Librarians should get out there ... and start knocking on doors

6th February 2009 at 00:00
School libraries and the people who run them can play a central role in A Curriculum for Excellence, inspiring new initiatives and pulling various departments together. Douglas Blane reports

The dusty shelves and air of languor have long gone from sleepy old school libraries, which are transforming themselves all over the country into learning resource centres, bristling with desktops and dynamism.

Librarians, too, have changed. They get the net. They understand knowledge. They're cool with computers. Some carry business cards with impressive job titles.

"People take the word librarian for granted," says Govan High's Ian McCracken. "But when they see 'information consultant' there is usually a reaction. It doesn't matter what it is. The important thing is to get them thinking. It's an opportunity to challenge assumptions."

The most fundamental of these is that a library is a useful resource but not vital to the core business of learning and teaching - not a centre at all, more of a periphery. But school libraries and the skilled staff who run them can - and should - be central to A Curriculum for Excellence, says Duncan Wright, convener of the School Library Association (Scotland) and librarian at Stewart Melville's College.

"Librarians in schools hold a unique position. They have insight into the multi-disciplinary strands of the curriculum. They play a key part in information identification, analysis and synthesis. Their role in A Curriculum for Excellence should not be underestimated and early involvement of the librarian in discussions will pay dividends for the whole school community."

But a librarian shouldn't wait to be approached, says Wendy Pieroni, learning resource co-ordinator at Blairgowrie High in Perth and Kinross; she should get out and knock on doors.

"We've been running a project for three years which gets almost every department in the school involved," she says. "At the start, I went round and spoke to department heads to get them excited about it. I felt I'd get further with the personal touch rather than in a meeting or by email."

Sure enough, art, languages, computing, science, social studies, home economics, PE, RE, technical, maths and, of course, English, all came on board at some time in the three years the project has run.

Topic content for this kind of thing is not crucial, as long as it grabs young people's interest, says Mrs Pieroni. "We do ours on International Space Week. So modern studies looked at space tourism, which was in the news. In home economics, they designed a space bar. History did a timeline of the space race. In English, they wrote poems and a story about being the youngest person in space. In art, they made posters and designed hats with a space theme - like a planet or a rocket."

The whole project takes a month each year, with departments doing their own thing and the library pulling it together, offering support and resources and delivering lessons on internet research and preparing presentations. "This year, we had something new - rocks brought back from the moon. I arranged for the school to borrow them from the Science and Technology Facilities Council," she says. "I delivered lessons on them to our primaries too, and the kids loved them - the fact that they'd come from another world. So did our second years, even though they're getting too cool for school. You can pass the meteorites around and they can feel the different textures and smells, and talk about the reasons for them."

The culmination of the project for every S2 pupil was selecting from resources gathered in different subjects to create a short but sophisticated presentation, with animation and video, aimed at selling a tourist trip to a planet.

"We had peer assessment and they voted for class winners," says Mrs Pieroni. "Then I uploaded them to a wiki, so other year groups could vote. It would be great to do something like it with every year, but with the exams it might not be feasible."

The entire first year already has one lesson a week from library staff on information literacy, plagiarism, mind-mapping, recognising reliable sources, and researching effectively with modern media. "We have a lucky dip which gets them reading and reviewing books they wouldn't normally pick, and a biography project which ends with them giving a talk and being the person they've researched."

All this sounds like a lot of work, and it is, she says. "But it is worth it. The children see that their learning is not in boxes. It's a whole. You learn different things in different subjects - learning all the time. That's an important message."

Simple facts of library life can make it hard, though, to get that message out there, says Mary Sherriffs, Pitlochry High's librarian - because teachers and librarians don't often mix. "We can't get to the staff-room at breaks, because that's our busiest time and we have to be here."

So little conversations which create connections and spark ideas don't happen naturally between librarians and teachers. Someone has to make the effort to get them started. "Dialogue is important," says Mrs Sherriffs. "You can be busy all day because there are always people coming in for assistance. You have to make the time to get out there and talk to teachers."

