School library spotlight: Yarra Valley Grammar

By Dr Mark Merry, Miriam Meehan


SCIS speaks to Yarra Valley Grammar Principal, Dr Mark Merry, and Head of Libraries, Miriam Meehan, about the development of the innovative new Research Centre with the John Pascoe Resource Centre at its heart.

Dr Mark Merry

Please tell us about the new Yarra
Valley Grammar Research Centre and
why the school has invested in it?

There was a reasonably shallow view at one stage that libraries were going to go out of fashion because everyone could sit at home and do their research online. That misses the point. Libraries aren’t just places where you have to go to look up things. They are actually, particularly in schools, your community hub — where people come together to learn together.

Yarra Valley Grammar Principal, Dr Mark Merry working with students in the John Pascoe Resource Centre.

When we designed the Research Centre, we wanted to make it a place of welcome. As clubs, parishes and neighbourhoods are in decline, schools become the new neighbourhood. The Research Centre is where the school administration is located. It is a place where we have our Chapel of the Holy Spirit, which is a significant gathering space in the school.

The John Pascoe Resource Centre was central to the entire design, and is embedded in a broader space — visiting the library is part of a big adventure and I think that’s important. It’s not, ‘Oh I’m going to the library’, it’s more ‘I’m going to the Research Centre where I can go and read a book, and have something to eat and talk to my friends, and then go in and do a bit of research’.

What do you see as the key value or purpose of the Research Centre?

Our vision for the Research Centre is that it’s not just going to be a place where our current students are studying. We intend to enter into partnerships with universities, research groups, and consultants where they will come in and work with our teachers and students in joint research projects.

We opened the building at the beginning of Term 2 this year. Already, we have one project underway, run by Monash University. There is also a consultancy group — big thinkers in the area of school leadership and teacher quality and effectiveness — who plan to base themselves in the Centre, and work with the kids and our teachers.

So, the primary benefit of the Centre is that research is happening and we’re going to have academics, teachers and students working together in the same space. That gives our students a long-term view of what education is about. And that’s a hugely important thing.

I think the cultural landscape is changing, and that schools recognise the value of libraries more.

The secondary benefit is that we’re looking to open the Centre in the early mornings and the late evenings so that students, teachers and parents will have access. Our Year 9 students will run a café that provides meals for late-night library users, with the aim of developing small business/entrepreneurial skills for careers education and to help inform their subject selection for Year 10. Senior students can be here after hours, and they might have a light dinner while they’re doing their research. 

So, there’s a knock-on effect: our Year 9’s are running a business —they’re providing a service — and our senior students who are studying after hours can access the service.

The Research Centre and John Pascoe Resource Centre are actually attached to the Year 9 centre because we think that Year 9 is where a lot of the action is. Year 9 is about skills acquisition in study, research, and motivation.

What was the design process for the Research Centre and the John Pascoe Resource Centre?

Initially, the library was a dark, old and tired space. The kids brought life to it, but it was an uphill battle. So we bulldozed the entire area and started again. I wanted a sense of arrival, and a sense of openness and inclusivity — an open plan space. I wanted to incorporate the chapel, so not only is there the research being done in intellectual, academic pursuits, but there’s a space for higher order things, for worship. And, there’s also a place where kids get a bit excited about going, such as the rooftop terrace.

So that was my part. Then we called in the experts. The chaplain was involved with the chapel, and the library staff were involved with the library. Our head librarian at the time, Liz Montanaro, worked very closely with the architects — and with some of the kids — about what it should look like, and how it should work. There was almost a six-month consultation that went on in that space.

It was Winston Churchill who said, ‘We shape our buildings, and afterwards, our buildings shape us’.

I’m a firm believer in the importance of space, and that’s why, when you come to Yarra Valley Grammar, the environment’s very important. If you sit in the reading room, for example, you’ve got this beautiful view over the grounds. It’s just a very positive space. In my own home, I read in my garden. That to me is where I love to read. So, we’ve in many ways replicated that experience here, and I think the kids respond well.

Our secondary school is actually configured like a university. So if you’re studying History, Psychology, English and so forth, you’ll go to the Arts faculty. There’s the Maths and Science faculties, and we’re building a new Fine Arts faculty and a Languages faculty, and so forth. All of the individual faculties surround the Research Centre. It’s a hub and that’s why it’s the centre of all the action. I’ve been over there and I’ve seen classes come in, and they’re doing research with the teacher, and there are good conversations going on, and that’s the way it was designed.

How does the research centre enhance learning?

Study is not something we hope kids only do at home in front of a screen. It is about sitting with your peers and teachers, and observing others. It’s about working and interacting, and talking to teacher librarians as co-researchers, rather than perpetuating that old narrative of ‘Ssh, be quiet!’

