Turning the school library into a thriving community hub

Anne Devenish explains how engaging with your school’s wider community can help your library become a thriving, welcoming space that shares its love of learning and reading.

Location, location, location! How does this position a school library to engage successfully with the wider community? Perhaps the catchcry should be ‘Ambience, ambience, ambience’. Of course, there is much more to attracting interest and audiences in the event-rich Melbourne scene, but beautiful surroundings of bookcases, furniture, colour, contemporary interior design, and a sense of space are an excellent start.

At Camberwell Girls Grammar School, the senior and junior libraries are currently in their third successful year of contributing to the school calendar by offering an array of community programs, including Talking Heads, book launches, Storytime, and Meet the Author sessions.

The school’s clever use of space allows the library to operate flexibly, with different zones that can expand and retract to suit student needs and different occasions. The book collections are organised in an informal yet targeted way, with lower shelf heights allowing natural light to flow throughout. Meanwhile, contemporary, cozy furniture gives the impression of being in someone’s home as opposed to a school. I like to think of the library as the lounge of the school.

The warm and casual atmosphere immediately breaks down barriers, encouraging interaction and quiet listening; a complete contrast to classrooms and other school facilities, such as the halls and various performance spaces. The library gives students and staff a relaxing and attractive refuge within the school, but also provides an event venue into which the school welcomes the wider community, both inside and outside school hours.

The Talking Heads program is a series of conversational interviews with exceptional people and industry leaders. Held on weekday evenings throughout the year, the interviews are all about storytelling. Libraries are full of stories (weighing heavily on our shelves), so to bring them to life in this format encourages our school community to look beyond the academic world and be inspired by authors, illustrators, musicians, politicians, scientists, and industry leaders. Talking Heads is an opportunity to meet amazing people in a lovely environment, enjoy refreshments and informal conversation beforehand, and then sit back, relax, and be part of a unique interaction with the guest.

Camberwell Girls Grammar School's library hosted a community event with special guest Rob Hirst of Midnight Oil.

Book launches are a natural fit for a school library and are a wonderful experience for students. The school’s program has included a launch led by Year 4 students, who prepared and then participated in the event. To incorporate a book launch into the school day is an important way a school library can broaden the life experiences of the students, giving them insight into the process and creative journey behind a book, and provide the opportunity to be a part of a significant milestone in the creator’s work. It is also an opportunity to provide an enriching event for parents, who are often equally fascinated by the literary world. This is why we decided to open our Meet the Author program to the wider school community. While school libraries have always provided opportunities for students to meet writers and illustrators, we invite parents, grandparents and guardians to join in the fun, too.

Storytime programs are traditionally held at public libraries and bookshops. We strongly believe that they also belong in school libraries. The Camberwell Girls Storytime program is offered, without cost, to members of the wider community and families whose children are enrolled to start at the school in the future. As well as showcasing the beautiful library environment and its resources, these lively sessions are an excellent way to engage very young children in the world of reading, and to show them that schools are not scary places to visit. The school’s big-book collection is used extensively. Such a collection is often not a resource held in a public library. Storytime contributes to the marketing role the library plays in the school’s bigger picture, as families explore the facilities through the library and its programs.

Through proactive event planning, we have the chance to forge a lifelong link in students’ minds between the world of literature and the active exploration of ideas. With considered curation of both the library space and the program of events on offer, we can provide outreach to the community while also shaping and enriching the culture of the school — just another way the role of the library is evolving to meet the needs of a changing world.

Anne Devenish

Head of Library Information Services

Camberwell Girls Grammar School

Anne Devenish has been a teacher librarian for over 30 years and has worked in public, school, TAFE, industry, and state libraries. Anne has been the Director of the Inaugural Kimberley Writers Festival and the Assistant Director of the Northern Territory Library. She is passionate about libraries as connected, lovely community spaces and making sure that every interaction in the library is a warm and positive one.