I can vividly remember my primary school’s library. A small, square room, it was lined with utility shelves fairly sparsely populated, and designed more as a storeroom for books to be read in the classroom or at home than a place to dwell, enthralled. But nevertheless there was enough there to make me want to complete my work as quickly as possible in order to be granted time to peruse those shelves, where I found Milly Molly Mandy, Swallows and Amazons, the Famous Five, and numerous offerings from Roald Dahl, C.S. Lewis, E. Nesbit, E.B. White and many more. That small, calm room was to me the beating heart of my school, and enabled me to reach out into worlds and realms far beyond my seaside town, embedding within me a lifelong love of reading and the happiness that it can engender.
While I am in no doubt whatsoever about the immense benefits to be derived from schools having libraries, the argument clearly hasn’t yet been won. In these times of budgetary constraints, not all schools have well-stocked libraries, and those that do are not all employing qualified librarians to run them. They are not yet the universal high priority they should be, given the extent of the research showing how effectively they can boost learning in children and young people.
Sarah Garrett is a school librarian and literacy coordinator at Christ’s School in Richmond, Surrey. In her experience, school libraries have much to offer: “A good school library serves a number of purposes; it is a centre for information, learning and knowledge, promoting a life-long love of reading and contributing towards higher student literacy levels and overall attainment. It is also a sanctuary and a safe place for those looking for one for whatever reason.”
But that’s not enough, says Sarah. “Any successful school needs to work hard to promote reading for pleasure, but also ensure students are taught information literacy skills, which can help them navigate the labyrinth that is the internet, research skills to help them carefully evaluate information they come across online, match them with the right reading materials, and teach literacy skills. These skills can be taught in a classroom or IT room, but where better than in an environment where you are surrounded by the knowledge and resources that you require and will be referring to; where you can simply browse the range of new titles recently selected at your leisure, see a display of fiction written by BAME authors, or pick up a newspaper and connect with current affairs or access an online learning resource.”
Alison Tarrant of the School Library Association also knows how beneficial school libraries are. She told me, “They hold the key to literacy for many children, and the key to information literacy for many more. Having a wide range of resources (fiction, information, audio, e-book, newspapers and digital resources) is the only way that children build the range of skills needed to understand and utilise the resources they will encounter in later life. As well as encouraging reading for pleasure (which correlates strongly to reading attainment) school library staff use these resources to develop critical thinking skills and teach vital concepts for the 21st century – ideas like bias, plagiarism, the difference between opinion and fact. It’s through the resources that children grow their world perspective and see beyond their immediate community – also allowing empathy, creativity and curiosity to flourish. It’s these skills and abilities that allow children to engage actively in a modern, democratic community.”
Yet despite the enormous benefits of supporting children’s learning in this way, the magic money tree seems not to favour literacy at present. So the question for schools that are committed to building libraries for their children despite the wider pressures they are currently under, is how?
Developing a well-stocked library is an on-going task. As Sarah says, “It is easy to fill a room with books, but who decides which books and for whom? Curating the most relevant, up to date and accurate resources for our staff and students, and ensuring that they understand how to locate them and use or borrow them, is the most obvious role of a school librarian. But that is just the beginning of our remit.”
Ed Finch, Extended Curriculum Leader at Larkrise Primary School in Oxford agrees. He believes, “If we want to develop a love of reading in our pupils the very first thing we need to do is make available a good range of high quality texts. We need to make sure these texts represent a good spread of types – for every child who falls in love with the Wimpy Kid there’ll be another who locks into graphic novels and yet another who gets hooked on non-fiction texts about dinosaurs, cars, wolves or cookery.”
It's hard, though, for teachers to keep up to date with new books being published and new authors coming through. Ed suggests, “If we want to keep our children interested we need to keep things fresh. We can’t simply rely on books we may have enjoyed when we were children, or the tried and tested – but possibly somewhat dated – classics. A well-stocked school library should have, at the very least, copies of the books shortlisted for the best known children’s book prizes. Cash strapped schools could look at these lists as money saving tips for books which are likely to have a good amount of appeal.”
For Alison, school libraries and those who work in them also challenge lazy thinking and an over reliance on a single source of information: “They do this informally through conversation as well as formally through information literacy, research and enquiry based learning lessons. This generation is not going to be able to find one reliable source – they are going to have to mentally engage with everything they come across, and be constantly thinking about purpose and audience and author.”
This wider benefit that can be derived from building and supporting school libraries is also noted by Victoria Dilly, Love our Libraries Programme Manager at the National Literacy Trust, who told me, “Our research shows that school libraries have a positive impact on all areas of pupils’ learning, including the development of reading and writing skills, their self-esteem and their overall academic attainment. School libraries also play an important role in helping children discover a love of reading – something which should not be underestimated. It is reading for pleasure that has the biggest impact on children’s educational development, as well as making children more likely to go on to lead happy, healthy and successful lives. School libraries ensure children’s experiences of reading are fun, enjoyable and that they introduce children to the magic of stories for a lifetime.”
It is easy to point to the benefits of reading, and to say that we must do all we can to support it in our schools and beyond. But perhaps the need is more urgent now. In these times of fake news and its devastating consequences, perhaps our greatest strategy in ensuring critical literacy is sustaining a well-stocked, appropriately staffed school library. As Ed Finch explains, “I fear for our schools in many ways at present, but the likely demise of the school libraries as funding for stock and librarians dries up entirely will be a savage blow to recover from.”
Find out more…
- Love our Libraries programme includes the Literacy Trust online course to upskill teachers and parents on running their school libraries.
- National Literacy Trust research review on the importance and impact of school libraries
- Research from the National Literacy Trust showing that children who are the most engaged with literacy are three times more likely to have higher levels of mental wellbeing than children who are the least engaged
- Research from UCL http://www.ucl.ac.uk/ioe/news-events/news-pub/nov-2017/reading-teenage-vocabulary showing that teenagers who read in their spare time know 26% more words than those who never read
- Research Rich Pedagogies, from the Open University 2014 showing that social reading environments were seen to be key to creating richly reciprocal reading communities.
- Evidence Review of the Economic Contribution of Libraries, Arts Council England 2014 showing that library usage is linked to reading levels among children and young people, and that library usage and reading, in turn, are important factors in literacy skill levels and general educational attainment.
About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for Eteach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world.