While some primary school libraries are in fine form, too many suffer a range of debilitating ailments. Hilary Wilce reports on the Library Association's attempts to find a cure for patchy provision
Primary school libraries vary from the magical to the miserable. Some are the bright, beating hearts of book-loving schools; then there are the others. "You hear all sorts of horror stories," says Jonathan Douglas, the Library Association's professional adviser for youth and school libraries. "There's the library that's used as the lunch room, where the bookshelves are just left at the side with all the books facing the wall. Then there are the ones with all those history-of-the-Empire atlases, and others where they're so concerned about dumbing down that they're full of the kind of books that no child would ever dream of picking up." Even worse, say school librarians, are the showpiece libraries that have to be unlocked to let children in, or those that languish unused because class teachers have never been trained how to make the most of them.
"But the universal problem is neither space nor resources," says Gill Harris, who works for the schools library service in the London borough of Tower Hamlets. "It's the time to be able to run a library properly. Teachers just don't have enough non-contact time to do that, or to make it available at all times. To have a good library, you've got to have someone in there."
To help schools take a fresh look at their libraries, the Library Association is this month sending new guidelines to every primary school in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, to help them re-evaluate their provision and consider how they might make improvements (the Scottish Library Association is distributing guidelines to schools in Scotland).
"With the introduction of the literacy hour and following the National Year of Reading, it seems the right moment to look at this," says Jonathan Douglas. "We believe pupils and teachers have a right of access to good resources, and we very much hope this will be the launch pad for addressing the bigger picture." The association's work includes encouraging the DfEE to follow the example of countries such as Denmark and many US states in adopting national standards for school library provision.
Such standards are under consideration for public libraries in England, while in Scotland primary school guidelines have been in place since last year, and include benchmarks for policy, funding, staffing, resources and support. Although the recommendations are not statutory, says Rhona Arthur, assistant director of the Scottish Library Association, "putting them into practice will support the development of primary school services". Northern Ireland, while lacking such standards, has at least retained central funding for its centralised school libraries service, so every school library in the province has some back-up. In England, the picture is very different, as few authorities have a schools library service at all, and many schools have to buy in such services - if they can afford them.
The Library Association also wants to push Ofsted to take a more specific interest in school libraries. At present, inspectors are directed to look only at overall resources. "Where there is no library this would be commented on," says a spokeswoman, "but we do not directly ask inspectors to report on this."
Studies carried out in Pennsylvania, Alaska and Colorado prove that good school library provision directly affects pupil attainment. The key factors include having a well-staffed library, offering flexible access, and having good network technology which is fully integrated into all aspects of teaching and learning.
The Library Association's guidelines are the result of pooled work by the School Library Association and local authority library services, in consultation with the Government's schools computer agency, Becta, the National Youth Agency, the DfEE and the Department of Culture Media and Sport, and cover subjects from shelving to management support (see box).
They also include an example of how a school with a modest budget can transform a dingy, muddled library into a bright, modern one by buying in a few days of specialist help and - crucially - throwing out more than half the stock.
"That can be really important," says Gill Harris, who helped to draw up the guidelines. "The person running the library often worries about having empty shelves, but it clears your mind out about what you've got and what you need."
The guidelines also give an example of how primary pupils can work in the library to find and use relevant CD-Roms and Internet sites, as well as providing a wide range of useful contact addresses.
The Library Association highlights the support that is already being given to primaries by local school library services and the School Library Association. It also points to the many outstanding school libraries - in the London boroughs of Southwark and Westminster, for example, and further afield.
"There isn't anything new in what we're saying," says Jonathan Douglas, "but the whole point is to encourage a drive towards excellence and to get people to aim higher."
How they do it in Leicester
At Uplands junior school in inner-city Leicester, deputy head Yvonne Dickson has created a magnificent school library - several times over.
Ms Dickson arrived 11 years ago at a grey, miserable building devoid of library facilities. "They didn't even want the mobile library to come round because they'd lost all the books they'd borrowed and didn't want to pay for them. You had to whisper down the phone to set up a meeting with the mobile.
"In the end, the library people said, 'Look, we'll give you an amnesty. Find what you can'. We returned about a fifth of the books. Then three people left the school that year, and they each bought me a book and said, 'There you are, Yvonne, that's the start of your library'."
The school started fund-raising, bought 10 books and a set of encyclopedias, made the library a priority in the school development plan and went on to set up a proper library - which was promptly destroyed when a fire burned the school to the ground. "It was heart-breaking going there the next morning seeing these piles of books still smouldering," says Ms Dickson.
