School libraries or public libraries?

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School libraries or public libraries? Well, both, of course. But let’s do a thought experiment. Given an imaginary (not very far-fetched) situation in which we were only allowed to have one, it has to be school libraries. Let me tell you why.

I owe my reading ability to public libraries. I come from a bookish family – I was even born in a school and so we had our own library, albeit of rather dusty volumes. So I was surrounded by books and encouragement to read. But even that wouldn’t have fed the necessary greed for books that a growing reader needs. Children need to be able to choose freely and endlessly, making mistakes that don’t cost money, choosing books they might not like (or might), so that each choice has no emotional pressure attached to it. If you borrow a book from a library and you don’t like it, you can take it back. No one frowns. So I fed my hunger in the public library.

But that’s my story. Middle-class, book-sozzled. Smug? I hope not, because I don’t take it for granted. If I did, I’d be one of those genuinely smug readers who becomes a politician who slashes funding of libraries or does zilch to save them.

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Excitement about books should be for all, not just some

You see, it’s not about my childhood. What about other children? What about all the many varieties of family where producing keen readers isn’t so easy, for all the many reasons, financial or motivational or social or whatever, that make becoming a reader so much harder.

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After-school book group organised by librarians

School libraries, on the other hand, catch every child, from every sort of family. School librarians are trained to recognize every type of reader, identify reluctance or difficulties, inspire and boost, recommend likely catalyst books, and can create “initiatives” that actually work. They are a safety net when children have missed out on access to public libraries or when parental support is restricted.

This is not ideology. Evidence of the value of school libraries abounds. As Professor Dorothy Williams said in a recent letter to The Scotsman, “There is considerable international evidence of the 
positive effects of school libraries on learning and achievement, a key factor being the 
presence of professionally qualified librarians with the skills 
and qualities needed to support the learner and develop the reader.”

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Exciting free event, with TV cameras, for The Highwayman’s Curse – wouldn’t have been possible without school librarians.

So why don’t politicians get this? Why aren’t school libraries statutory, at least in secondary schools, as they are in prisons? Why don’t they come under the umbrella of “education”, so that funding could be ring-fenced? Why do we constantly have to fight against funding cuts and to explain why it’s simply not OK for a librarian to be shared between many hundreds of pupils in more than one school?

Why did I have to argue recently with a relevant and powerful person in a certain Scottish council and explain that his plans to focus resources away from school libraries and towards “local community reading groups” and “community-led initiatives” were a) completely inferior to the effect of simply funding school libraries and librarians and b) as useful as a chocolate teapot? Talk about brick walls. He trotted his blinkered hobby-horse towards the end of a rainbow without noticing the established trees laden with gorgeous fruits along the way.

Why, oh why, do people actually receive a salary in order to waffle on about community-led projects and initiatives while cutting the funding for the very system that best ensures that all children have proper opportunities to become expert readers: the school library system, a library in every school, staffed by a full-time trained professional? It’s not complicated. It’s not new. It’s not radical.

Here’s a radical thought. Why not pay someone to do two simple things: take the existing evidence about what works and apply it.

We know school libraries work. We know they improve opportunities for all. So, fund school libraries. To the hilt. Now. In every secondary school.

Despite the thought experiment, this funding can’t be at the expense of public libraries. Obviously. We need public libraries, too, for adults of all ages, for families who choose to use them, for children who are home-schooled, for all sorts of community reasons and because they are the sign that a government values access to books for everyone. But we need school libraries to make sure that every child grows up able and wanting to use public libraries, to devour books that will enrich their lives.

There is, for me, no higher priority.

To support the campaign to Save Scotland’s School Libraries, please sign this petition. But it doesn’t matter where you live: your country needs school libraries.

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13 Responses

  1. Thank you for this great post Nicola and your unstinting support for school libraries. I think librarians in every primary school are as important. It is much easier to infect children with the reading bug at primary school age and also helps to ensure that they view reading as a joy rather than a chore right from the start. I’m sure our literacy levels would soar if every primary school had a trained and funded librarian on staff, even part time.

