Inspirational Libraries don’t need lots of money

It’s brilliant to see pictures and write-ups of school libraries in the national press, hell anywhere really and the Guardian, with it’s reach is a great place for it to be (see here for the article)  However, it seems nowadays inspirational school libraries have to go hand in hand with lots of money, new buildings and refits and most likely be part of a new build academy. But when we look at the figures this only accounts for such a tiny amount of schools. It’s also worth noting that a building that looks ‘fresh and innovative’ doesn’t actually make an inspirational one it takes a lot more and the a lot of this comes from the person in charge. In the article some of the schools mentioned have made their librarians redundant and have removed large amounts of stock, putting them in the school’s basement.

The majority of schools don’t have the money to create what is now becoming seen as inspirational. With tight budgets and bigger restrictions on them, the loss of Building Schools for the Future money and too many school buildings needing desperate repairs (most schools in the country are 1960’s builds that weren’t meant to last past 25 years) there is no money for schools to spend on resourcing a library.

If we’re not careful we’re going to find ourselves in a position where librarians and schools know they can’t replicate this view of ‘inspirational’ so do not even try. However there is so much they can do and achieve on a limited budget and inspiration doesn’t need a rebuild or tens of thousands of pounds. What it really needs is very different and what inspirational can be is just as different too.

Over the last year we achieved something akin to this though our library space (note we are still a library as really every other name given to the space is what a library actually is). We are a state funded school and a truly comprehensive one. We take students from a large locality, have a pan of 225 and a roll of around 1400 with 25 feeder primary schools. We focus on the more academic subjects rather than BTECs and do not attempt to do anything ‘creative’ with our curriculum and learning to cater for low aspiration/ability (eg project based learning etc) we expect the best from our students regardless of their ability and adjust the support to allow them to excel.

The library is an extremely busy space. We have upwards of 100 students using it for a multitude of things on a break and a lunch and spend a lot of time listening to and working with students in understanding how they want to use the space and what they require it to be. Even though the work our library has had done on it was completed last year and over the summer the planning has been going on a lot longer through these discussions with students and staff. We’ve also made sure that we’ve kept abreast of wider school issues such as the impact of an increased pan, the need for more resources etc etc. All of this has enabled us to put a case forward for different bits to be completed.

One of these first things was to encourage the school to see the benefit of employing 1-2-1 tutors through the Pupil Premium funding as members of staff rather than agency staff to work with weak literacy and numeracy students. Alongside this we argued that the library would be a good base for them but that they would need an office space to work from. Coupled with expanding our computer room and creating a larger ‘research room’ with new technologies available to students we argued this would enable larger classes to use the space and solve the problem the school was having of finding bookable computer spaces. We even doubled the argument by stating that this would help fill the need, that had been grown from an increase in 6th form numbers, of supporting year 12&13 students during free periods with research help and resources.

In knowing that these were issues within the school we were able to argue the case that this small restructure of existing space rather than expensive alternatives was a much better option. This resulted in the school bidding for a small amount of money from the DFE (that all business managers should know about) to do a small amount of cosmetic work to expand the computer room and also create an office space. We already had 14 computers in this room and knew we didn’t want to spend money on any more plus laptops weren’t a route we wanted to go down. Laptops require more upkeep, need replacing more often than desktops and have too many issues related to them that would cause more admin and expense than was necessary. Instead we opted to introduce ipads, and other tablets into the room so classes and students could have a mix of equipment to access. We also knew from our own research that students who used ipads were more likely to use a number of information literacy strategies and skills than using a desktop or laptop as they could not copy and paste information or print straight from the web. Tablets require the students to make notes on what they are searching for and so their learning is much richer because of this. This has had a very positive impact on students’ skills as well as the quality of the work they are producing. These devices we paid for via a bid to our PTFA who were more than willing to help out with such a project that would enhance the learning of the students.

This wasn’t the end of the improvements either as we also put together a proposal of how we can maximise the space of the library and the stock we have. This was by removing our very old shelving units and purchasing some more durable, adaptive ones that could be moved and repositioned. This, for us, was a really big factor. The way we run our library is led by the students and staff that use it. We adapt as much as we can to their needs and how they want the space to be used. By having furniture that allows us to do this means that we continue to do this but with even more success. Again, we were trying to do this on a tight budget that would be feasible to achieve.

The shelving also had to be reflective of how we required the space in the library to be used so not only did we need it to be movable we also needed it to be placed in the room in such a way that it was conducive to how students used it. Previously the room was ‘split’ into different areas by the shelving however students wanted to have a stronger feeling of space with more of a flow. They wanted to have more individual seating for reading and they also wanted to be able to read with their own devices as well as the option to access devices from the library. A lot of the comments we had from students also revolved around the ‘feel of a bookshop but with the practicalities of a library’.

For our non-fiction books we had also been trialing a new way to organise these. I’ve written posts about this before but the idea is to not shelve books via dewey but in the way that students want to access them: so via the subject, the year group and the term that they are being studied.  What this mean though was that we also needed to think about how we could organise these books on shelving. Traditional shelving wouldn’t work as we wanted it to, so we needed to be a little bit more creative with what we were purchasing. We purchased all our furniture from Peters Books Suppliers in Birmingham. Not only do they have a fantastic range of furniture but their service and support is exactly what you would want. We even had a representative, free of charge, come and talk to us about his thoughts and advice based on what we said we required. This was invaluable as having an ‘outsiders’ opinion helped guide our own thoughts.

The result has been that we have been able to transform our library on a very limited budget. We accessed pots of money available to state funded schools, made sure we kept up-to-date with school issues where we could offer a solution and importantly kept true to what our students and staff wanted and how they wanted to use the library. We have been able to create what our users call inspirational and we haven’t done it with a rebuild or a load of money and we have also created the library space we wanted rather than have someone else design and dictate a space that might look good but is completely impractical.

So when you read these articles and look at these pictures and think that you never do this to your space remember that inspiration can be a number of things and that with intelligence and smart thinking you can make your own space the place you want it be without spending a fortune.
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