Hosting the pupil council is one way of keeping the library at the heart of things, she says. "This morning, they were choosing a colour scheme for the changing-rooms and toilets - pink for the girls and a nice silver-grey for the boys."

Library-inspired initiatives which pull departments together include book days with authors to kick-start young storytellers. "They love it when we get children's authors in and there's always follow-up work around the departments," says Mrs Sherriffs. "After a recent book day, they were making stories about mythical creatures in English, creating the creatures in art, and we were showing them how to research myths and legends in the library.

"One book had a murder, so we set up a crime scene in the library with real police tape. The pupils dusted for fingerprints and tried to work out the culprit, then wrote up forensic reports in their science class.

"Children can tell good stories, but getting started can be a problem. We had an archaeology dig with a giant tray of sand and separate squares to take a dozen kids at a time. We buried things like a heavy old iron, a brooch, a truck with no wheels."

This activity gave each child an object that clearly had a story to tell. "So the rusty old key opened a door in the basement that led to a yard overgrown with weeds where ... you get the idea. Give them something visual, something they can handle, and it makes a big difference. It gets them going."

Other cross-curricular projects include working with the local radio and theatre and a day out to the curling rink. "We had them wrapped up in hats and scarves on the ice for performance poetry of spine-chilling tales. We're always on the look-out for a different way of doing things to stimulate their thought processes."

Challenging assumptions and stimulating thinking are vital roles for every librarian, learning resource manager and information consultant, says Ian McCracken - especially now that one person has to be all three. "We often assume young people know all about information because they spend so much time on computers. They don't. We need to give them those skills."

In the end, running a school library is all about skills, says Mr McCracken - information skills, organising skills, interpersonal skills. "You have to talk to people. You have to get them thinking."

School Library Association Scotland:

Blairgowrie pupils in space:

Pitlochry pupils on local radio:


It all goes back to William Blake, says Ayr Academy librarian Heather Stewart. "He was the original graphic novelist, combining amazing words and images. He was the business."

If the mystical poet were alive today he might well work on Manga, says Miss Stewart, who runs an after-school club to help youngsters express themselves through the much-maligned comic medium.

It's all about literacy, the heart of A Curriculum for Excellence, with its new duty on every teacher to promote language and literacy development. "But you have to be imaginative about it," says Miss Stewart. "Lots of children are visually literate, even though they'd never think of picking up a big, thick book of text.

"So you start with the visuals and small amounts of text. You make it fun. You build from there."

With its roots in Japanese art and culture, Manga is read by people of all ages and covers a wide range, from sport and action-adventure to romance, history and science fiction. "A big hook for the kids is that you read the comics back to front and left to right - they love that," says Miss Stewart.

"But past the novelty, they enjoy the stories because they're well drawn and well written. It's not about dumbing down. Graphics-based media are ideal for stimulating reluctant readers and inspiring creativity - so important for children's learning.

"There's no pressure on them. They have this urge to express themselves and they rush off to draw, write and web-author their own stories and images, using the software Comic Life which we provide."

But despite welcoming new ways with words, such as graphic novels, children's blogs and paired reading, Miss Stewart takes a traditional, "maybe even old-fashioned", view of the space where it all takes place. "I rather like the name school library," she says.

"I'm happy to make the library a welcoming place where children can find novel resources and activities. We've had an African day with children making creation myths. I plan to have story-making workshops and pull in different departments. Visits from children's authors, especially those who write in Scots, are very popular. I've got the campus cop writing about his favourite read on our library blog, because he's cool and the kids look up to him.

"These are great ways to take the pressure off children and get them working with words. But in the end I don't want to stray too far from the idea that this is a library - and a library is a place you go to get wonderful books."

Scots Manga from Ayr Academy: http:classblogmeister.comblog.php?blogger_id=224041.

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