    1. Thank you! I agree about librarians in primary schools but I guess I’m also a realist and I suspect that the funding issues involved in making them actually *statutory* would be insurmountable, as many primary schools are very small. So I definitely think it would be DESIRABLE, but I don’t think it would work to call for them to be STATUTORY. But if we could raise the profile of school libraries as a whole, parents would be more inclined to push for their primary school to have a school library and librarian if it doesn’t already. 🙂

  2. Thank you. Sometimes it is so hard to keep going when we know that what we do makes a difference, but those who hold the purse strings and make the decisions continue to fly in the face of the evidence. I am very grateful for all the support you give school librarians – it really does help 🙂

  3. Thank you for this inspiring article. While I agree with Lesley about the importance of librarians in primary school as well, I think the starting point has to be a qualified librarian in every secondary school and a good central school library service to support the primaries.

  4. While I agree with the inestimable value of school libraries, what about the world after school, what about the latch key children who spend hours in the public library because there is nowhere else to go? That is the reality of the place where I work and don’t forget the ability to stretch oneself beyond age and expectation because of the variety of materials in the public library. The two should co exist but the school library should encourage pupils to use their local public library as well.

    1. Hi Sue. Thanks for commenting. Obviously, I agree about the importance of libraries (and I stated very clearly their importance) but you have missed my point. Sorry if it wasn’t clear. So, to clarify: I said explicitly that funding school libraries should not be at the expense of public libraries; but I was making the point (using a thought experiment, which is a device that is supposed to make a point by using an *imaginary* situation and thereby revealing something that isn’t revealed by a straightforward comparison between two things) that school libraries need funding first, specifically because they support *all* children (except, arguably, home-schooled children, whom I mentioned separately). Without school libraries, there are many children who will never get to use a public library. We need both, fully funded. But, if required (in the thought experiment) to pick one (god forbid!) then I was arguing why it would have to be school libraries.

      Thought experiments are useful. When I was training to teach people with dyslexia, we had to think about which we would choose to fund most (and we could only choose one) out of three categories of dyslexic person. It was a tough challenge but it made us think differently.

      But I was absolutely clear that I was not suggesting funding school libraries instead of public libraries. I was explaining the reasons why it is crucial to fund school libraries, with trained librarians, because they support the reading of all pupils.

  5. I wholeheartedly agree, there should be libraries everywhere, but I’m not sure it needs to be an either/or. I’m certain some large secondary schools that are being used for evening classes and weekend activities could develop their school libraries into being combined school/public facilities. Get maximum use out of one set of resources and show people what other educational/personal development opportunities are on their doorsteps. Would be a way of keeping specialist Children’s Librarians in the public library service as well.

    1. Kim, that’s exactly my point: that it doesn’t have to be either/or but IMAGINE if it had to be, what then? Your idea of combining is a nice one but has some hidden problems, such as child protection, and PLR (the borrowing royalty that authors get from public libraries but not school libraries, and which we need) and admin/access issues. I realise that some of those are surmountable, but they are there nevertheless and make it not so simple as might seem.

  6. This was one of the best articles/arguments I’ve read on the importance of school libraries. I was a school librarian for 20 years and although now retired, still believe passionately in their value. I have written to the national & local press, spoken to councillors and headteachers (even this week sending cuttings from the Scotsman to a headteacher whom I challenged at a public meeting a little while ago) – all to no avail.

    I could give (and have given) many justifications for school libraries, but will concentrate on some of those I think most important: that ALL children go to school & so have equal access to the riches a library can offer; they allow independence of thought, allowing students to form their own opinions and judgments and to start finding their own way in life; they can help to reverse the present falling standards in literacy; they allow social interaction between pupils of different ages, abilities and backgrounds in a safe and non-judgmental environment.

    I have, of course, signed the petition & urged others to do so. Many thanks, Nicola, to you and other high-profile authors who have added their names to the petition.

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