled with a wide range of multimedia resources for pupils of all levels of ability, age and experience.
It has modern furniture and a bright colour scheme, the latest lighting, open doors, and a user-friendly approach. Book displays are thoughtfully designed to attract reluctant readers, finding resources is made easy and there is a careful balance between formal and informal areas.
At its centre is the counter where librarian Sue Hyde and head of resources Duncan Grey answer queries, point pupils in the right direction, issue books and allot time on the Internet, and make sure that those who want to do their homework are given priority on the computers over those who want to play.
Librarians here are no mere book stampers. Apart from helping pupils find the most appropriate resources and teaching them information-handling skills, they examine the national curriculum and suggest materials and ideas to teachers.
"Without such a library we wouldn't be able to be so ambitious in what we do," says English teacher Andrew Allsworth. The school is able to organise research projects in which pupils have to demonstrate use of a whole range of resources, including CD-Roms, videos, tapes and books - all very much part of the GCSE requirements that they demonstrate research and information skills.
This dynamic idea of the library which Hinchingbrooke has enthusiastically embraced is a concept repeated in many Cambridgeshire schools - since the late Eighties the majority of primary school libraries have been reorganised and more than 30 secondary school library resource centres have been rebuilt or refurbished.
The latest is St Bede's School, a small comprehensive, which now has a resource centre any design-conscious, go-ahead company would be proud of, planned to draw in the most book-phobic of pupils. Televisions, computers and audio-tape recorders plus headphones are all part and parcel of its equipment.
Teachers at the school point to the variety of learning methods the new centre provides. "We can choose to deliver topics in alternative ways," says Simon Quail, head of science and co-ordinator for vocational education at St Bede's. "Once the children are in the resource centre they can work independently, choosing their own means of finding out information. They can use a huge variety of resources which just aren't available in the classroom." He hopes soon to deliver parts of the curriculum as assignments for which the resources centre would be made available to small groups or whole classes. Pupils are very positive about the centre, too, he adds, but stresses that they need to be guided and given a fairly tight brief, especially in the early days.
The two people mainly responsible for the change in status of Cambridgeshire's school libraries and the education authority's impressive reputation for work in this area are Margaret Smith, head of Cambridgeshire Schools Library Service, an agency which schools can choose to buy into (very few opt not to), and Leonore Charlton, the service's consultancy team manager who specialises in designing library resource centres.
To most visitors it is the look of the refurbished libraries which is most striking, but the first point both women emphasise is that the redesign of a school library must be seen as part of a package.
"A pretty room is lovely," says Margaret Smith. "Governors love it. Parents are taken to admire it. But schools can't justify the investment involved in a large-scale planning development or refurbishment unless they know how to use it".
Apart from developing the building, the service runs training programmes for teachers and librarians on resource-based learning, has more than half a million items which schools can borrow, and advises on the management and development of the centre.
They insist too that a library is not just about the books, or tapes or CD-Roms it contains; it is also about teaching information-hand-ling skills. This month they will be publishing the first of a series of packages to help pupils aged five and upwards use libraries. It contains entertaining activities and games to teach library skills to Year 6 and 7 pupils and draws on work they have done with many of the schools in the area.
This is not to say that a well-designed room is not important. "If you get the physical planning wrong, it stops a lot of development," says Leonore Charlton. "It's very important to build in flexibility, so that the school can gradually take on board anything that's new."
Bad design and planning also stop pupils using it: "If there isn't sufficient space, pupils go away, and they are easily put off if the library is not user-friendly".
The service and schools aim to get it right through a consultation exercise, sometimes taking as long as two years. As many people as possible are drawn from the school, including the head, deputy, teachers, governors and parents, to work with representatives from the service, an architect and the education property department.
What results is rarely a totally purpose-built building. Many are old libraries which have been refurbished, sometimes by knocking several rooms into one or by adding extensions to old rooms.
Nor is it necessarily a case of spending a lot of money. In the case of Hinchingbrooke, head teacher Peter Downes (former president of the Secondary Heads Association) says it was part of a Pounds 6 million refurbishing and rebuilding programme, which included a new gym and a performing arts centre. At St Bede's it was part of a refurbishment of the old school which cost about Pounds 450,000. "It's also about making use of the space and resources you've already got," says Leonore Charlton. "It involves a lot of looking (at other already refurbished libraries) and a lot of thinking."
Read all about it
Camskills Series Number 1: Your Passport to Skills Pounds 25. Available from Tony Greenstock, Cambridgeshire Schools Library Service, Bar Hill Centre, 15 Trafalgar Way, Cambridge CB3 8SQ, tel: 01954 789899.
Leonore Charlton has written two booklets for the School Library Association: Designing and Planning a Secondary School Library Resource Centre and Designing and Planning a Primary School Library.
Pounds 4 each (non-members); Pounds 3.50 (members) from The School Library Association, Liden Library, Barrington Close, Liden, Swindon SN3 6HF