A showpiece for the world

28th February 1997 at 00:00
The new Pounds 2 million library at Oakham School, Rutland, has attracted an international audience, reports Not many schools are lucky enough to be able to build and equip a library virtually from scratch - with enough funding to buy top-quality furnishings throughout. One man who was recently in this enviable position is Anthony Tilke, now professional adviser for youth and school libraries at the Library Association, but formerly librarian at Oakham School in Rutland.

Oakham is a large, independent co-educational day and boarding secondary school. In late 1994 it opened a Pounds 2 million library building. Since then the school has received 300 visitors from 15 different countries, indicating the importance of the project and the interest shown by fellow professionals. When money is (virtually) no object, what kind of furnishings should today's school librarian be looking for?

Clearly, being able to spend plenty of time on design and planning is important. Anthony Tilke spent a year in discussions with the architects and managed to persuade his fellow senior staff on the Library Steering Committee to agree to most of his suggestions. "By and large I got everything I wanted - but some eyebrows were raised over the bean bags!" Those bean bags were destined for the ground floor of the two-storey building, in which a "community library" atmosphere has been encouraged. This area holds the fiction collection, recreational reading, videos and music CDs, and is also used for events such as poetry readings and other library-related activities.

Some of the shelving here (made of melamine-coated steel) is on lockable castors, making it easy to move around to provide extra space for special events, or just to change the layout. This, Anthony suggests, would be particularly useful for primary school reading areas, which often have to be adapted from former school halls or classrooms. In this part of the building, a large amount of shelving is face-forward display for periodicals. As far as possible, Anthony wanted all the stock to be filed in sequence, including out-size books, audio-visual material and tapebook packs, so the shelving needed to be flexible enough to accommodate many different sizes. On the ground floor, everything is designed to be in easy reach of the smaller children.

Upstairs, in the more "academic" area, which holds the main non-fiction collection and is the place for serious study, is an even larger run of shelving and desks seating 109 pupils. These desks were specially made up by a local firm to an architect's design; made of beech with a deep linoleum inlay to provide a suitable writing surface (and also to thwart graffiti artists), they have low dividers for privacy and individual lights. Round tables are interspersed with the desks, again of beech with lino inlay. Anthony prefers desks to study carrels. "Left-handed people can't use them; also, they cut out light." Floors were covered with industrial-strength carpet tiles, "expensive but hard-wearing", to deaden sound and give an attractive feel to the rooms.

Few schools will be in a position to order custom-made equipment to go into a brand new building; they have to make the best of their limited funds in a perhaps less-than-ideal space. The glossy catalogues produced by the manufacturers are full of tempting photographs of gleaming new equipment; from the practical (computer desks with adjustable heights) to the exotic (a Space Shuttle book browser with seating for eight young children). The choice is vast and confusing. I asked Anthony what advice he would give on purchasing to the budget-conscious librarian.

First of all, he says, "Talk to the local Schools Library Service. They've seen it all before - they know the best ways of buying and the things to avoid." They will also usually have links with the local authority's architects for help with design.

Exhibitions such as the Education Show (which Anthony plans to attend in his capacity as the Library Association's expert on school libraries) and the Library Resources Exhibition give the opportunity to see equipment in situ, rather than relying on the photographs in the catalogue. He suggests visits to other libraries; staff there will always be willing to tell fellow-librarians what has worked well and what was perhaps a mistake. Also, consider carefully the building you are working in; ask where everything is going to go. If there are pillars, for example, consider cluster desks to go around them. Many manufacturers offer design services for customers buying several of their products - and try for discounts, which are often available for bulk purchases.

Primary schools may not have scope to create a specialist room. Anthony says, "It is often the small, practical things that can brighten up a library area. Plan ahead; buy a nice bright carpet and bean bags one year, then a new display shelf, then perhaps a kinder box."

Finally, for those whose parent-teacher association funds won't stretch to Pounds 2m in this financial year, Gresswell is offering a finance package which can spread payments for up to five years; Library Furnishing Consultants, which provided most of the shelving, the issue counters and tables at Oakham, also offer credit facilities.


* Library Association stand A6 * Microlibrarian Systems stand IT25 * Peters Library Service stand PV320


* Computer adjustable work stations: Gresswell. Tel: 0181 370 7007; Budget Direct. Tel: 0800 282814. Prices from approx Pounds 149

* Space Shuttle book browser: Gresswell; Pounds 1,149

* Bean bags: many suppliers; approx Pounds 20

* At Oakham School: Shelf units, issue counters and round tables came from Library Furnishing Consultants. Tel: 01933 442777. Total cost was approximately Pounds 120,000.Additional shelving from Point Eight Ltd. Tel: 01384 238282.

* Carpet tiles:Interface Europe Ltd. Tel: 01274 696000.Prices start at Pounds 28 per metre

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