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.
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.
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.”
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.