One thing you’ll notice about the design of the library is, it’s very open. There’s no security in the library. We looked at our kids’ use of our books over a period of time, and realised they don’t go missing. The library opens up into other parts of the school, so, in the better weather, we open the sliding doors, and kids can study and read in the little courtyards outside.

The rooftop terrace is opening once the weather gets better too, and that’s going to be available for students to have a read, to get together and have lunch. So, we’ve expanded — in a sense — the concept of a library to be the centre focus of the whole school. Expanded it, but also kept it quite traditional in a lot of ways.

We do have areas where the kids get online, but our library staff are very keen, particularly in the area of fiction, for kids to physically have books. And, so, we have an excellent collection. There’s a whole new area of research that suggests you take in more information if, physically, you’re holding something, or you’re writing something, than if you’re looking at a screen. Our kids are using the physical collection all the time.

I love the Research Centre, and I love the John Pascoe Resource Centre because it’s got a heritage room, it connects to our history. It’s got a reading room, in the very old school sense of the word. And the students, particularly Year 12s, take that very seriously. They go into that quiet space.

I think the cultural landscape is changing, and that schools recognise the value of libraries more. There was a period there where libraries were a bit of a battleground in schools. So, what you had was a dynamic where library staff were having to police the library. Libraries are morphing now into a positive place where kids want to be. And teacher librarians now are seen as a great resource for young people.

Study is not something we hope kids only do at home in front of a screen. It is about sitting with your peers and teachers, and observing others. It’s about working and interacting, and talking to teacher librarians as co-researchers, rather than perpetuating that old narrative of ‘Ssh, be quiet!’

The rooftop terrace is opening once the weather gets better too, and that’s going to be available for students to have a read, to get together and have lunch. So, we’ve expanded — in a sense — the concept of a library to be the centre focus of the whole school. Expanded it, but also kept it quite traditional in a lot of ways.

We do have areas where the kids get online, but our library staff are very keen, particularly in the area of fiction, for kids to physically have books. And, so, we have an excellent collection. There’s a whole new area of research that suggests you take in more information if, physically, you’re holding something, or you’re writing something, than if you’re looking at a screen. Our kids are using the physical collection all the time.

I love the Research Centre, and I love the John Pascoe Resource Centre because it’s got a heritage room, it connects to our history. It’s got a reading room, in the very old school sense of the word. And the students, particularly Year 12s, take that very seriously. They go into that quiet space.

I think the cultural landscape is changing, and that schools recognise the value of libraries more. There was a period there where libraries were a bit of a battleground in schools. So, what you had was a dynamic where library staff were having to police the library. Libraries are morphing now into a positive place where kids want to be. And teacher librarians now are seen as a great resource for young people.

Miriam Meehan

What is your job title, and what does your role entail?

I am Head of Libraries at Yarra Valley Grammar. My role is multifaceted. I teach a Humanities class most years. I also oversee the operations of the secondary and primary school libraries, coordinate the purchase and processing of resources, and promote reading of all types to classes in years 7–9. I build LibGuide resources for staff and students; teach skills sessions to classes; and collaborate with staff on course development, and the integration of technology into learning. None of this is done by me alone – I have an awesome teacher librarian who runs the primary school library, and I am surrounded by the best team of library technicians, who do all the day-to-day work that keeps us functioning.

The most important aspect of a library’s role is to be at the heart of any place – school or society – that values culture, learning, multiple perspectives, critical thinking, curiosity and creativity.

Yarra Valley Grammar students enjoying the John Pascoe Resource Centre.

What is the most rewarding aspect of working in a school library, and why?

This is difficult for me to answer. I have been a teacher librarian for over 30 years. Every year, the work is different. I have moved between the government and independent school sectors and, for a while, I worked with a teacher professional organisation. But, if I had to pick just one thing, I would say people — the ones I work with, the ones I teach, and the ones who teach me. I love recognising the amazing impacts that people have had on me, and I hope that I have made a positive impact on them.

What do you see as the most important part of the library’s role in the school community?

The library’s role is multidimensional. Despite the popular misconception that libraries are dinosaurs that are on the way out, the place of libraries in our world is more important than ever. The most important aspect of a library’s role is to be at the heart of any place — school or society — that values culture, learning, multiple perspectives, critical thinking, curiosity and creativity (this is not an exhaustive list!). It is not about perfect order, or showroom cleanliness. Great libraries foster thinking, innovation, change, challenge and inclusiveness. I am lucky to work in a school that values what a great library can offer to its community. You can see the evidence of this in the new space. Liz Montanaro, our previous head of department, had a definite vision for the library design that would encompass these ideas, and you can see how that has become realised in the Resource Centre.

