A beating heart

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Knowledge and skills

  • Reading
  • Library resources

Anne Thompson, school librarian extraordinaire, gives you her best tips on making your library the most-loved spot in school.

“The library is the beating heart of any school and its life and vitality depend on it.”

Anthony Horowitz

In an ideal world all schools would have a thriving school library and a professional librarian to manage it. However, if as a newly installed Head of Literacy you are presented with a dingy corner, containing a small selection of outdated books, and told that the ‘library’ is your responsibility, how can you transform this into a ‘beating heart’ with limited resources and time?

Stock up

The first step is to assess your stock and discard any unsuitable books. Be ruthless! Although it is tempting to keep all the books, regardless of their age, condition or suitability, this will not create a welcoming and useful school library. Perhaps pupils could be invited to donate a new book to start the library? Donated books could include a bookplate with their name on, which gives them a nice feeling of ownership.

Book fairs are a great way to obtain free books using commission from sales. Several companies sell books at greatly reduced prices, including Red House and The Book People. Don’t despair if your book stock looks inadequate at first. Strategically placing books facing forward on shelving or having hardbacks standing up in gaps is attractive and stops the library looking bare.

Space it out

How much space do you have? If the library is in a corridor or tucked away in the corner of a room, there may not be enough room for a whole class to use it. But careful timetabling of small groups from each year, plus opening at lunch times and before and after school will encourage use. If the library is large enough you will be able to use it as a teaching area. Weekly visits by pupils as part of the English curriculum are a good start, with the option of incorporating research sessions later. Space will dictate your choice of furnishings but the library should be cheerful and welcoming. If possible, display children’s work, book reviews and photos of pupils and staff reading. Many children’s publishers provide free posters, and annual book events such as World Book Day and Children’s Book Week are a good source of display material too. Work with teachers to ensure that the library supports what is being taught in class, with themed book displays changed regularly to attract children’s attention. Comfy corner There are companies such as Gresswell and BookSpace for Schools that offer beautifully designed furniture for children’s libraries but furnishing a library can be expensive. However, it is possible to start small and gradually add more as your budget allows. If you can, it is better to have both a working or study area with tables and chairs as well as a cosy reading corner with comfortable seats, beanbags or cushions. In a confined area spinners are a good way to store books and picture books work well in boxes with wheels. You will need at least one computer and, if possible, provide audio books and a central supply of DVDs for use in class.

Schools Library Service

Make use of your local Schools Library Service if you are lucky enough to have one. In addition to providing loan boxes of books for specific subjects and possibly fiction too, the SLS provides the expertise of a professional librarian to subscribers. The School Library Association (SLA) produces excellent guidelines on all aspects of library management from stock selection to library promotion. In addition, members receive a quarterly journal containing helpful advice and book reviews.

Book expert

It is vital for someone in charge of a library to be knowledgeable about children’s books, and there are many sources of information to keep you up to date. The Book Trust website has downloadable book lists and Lovereading4kids.co.uk has reviews of the latest books and provides free extracts of some of them. There are other good online review sites such as The Bookbag and Books for Keeps. Get the children involved in book selection and have a suggestion book or box so they can recommend titles. Finally, the most important indicator of success for the library is having the support of the headteacher. Make your head aware of the positive outcomes of library use, including the benefits of reading for pleasure on academic attainment. But perhaps the most important thing to remember is to enjoy your school library.

The Primary School Library Guidelines website is a hugely helpful source of information. It has guidance on everything from policy writing and budgets to information skills and involving parents in reading for pleasure initiatives.

In recent years there has been an increase in the number of authors, illustrators and storytellers who are happy to visit schools and the Reading Patron scheme is an excellent way of maximising on the numerous benefits of involving an author in both your library and your school. They may even want to open your newly revamped school library! For more information visit the official website for details: www.patronofreading.co.uk.

Recycled book stands

Try out this top tip from a clever Coventry TA. Wash out ‘corner’ yoghurt pots, turn them upside down and you have a superb book stand for single books! You could even ask children to decorate them.

If you have money to spend…

  • Employ a qualified librarian to manage your library or share a librarian with a local school.
  • A computerised library management system enables efficient running of the school library and maximises its usefulness to teachers. Choose a version specifically for the primary age group such as Junior Librarian from MLS (www.microlib.co.uk).
  • Arrange visits by children’s authors, illustrators, poets or storytellers. This is a hugely effective way of raising the profile of the school library (www.contactanauthor.co.uk).
  • There are some wonderful library furnishing companies that produce very appealing items such as a Reading Tower or a Picture Book Tunnel that are sure to entice children into the library.

Some dos and don’ts!

  • Don’t try and do it all on your own. The School Library Association’s publications are fantastic and will guide you through all aspects. Membership of the SLA is helpful for all involved in school libraries in any capacity (www.sla.org.uk).
  • Don’t only stock books. Try to have a wide range of reading materials, including magazines, comics, audiobooks and newspapers for children, for example The Phoenix, First News, TBK Magazine, Aquila.
  • Don’t restrict use to reading; offer alternatives such as chess, board games and lunchtime clubs, such as craft sessions, linked to books.
  • Don’t insist on silence, especially during lunch breaks; primary school libraries should be happy, inviting places.

Anne Thompson, is an expert on children's books and school librarian extraordinaire. Follow Anne on Twitter – @Alibrarylady.

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