Pupils with a yen for shelf life

21st July 2006 at 01:00
How do you get teenagers through the doors of their local libraries? Hilary Wilce visits one in Kent that called in experts, including local secondary schools, to transform itself

It's well known that young people aren't drawn to public libraries. The figures show that, even if they were taken to them when they were very young, they are unlikely to continue using them in their teens and early twenties. But through a campaign called Love Libraries, all that could change.

A 21st-century library now being developed in north Kent, one of three featured in the campaign, offers a useful toolkit for other libraries looking to revamp their services. Coldharbour Library was, until recently, an uninviting 1960s box on a busy intersection in Northfleet, near Gravesend. It has loyal fans, but most teenagers in this industrialised Thameside urban sprawl tended to pass it by.

But the library has been gutted and transformed, heeding advice from local secondary school pupils. It has just been re-opened as a bright, modern facility, as welcoming to energetic teens as it always has been to tiny tots and quiet pensioners.

Symbolic of the change is the high-profile celebrity backing for the makeover. Comedian Sandi Toksvig visited the revamped building on Love Libraries launch day last week. Big Brother celebrity Jade Goody came along to take part in the opening-day activities with the teenage focus groups.

And Tom Hart-Dyke, the television gardener and plant hunter who first hit the headlines when he was captured by guerrillas while searching for orchids in Central America, popped over during the planning stage from his home in nearby Lullingstone Castle. In front of local news cameras, he advised on how to turn the unpromising scrubland at the back of the building into a readers' garden.

"Brilliant!" he enthused. "Lovely big patch, quite secluded. I'd say keep the slope and plant lots of drought-resistant, low-maintenance stuff - lavenders, thymes, speedwells, curry plants."

The pound;70,000 for the refurbishment came from Kent County Council. "And Love Libraries gave us about pound;10,000 for promotional materials and development," says Jane Setterfield, the area manager of West Kent's libraries and archives service. "Once we got the go-ahead from them, we had 12 weeks to do it in, so we had to consult quickly. We wanted to tap into young people and non-users, so we set up a kind of Tardis in the next-door leisure centre and said 'Come and give us your views'."

They also contacted local schools for help. Jan Ide, learning resource centre manager for Northfleet technology college, a local boys' school, took a group of school council members to visit. "Then we met two or three times after school to develop ideas, and they came up with the idea of a separate teen room. It's difficult to get boys to read. They like non-fiction books. Books about ghosts and fishing are popular at school.

But there's not a lot around for them, and, of course, it's not always seen as cool to use a library anyway."

"What we wanted was a more relaxing environment," says 13-year-old Jamie Boote. "We wanted more independence. Somewhere with comfy chairs, refreshments and listening centres. Also, we wanted to see the books displayed better. I think they were quite impressed by our ideas."

Meanwhile Maggie Stableford, head of English at Northfleet School for Girls, worked with her deputy, Anne Wilkinson, to involve girls from the school's small book club in the project. "We took three girls to the library and they worked at lunchtimes afterwards looking at things like colour schemes, furniture and lighting, and what things should go where.

They were very keen, and they got the job done."

"The colours were all a bit plain. We wanted something attractive so we went for light yellows and creams," says Stephanie Ryan, 12. "We also looked at the type of bookcases and what bits should go where. It was something different. I hadn't done anything like it before."

"We thought about having the children's area down at the end, so the children couldn't run out of the door, and we thought about having a garden, and about having more teenage books," says Bobbi-Louise Spunner, 12.

Now the library has been shaped as the pupils suggested, with a changed layout and a separate room for young people. "We've decided just to finish the walls in there, and lay the floor, and leave it to them. We will ask them what they want in terms of furniture and decor, and we'll be happy to let them go to Ikea or somewhere to buy stuff," says Jane Setterfield.

"It's obvious they want somewhere where people aren't looking over their shoulders at them going 'Ssssh'. They may want armchairs, somewhere to hang out and have a cup of coffee. It may be that they want a plasma screen, or something to play DVDs on, but books will still be the main feature. It still has to be a library."

Love Libraries has been created by the Future Libraries Partnership, an alliance of public and private sector organisations, including the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Society of Chief Librarians, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, nine publishers and the Reading Agency. The other libraries chosen for extra support during their makeover were in the London borough of Richmond and Newquay, Cornwall.

The campaign follows research showing that more than half of all adults see no reason to go into a library. One-third do not know that it is possible to borrow free books from libraries.

Love Libraries has also announced the Top Ten 21st-Century Librarians, celebrating the contribution of high-flyers under 30 (see website) to update the service's image.

Meanwhile, the eighth summer Reading Challenge is about to run through school holidays (see page 35) and the Reading Agency is working to draw more teenagers into libraries by involving them in choosing and buying books, setting up young people's steering groups, and sending young people into libraries as "mystery shoppers" to sample services.

"Young people are so keen, really enthusiastic," says Ciara Eastell, senior project manager of the Reading Agency. "We are helping to train library staff to give them a warm welcome, and we are looking at the library environment, and how young people can chill out there and have their own spaces where things are more relaxed. Libraries can look a bit boring to them. We're also trying to strengthen links between schools and community libraries. There's so much potential. We have all sorts of projects going on, but with 149 different library services, we try to work mainly with the regions, so they can pass the ideas on."


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