A primary school classroom filled with excited children who are gathered around a question mark painted on the floor.

The big question: should we introduce a computerised library system into our primary school?

SLS UKCross-curriculum

Subject: Change Management

Synopsis: It may seem obvious that to keep track of who borrows what from your primary school library, you need a computer system. Unfortunately, it’s not going to be that simple. Gillian Harris from Tower Hamlets SLS helps you think through the installation challenges before it turns messy.   

Gillian Harris

Gillian Harris, MBE
Tower Hamlets SLS

Librarian’s view:

There are some very good library systems on the market (there are also some bad ones), but any system is only as good as the people managing it. Contrary to what the various companies selling these systems want you to believe, computerisation does not run the library by itself. What’s more it does not take away the need for administration, decision making or the understanding of library classification and cataloguing.

There are good arguments to install a library computer system – it creates deeper access to your library collection (so long as the keywords are accurate), creates a reading record for each child and encourages sharing of reviews, as well as keeping track of who has what. 

The drawback is that any system is costly to install and will also need to be maintained which may not necessarily save your school and staff time if they are keeping information up-to-date. For example books must be deleted from the catalogue when they get removed for being out-of-date, tatty or lost.  New books must also be added – complete with keywords.  Various housekeeping tasks will also need to be done regularly, for example, moving the class selection around; adding new pupils or teachers and monitoring reviews posted by children.  Most systems invite you to run reports on who has overdue books and will let you print out letters to send home, but time will have to be found to do this.

So, give careful thought as to who is going to manage it and keep your system up-to-date. My recommendation would be to persuade your senior management team to spend the money on a professional librarian for a few hours each week who brings book knowledge, library knowledge and a rapport with children to instil a love of reading – something a computer simply cannot do!

Reasons to install a computer system

    1. By logging what pupils borrow, and hopefully read, a computer system creates a valuable reading record for each child as well as giving you statistics on overall use of the library and identifying who is not reading.

        • This is invaluable information which you can use to target children and personalise their library experience. For example, you can ensure the non-readers go with you to a bookshop to choose books for the library, making sure that they choose books for the whole class, not just their own interests.
        • It also enables you to let the prolific readers make book recommendations to the non-readers, encouraging them to really think about what the non-reader would like, not just what they like themselves.
    2. As a record of what you have in the library, you can merge records of the e-books you have alongside your printed books, and indeed, all the other formats of resources you might have – audio books, CD-ROMs, posters, etc.
    3. A library PIN is often the first time children have their own personal ID, which brings with it a sense of responsibility and prepares them for the future when they will have many such numbers.

Tips to stop your computer system installation becoming an expensive mistake


    Your catalogue tells you two key things – what you have in the library and, crucially, where it is. 

      • KEYWORDS When creating the catalogue record, a true strength is the keywords you can put against each title, thus enabling you to find books on a particular subject, even if that subject is not featured in the title. For example, from the title Olivia’s Journey you cannot tell this book is about a Windrush journey, but by adding the keywords “Windrush” and “Black History” this book will always be found when needed. You can also add genre and subject matter keywords to your fiction titles, so that children looking for stories about ostriches (an obsession of my seven-year-old niece at the moment) can find them.
      • You won’t need to create every catalogue record from scratch. A good library system will enable you to download catalogue records consisting of author, title, publisher and year of publication. They will claim to have added keywords, but the quality of those keywords tends to leave a lot to be desired. The source for downloadable catalogue records caters for all types of libraries, and so will frequently use keywords such as “history – juvenile” to differentiate the book from a history book at adult or university level. For your purposes, “history” is far too broad – children need to know what period of history, and your whole library is for juveniles.
      • Similarly, the systems available seldom help you with genres or the subject matter of fiction books. To have good keywords, you need to do it yourself.
      • CHOICE OF WORDS You’ll need to be consistent – for example how will you write a keyword for “second world war” or “World War 2” or “World War II”? Or do you make sure all three are in the keyword field of each book on the subject (fiction and non-fiction)? The keywords need to reflect the terminology you use in the classroom, so if a class is doing a topic on habitats, there’s no point using the term “biomes” as a keyword – although you could use both.


    The catalogue also needs to tell you where the book you want is – so before you start cataloguing you need to decide where in the library the book is going to be kept.  For non-fiction, this means allocating a Dewey classification number, and it is not the purpose of this article to explain how that works. The information shared here might seem very detailed and pernickety but keep in mind that the reason for creating catalogue records is so that your library users – the pupils in your school – can identify and locate books they want to read. This means that the more accurate your catalogue is, then the better their experience of the library.

      • DECISIONS The aim of classification is to have books on a similar subject on the shelves next to or near to one another. At first this seems easy, but there will be many decisions to make, for example do you put Tudor Exploration with the exploration books or the books on Tudors? Do you put train titles with engineering or journeys?
      • LOCATION For your fiction collection, if a book is a picture book, it is quite likely to be in your kinderboxes, and if it’s older fiction, then on the fiction shelves – but have you got a section of “first reading” books separate from the main fiction shelves? Your catalogue needs to tell you which section the book is in.  If you arrange your fiction by genre (not recommended) then the catalogue needs to tell you that too.

    A library computer system is often installed to keep track of who has borrowed what and ensure that person returns the books.  Any system is only as good as the people running it: the library computer must be switched on every morning and unless you have a full-time librarian on duty, everyone in your school must subscribe to the concept that books borrowed must be recorded on the system, and they must all know how to do it.