School Librarian Article

Please find below an article from our Librarian Lauren Thow which was written for a professional publication. It features our school project on World War 1.


School Libraries in View

Case Study – World War One Interdisciplinary Learning


Lauren Thow: Librarian at Portobello High School



My school approached the World War One centenary through a whole school Interdisciplinary Learning (IDL) project.


Interdisciplinary Learning (IDL) forms one of the four categories of learning experiences within Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence and is integral to the new curriculum. IDL ‘enables teachers and learners to make connections in their learning through exploring clear and relevant links across the curriculum’ (Education Scotland). In practice IDL projects are varied and can range from a small number of departments working together on a specific topic over a few weeks or months to a whole school problem solving day.By breaking down traditional subject boundaries learning becomes deeper, students better understand the relationship between subjects and have an opportunity to use and develop transferable skills.


IDL as a working practice is particularly suited to the School Librarian because of the nature of the role and their unique position within school. A school Librarian is often the sole member of their department and so will naturally reach out to and work with a wide range of non-Library staff. An inclusive library is one that offers services to a wide range of students and subjects and so a School Librarian’s ability to collaborate is essential to its success. IDL allows School Librarians an opportunity to strengthen their collaborative skills, to link information literacy with non-traditional subject areas and to increase the Library’s profile within school, all of which combine to promote the Library as a department which is at the very heart of a school.


Portobello High School is a non-denominational, six year comprehensive based in the East of Edinburgh with a roll of over 1300 students. In 2013 the school, led by their IDL working group, chose to run an IDL project based around the First World War. Staff across year groups and subject departments were encouraged to plan lessons that would highlight war time experiences to students in advance of the centenary year.


Lessons varied in concept and scope and included:


  • War poetry in English
  • Code breaking in Maths
  • Recruit training drills in PE
  • Advertising posters in Media

Library Involvement

In the current digital age the ability to find and process high quality information is fundamental to a student’s ability to become an independent learner and to successfully progress to higher level education. As well as supporting the IDL project by sourcing materials for teaching staff the Library collaborated with the History department to plan and deliver family history based research lessons for all S4 history students. The aim of these lessons was for students to develop their information literacy skills whilst also learning about the First World War.


Portobello Burgh Public School (now known as Portobello High School) was opened in 1876 with a roll of 290 students. By 1914 the school had three departments (Infant, Juvenile and Higher Grade) with 1042 students on roll and 28 members of staff. Following the outbreak of war in 1914 a number of staff and former pupils enlisted and the impact of this can be seen immediately upon entering the current building (now on a different site to the original school) with a memorial tablet to the 74 former pupils who died in the conflict.


This Roll of Honour offered an ideal opportunity to approach information literacy in a novel and engaging way.


Every S4 history class visited the Library for one period to carry out primary research. I talked to students at the beginning of the lesson about the research process before asking each student to research a name from the school’s Roll of Honour. To do this students used a family history website as well as the websites of the Scottish National War Museum and the Commonwealth War Graves. Information on the Scottish National War Museum and Commonwealth War Graves websites can be accessed for free but family history websites are usually accessed via a paid subscription. With a bit of research I discovered that we were able to apply for a School Learning Grant and this helped reduce the cost of the project.


Via these sites students were able to access a variety of records such as the 1901 Census, Military Service Records, Medal Indexes and records of births and deaths. They were given a recording sheet where they could note down significant information such as dates of birth and death, family members, regiment enlisted in, rank, location of death, medals received etc. Once an adequate amount of information had been found the students picked out an interesting aspects such as a regiment name, place of death, or medal awarded to research in more depth using books and more general websites.


Impact on Literacy

Different spellings of names in the original records, multiple people with the same name or incorrect dates all combined to make the task challenging for students and they found it frustrating when their searches didn’t immediately bring up the correct information. I felt that this was actually a good thing because it meant that they had to start thinking like a real researcher. Students are increasingly searching the internet using the exact question(s) provided by their teacher without considering keywords or wider issues and are expecting accurate and immediate results. Because the family history website was harder to navigate it meant that students were pushed to employ a higher level of critical enquiry skills than they would usually be using. With hindsight however I would have allowed students more than one lesson period to research as the unfamiliarity of the websites slowed them down.