Are there any current issues or challenges facing your library? How are you working to overcome these?

As with most libraries, we face the ongoing challenge of getting staff and students to recognise that Google isn’t the only, or even the best, answer. We are working with other heads of department, and with teaching staff, to build strategies that foster authentic learning. The curriculum is always being adjusted to reflect new thinking, strategies and tools, and the libraries, in both the primary and the secondary schools, support and partake in curriculum design. Both Wendy Andrews, in the primary school, and I teach classes for reading, skills development, and curriculum. Working with the staff and students in different modes helps us to forge relationships and create learning environments that suit our users’ needs.

How do you promote reading and literacy in your school? Are there any challenges in doing so?

I get to work with all of our Year 7s and 8s, and some of our Year 9s, through our reading enrichment program. Classes come into the library for reading once a fortnight. I have the opportunity to speak with them about new titles, genres and authors, and about tools for finding stories that they want to read.

One of my most successful reading sessions involved the sharing of a book or two that had left an impression on us at some point. I shared how The diary of Anne Frank impacted me as a Year 6 student, and how my love of Richard III had been ignited by reading The daughter of time. Students then had to come back with something that had reached them. It was terrific — students brought in books from when they were very young, or told us about when a much-loved adult had read a particular story to them. Sometimes, they couldn’t remember the exact name of the story, but they absolutely remembered the experience.

I also use special occasions like Valentine’s Day to host ‘blind dates’ with a book as well as ‘speed dating a genre’. Now that we are in our new space, we are planning on reigniting our Literature Week activities — guest speakers, poetry, debates, and lots of food!

And this is just a small thing, but I have seen it make an enormous difference — we try hard to support requests from students for additions to our collections. The childhood story exercise enabled us to add titles to our collection that we could show as peer recommendations. It was wonderful to see how the enthusiasm of one studentcould spark interest in others.

As for challenges, there are quite a few. We have several students who ‘don’t like reading and so don’t do it’. We try to maintain high-interest items in our collections, including magazines, newspapers, graphic novels, audio, e-audio and ebook titles. I try to encourage students to see the library as something of a buffet – you get to try a whole range of different tastes so that you may find one that you like. I also work hard not to say ‘no’ to a child who wants to read a particular book. I will talk to them about language and scenes that they may encounter in a story, and let them know that they are under no obligation to finish it. In some cases, where a book can be seen to be truly problematic, I will ring the parent/carer and discuss the matter with them, and then act on their advice.

How do you promote an interest in STEAM areas in your school? Are there any challenges in doing so?

STEAM has taken off in the Maths and Science faculties, and we work to support their programs in whatever way we can. We are fortunate to have a makerspace built into our library space, and we are in the process of developing programs that can utilise this area. We have just launched our Lego Club with Year 7s — they are currently building a wind turbine. Ideally, these students will then be able to mentor other students through other building sessions. We want to foster a culture of curiosity and inquiry in all of our library spaces, and this is where we have chosen to start. We will develop problem/challenge scenarios where we can encourage students to find potential solutions to real-world problems. We are in the early stages of this journey, but it is already creating considerable interest among our students.

How do you encourage students to make use of the library?

One of Liz’s library design ideas was the building of the Heritage Room. It houses the bulk of the History collection. Humanities classes from Years 7 to 12 book into the space to access the resources and library staff. The room has a different atmosphere about it, and both students and staff have commented on how it makes the idea of library use and research seem more tangible.

LibGuides have also been of tremendous help in raising the profile of the library. Staff make requests based on curriculum needs, and I then work with them to design learning tools and scenarios that, at least partially, meet those needs. Most staff will then book their classes into the library for skills work and resource access. This is an ongoing need though — despite students using the guides across year levels and faculties, some still default to ‘Do you have a book on …’ This situation does create a great learning opportunity — I get to (re)show them the tools — but I would be so much happier to see them being more independent.

We try to support all users as much as we can so that they feel that they have both a space and a team that are there for them. We welcome students who need a space to ‘chill’, as well as those who devour books, and challenge us to keep feeding them. We keep a quiet eye on students who may need some TLC, and we welcome staff who want a space to work (or escape to), especially when the pressures are high.

What is your favourite thing about SCIS?

We love how SCIS saves us time. We can download records for our catalogue in no time flat! It’s so much better than the old days of original cataloguing of everything! SCIS helps us to stay current. This is so important in a world where our users can access information instantaneously and 24/7.

Image credits

Images supplied by Miriam Meehan

Dr Mark Merry

CEO/Principal

Yarra Valley Grammar School

Former National Chair of the Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia (AHISA).

Miriam Meehan

Head of Libraries

Yarra Valley Grammar School