The school decamped to a temporary building. Undeterred, Ms Dickson borrowed some shelving and put together another library to use until the move back into the rebuilt school. There, the new library, developed in partnership with Leicestershire's Library Services for Education and decorated in blue and yellow, sits at the heart of the school. "It's the hub of everything that happens here. If there's ever anything special going on, it's in the library. In fact, you sometimes have to guard your space pretty jealously, and remind people it actually is a library," says Ms Dickson.
The room is bright and modern, with shelves of new books catalogued under the Dewey system and clearly labelled, displays of work on the walls, a row of computer terminals and a librarian's desk, manned for 18 hours a week by library assistant Valerie Hill.
Every class is allocated library time, all the pupils learn library skills, all the teachers help suggest what resources the library should carry, and a computerised management package allows them to be tracked and located. Using the same system, library users can print out lists of ghost stories, war stories or adventure stories for pupils' reading trails, and provide teachers with customised lists of relevant books and other media. "I said I wouldn't buy another book until we were automated," says Ms Dickson.
In a glowing Ofsted report last autumn, the Uplands library was singled out for praise as a resource encouraging "high levels of literacy for all pupils", and was a significant factor in the school being invited to apply for beacon status (the application is being processed).
This morning, a couple of girls sit quietly reading at one of the small tables, while one or two boys come in on errands. At lunchtime the room fills up with about a dozen girls attending the library club. The school is predominantly Muslim, and many pupils may well have a long afternoon ahead of them, with mosque school after the regular school day, but still they are keen to spend their lunch hour on the Internet or reading. "I like it," says Mariyam Shaikh, nine. "I like to go on the computer, and I've just read Skinny Melon and Me (by Jean Ure)." The girls don't know why the boys don't come to the club, but they think it's because they prefer to play football.
As well as having responsibility for the library and being deputy head, Ms Dickson is special needs co-ordinator and runs the school choir. She also teaches for 50 per cent of the timetable. And while the library is clearly a tribute to her individual determination, she stresses the importance of having an assistant to oversee its day-to-day running, and of having been able to work with the local authority's school library service. Initially the service offered training and help with cataloguing, helped buy the stock and set up the automated system. Now the school subscribes to it for regular help with book loans, and for evaluating and buying new stock.
Uplands library is quite exceptional, says Lynne Randle from Leicester's Library Services for Education. "It has more than 7,000 good books. Other primary school libraries might have that number of books, but they won't all be good."
Ninety per cent of secondary schools in the Leicester local authority buy library support services, but for primary schools the figure is nearer 50 per cent. "I do worry about the schools with which we don't have any contact," says Ms Randle. "You wonder what's going on there."
The Primary School Library Guidelines is published by The Library Association, 7 Ridgmount Street, London WC1E 7AE. Tel: 020 7255 0620.Website: www.la-hq.org.uk The School Library Association can be contacted at: Liden Library, Barrington Close, Liden, Swindon, Wiltshire SN3 6HF. Tel: 01793 617838. Website: www.sla.org.ukl Library resources, page 24
DO IT BY THE BOOK: THE LIBRARY ASSOCIATION'S GUIDELINES
* Library policy should specify the role, aims and objectives of the library, and should include all aspects of provision: use and access, monitoring and evaluation, planning and development.
* The environment should be exciting and welcoming, and include fiction and non-fiction books, access to ICT, study space, seats for a whole class and informal reading areas. It should have specialist shelving, good lighting and furniture, clear signs, and meet health and safety requirements.
* The library co-ordinator or librarian needs time for management and strategic development, as well as for organising the day-to-day running of the library. A school library service can offer support. Teachers, classroom assistants, pupils and volunteers can all help out.
* Libraries should be adequately funded to provide up-to-date books and ICT resources. The Library Association recommends 13 items per pupil , that 10 per cent of stock be replaced annually, and regards 2,400 as the minimum number of resources, regardless of pupil numbers, with pound;9.50 as an average resource price.
* Selecting good resources is the key to a successful library. A systematic selection policy should ensure that pupils, staff and other adults can all recommend titles, that the library stock complements school policy on resource provision, and that it provides a range and balance of items. Books need to be carefully assessed for purpose, suitability, production, value for money and equal opportunities. Stock should be regularly reviewed.
* Simple and easy classification is essential. Non-fiction books can be classified using the Dewey decimal classification system. Fiction can be arranged alphabetically. A computerised library management system, which includes cataloguing and loan functions, is recommended. If this is not possible, use an exercise book, or book card system to keep track of borrowing. Security systems are not normally necessary.
* A school library should encourage reading exploration among all ages with activities such as story times, author visits, book weeks, shadowing national book awards, encouraging family literacy and forging links with whole-school events. Pupils need to be taught how to make full use of the library and handle information efficiently and effectively.
* Success can be judged according to how widely the library is used, how good its resources are, what it does to contribute to pupils' learning and development, how well it supports the curriculum, and to what extent it promotes partnerships with parents and the community.