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Shelving a dusty image

Marie Adams, a woman with a passion for libraries, talks to Francis Beckett about new roles and old attitudes. We have more students spending less time in the classroom. That needs space and equipment in the library," says the manager of Barnet College's learning resource centre, Marie Adams. The rest of the college has to change, too. When they built a new social area for students near her library, she noticed the difference at once. Students no longer huddled in the library for warmth and comfort. They stopped using it as social space and it became easier to use it for its proper purpose.

All of which, she says, helps to prove that "student-centred learning is a wonderful thing - but it is labour-intensive. It's not cheap but it is being treated like a cheap option. Changing the library style is seen in many colleges simply as a way of cutting teaching time. Packages and worksheets are not a substitute for teaching."

Marie Adams feels passionately about libraries. She has spent 21 years in further education libraries, and before that she ran a comprehensive school library, yet still cannot check the urgency and animation with which she talks about them, or the expressive gestures she uses to illustrate her ideas. Last year she published a book about libraries.

She knows about student-centred learning from her own experience. In the 1970s she took an Open University degree in humanities. "I know what it means to study that way." She had already trained to be a librarian at teacher training college and in 1988 took a year off to do an MA in higher and further education at London's Institute of Education, but "the OU learning experience was the one that mattered".

She likes working at Barnet because the library is taken seriously there. The change of name, from library to learning resource centre, was a recognition of the new role of libraries. She says: "We changed the name in the hope that we could convince people that we are much more than the traditional library. The old image of libraries dogs us, and I fear it always will. The skills and experience you find in libraries help teaching staff to adapt to a new way of learning."

She has a budget of Pounds 40,000 a year - well over the average, but she reckons she could do with 50 per cent more. The two libraries on the college's two sites house 37,000 books as well as slides, videos, cassettes and CD-Roms, 30 computer terminals, 11 staff, and seating for 180. Even so, they often feel the pinch in a college with 3,500 full-time equivalent students - between 10,000 and 12,000 students in all. At lunchtimes they run out of seats and terminals.

She is better off than many college libraries, but she needs about half as much money again. She would like more CD-Roms, access to the information superhighway, more staff to help students use the computer equipment (she has 27 hours a week of IT support, which is more than most) and the seven-year-old computerised catalogue needs updating.

But the thing that is missing is tutor support. She explains the idea with missionary zeal. "If students are going to do more work outside the classroom, then in the places they are likely to work, there has to be a tutor to help them. We need to enhance the role of the staff in this new resource-based learning. Sixteen to 19-year-olds often do not understand learning by themselves and organising their own time. Tutor support in libraries is critical ."

Last June she ran a trial tutor support project for one month, using volunteers from among the teaching staff, highlighting specific subject areas. She was delighted with the results. "Everything fell into place. Students recognise tutors as having a role in learning. They do not recognise library staff in that way yet - that is another battle we have to win."

* College Libraries and Access to Learning, edited by Marie Adams and Rennie McElroy, Library Association Publishing 1994.

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