This project didn’t just improve the students’ literacy levels, it also developed my research and information literacy skills to a more advanced standard as well. To ensure success I felt that it was important for me to research the Roll of Honour first to check what information was available. I discovered that some records had not survived as well as others and so I was forced to exclude some names from the Roll of Honour research because there just wasn’t enough information available for the students to subsequently find. Using these names would have resulted in a negative experience for students.

Although this process did inevitably take time I feel that it had a huge value and I must acknowledge the invaluable support of the school for allowing me to prioritise work as I saw fit.   The information gathered can now be placed in the school archive and used at any time in the future by the school or it’s community.


Community Evening

At the end of the project subject departments combined the work completed and a community remembrance event was held on 11th November. Students performed World War One themed music, poetry and drama and a local historian was invited to speak about Portobello and the war. An exhibition of students’ work was held in the Library for visitors to view as they arrived and in the interval.


BBC Radio Scotland

Following the community evening and conclusion of the project we were contacted by BBC Radio Scotland and an agreement was reached for us to embark on a collaborative project entitled The School that Went to War. The BBC planned to follow a group of students over the course of a few months as they investigate the school and community’s experience of war in greater detail than was possible during the IDL project and for this to form a series of radio programmes.


The first step was for me to share the research that had already been completed with the BBC and then to work with them to identify suitable people and histories to focus on. The school is lucky enough to possess admission registers and Head teacher log books covering the war years. These books were not used in the IDL project because of the number of students involved and the age and delicate condition of the books but I was able to draw out a lot of high quality information from these sources that was useful to the BBC research team.


Selection Process

Students were made aware of the opportunity through their history lessons and a group of 13 students from a variety of year groups were selected for the BBC project. The History department was already involved in planning a trip to the Trenches for older students that the BBC planned to join and there were a lot of keen students going on the trip that wanted to become involved. Selection of younger students was then made on the basis of interest level shown.


BBC Activities

Our collaborative project commenced with a two day visit from the BBC L.A.B team. They ran workshops for students teaching them essential media skills such as audio recording, interviewing and filming through the theme of the First World War. The students really enjoyed the visit and responded well to the BBC staff. One of the tasks was to develop a set of questions for a local historian about Portobello in the First World War and then interview her on location at Portobello beach. The finished interview was then placed on the BBC L.A.B website which was really exciting for the students. It was nice to have a focal start point to the project and in terms of team dynamics it was really useful to bring the different groups of students involved in the project together and give them time to get to know each other.


Following the L.A.B workshops we ran sessions similar to the history research lesson for history students in our original IDL project. Students were given the name of a former pupil to research. Some of these former pupils survived the war but the majority of names were taken from the Roll of Honour. Students found information in the same way as the IDL project by using family history websites, the Commonwealth War Graves and Scottish National War Memorial sites but because we had 3-4 sessions with them we had more time to look at additional sources as well. Students were therefore able to look at historical newspapers via online archives and, under supervision, were also able to handle the school Admission Registers and Headteacher’s logbook from the war period.


Once students had found out all they could about their named person, such as regiment, rank, honours received, place and cause of death, we moved on to looking at what life might have been like for these former pupils during the war period. Students joined a PE class and had a go at gymnastic style training routines similar to those used for recruits, built their own trenches, investigated code breaking and cooked food from the period.

The project still has a few months to run and we plan to continue researching and investigating the war in depth. We will do this by visiting local places of interest such as historical sites and museums to investigate conscientious objectors and zeppelin attacks as well as speaking to experts to find out more about the particular regiments some of the former pupils joined.


Throughout the research process students were recorded and questioned by the BBC team, reflecting upon the information they had found, it’s significance and impact not only to the community at the time but to the students themselves.



IDL projects can offer many exciting opportunities for the School Librarian. Opportunities that will not only increase the information literacy, project management and collaborative skills of the students involved but of the librarian too. As well as literacy benefits our project has developed the students’ interest in history, media and their local area and has also led them to think about their own family history. Above all however the students have thoroughly enjoyed the whole process and a bit of excitement about learning can go a long way.


I am happy for you to contact me if you would like to talk about this in more detail. You can reach me at





Lauren Thow has been Librarian at Portobello High School in Edinburgh since October 2012. Before this she worked as a Senior Library Assistant for four years at Whitley Bay High School in Newcastle. After starting a Library career almost by accident she has become passionate about the importance of school libraries and the role of the Librarian and is currently studying for a distance learning Masters in Children’s Literature.