What makes a great school library?

We asked Lucas Maxwell, librarian at Glenthorne High School in Sutton and the 2017 School Librarian of the Year, to tell us what makes his school library so special?

When he received his award, Maxwell was recognised for 'bringing books to life in highly imaginative and engaging ways'. "I think it's important to have a sense of fun in a library," Lucas says, commenting on the award. "I encourage students to come to the library through different activities and I bring in as many as I can using technology."

Maxwell grew up in Nova Scotia in a small town of just 300 people on the East Coast of Canada. He then moved to 'the nearest city' and, as part of the library service, started working with teenagers across 14 libraries in the district. "Some of these teens were considered 'at risk' so we were very socially proactive and doing a lot of outreach work. I really loved my time there and learned a lot," he says, describing how his interactive approach developed. Even when he moved to a more traditional library, he spent "a lot of time getting teens through the door".

When he started working at Glenthorne High School in 2013, it was Maxwell's first post in a school - and the first time he had had a 'captive audience' of teenagers. "I had never worked at a school library before, so I used what I had learned in public libraries to encourage them to visit the library, and then moved to integrate that with the curriculum."

Maxwell's familiarity with 'outreach' work across the school and in encouraging students to visit the library has remained the backbone of his approach. "I will actively go out and find out what are their interests, often through what they are reading."

Students are encouraged to write reviews of books they have read through a fortnightly 'reading challenge' which each of the school's houses compete for. "They will write a lot of reviews over the course of the year and every book they review is databased," Maxwell explains. "It means I can see if they need to be encouraged to try reading other kinds of books, and also I can plan activities in the library around what they enjoy." Manga, for example, has been a very popular trend among the students so Maxwell established a manga club where they can create their own artwork and do related crafts.

Technology has been particularly useful in enabling students to engage actively with books and reading. One strand of this is in 'e-meeting' authors and illustrators via skype or on Twitter. "I think that is so important to humanise writers, as well as exposing the students to different types of books," he says.

But it's not just about meeting authors, Maxwell adds. "I feel passionate about the technology we use because I think for the students, it's incredible to connect with other schools and young people. They are fascinated, for example, by American culture so for them, it's a real treat to speak with American students." Recently the students have been sending postcards with book reviews to one US school, and they are still receiving postcards back. For another activity, Year 7's read picture books via skype to four year olds in Texas - "They are so keen to do it again", Maxwell adds.

The use of technology extends beyond communication tools, though. Students have also been creating filmed book trailers or, for those interested in science-based activities, using technology kits from Makespace to develop robotics and circuitry. "We have all the books around these subjects in the library but the kits mean they can get more involved in making them," Maxwell explains.

This is also about extending technology to support the curriculum. For Geography students, Maxwell looked into 'mystery skype sessions' with schools in the US where the students would need to ask questions and, using their iPads and atlases, determine where the overseas students were based. "Our students were using old and new technologies, the iPads and atlases, alongside each other," Maxwell says. "They really enjoyed the session and as well as finding out about their home, we could share facts about where we are from."

He adds that none of the extra activities eat into his book budget. The kits that are bought are not expensive and can be used and reused; skype chats with authors have been donated in return for reviews and interviews; and the library isn't signed up for subscription-based services. What they aren't using yet is e-books, something that Maxwell plans to survey the students about to see if this would be a popular choice.

What really makes this approach work, Maxwell adds, is the collaborative approach and support from the head teacher, English department and other department heads - and not forgetting his colleague and library administrator, Nathalie Saillard. It is, of course, also about the students - a small group of whom put Maxwell forward for the School Librarian of the Year award. "It takes everyone," he concludes, "to put the library at the heart of the school."

Maxwell is an active member of the SLA and of CILIP and its Youth Services Group.

16/10/2017What makes a great school library?
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