Wednesday, 18 December 2013

School Librarians - A Precious Resource - Linda Strachan

What kind of a society are we going to become?  

It makes you wonder when they start to close libraries - now the axe is raised over the heads of the School librarians, champions of reading and often the one person who can open the door for a child into the world of books.

Many children do not have books in their home. In December 2011 the National Literacy Trust released figures which showed that of 3.8 million children in the UK, 1 in 3 do not own a book.
 With fewer libraries,restricted opening times and closures, for some children the only access they will have to books will be the school library. But it will become a mere storage facility for books if the school does not have a professional librarian.

Perhaps you are one of those who thinks that a librarian is just someone who arranges books on shelves?   Do you know what a school librarian does?

 CILIPS maintains that school librarians and educational resource service expertise are key factors in the improved delivery of curriculum outcomes, attainment of the goals of education, promotion of literacy and reading, information literacy and technology use, and should be retained.
 (CILIPS is the Chartered Institute of Library and Information professionals in Scotland)

 I have to admit that I don't know all about the different kinds of work school librarians do - (if you are a school librarian reading this, please do tell us more about your job in the comments!), because I have never been a librarian, not trained as one and I don't have their expertise. But what I have seen is the enthusiasm and excitement about books and reading that a great librarian can create among the children in their school. I know they organise reading programmes and promote books and reading in a huge variety of ways that no one else in the school has the time or expertise to do.
I have been involved in lots of different events and projects organised or managed by school librarians, such as the Kids Lit Quiz, where teams of 4 pupils compete in a quiz about books, and where the winning UK team travels to the final, which in the past has been as far away as New Zealand and South Africa. There are lots of practice runs and many books are read in the run up to the competition each year.

Kate Harrison, Teresa Flavin, Jane McLoughlin
& Elizabeth Wein at Teen Titles event
I've been interviewed by pupils for the glossy Teen Titles magazine where teenagers review books they have read. I have no doubt that these reviews and interviews would never be written, collected and organised without the school librarians from Edinburgh Schools. They also host a great evening during the Edinburgh Book Festival when the young reviewers get to meet some of the authors whose books they have reviewed.

It seems very strange, Teen Titles is an Edinburgh Council publication, so why is it that Edinburgh Council has suggested that as part of its proposed budget cuts they plan to cut the number of school librarians by half? They suggest that if enough stakeholders act during the consultation process this will be overturned. Surely a matter like this should not depend on a vote of interested parties to over turn it, any more than other important aspects of education?

Red Book Award
I tried to find a photograph of a school librarian to put here but despite librarians inviting me to visit more schools than I can count over the years, I was struggling to find a picture of any one of the wonderful librarians who had organised these author visits.
It made me realise that in these days where everyone seems to want to be center stage, school librarians tend to stay well behind the scenes, working tirelessly and often well beyond their remit and contracted hours, providing an invaluable service to our children.

So instead I put in this photo of the very excited audience at the Red Book Awards in Falkirk. It is an amazing day, full of fun, and a really wonderful example of how school librarians working together can get huge numbers of children reading and talking about books they have read. There are book awards organised by librarians all over the UK, but sadly many of these are also falling foul of budget cuts.

School librarians appear to be a soft target to those who lack a proper understanding, and those who might think that they are a luxury. But reading for pleasure is not an extra or a luxury for young people.

The National Literacy Trust’s 2012 report for UNESCO also found that pupils who read outside class were thirteen times more likely to read above the expected level for their age.

As Lin Anderson Chair of the Society of Authors in Scotland mentioned  in her letter to Sue Bruce, Chief Executive at the Edinburgh City Council - ' a new analysis by the Institute of Education (September 2013) has found that children who read for pleasure do significantly better at maths, vocabulary and spelling, compared to those who rarely read. Regular reading and visits to libraries were found to be more important factors in improving a child's test scores than a parent's level of education.'

“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”  Albert Einstein.

Librarians have the expertise to know exactly which book to direct a child to when they are floundering, and which they are not yet ready for. In these days of poor literacy levels we need dedicated school librarians to help children discover the joy of reading that will sustain them throughout their lives.

The Society of Authors' survey on Author Visits in Primary and Secondary Schools (October 2013) found that school librarians play a crucial role in selecting texts and organising the author visits that inspire so many pupils. One respondent to the survey said:
‘I believe that inspiration for reading comes at a very early age. With cutbacks in library services and funding in local communities an issue, schools must play a larger part in encouraging pupils’ reading and writing. As a secondary librarian I see a percentage of pupils who have decided it is not cool to read; some pupils joining us from primaries have already adopted this attitude. It is our job to work hard to convince them otherwise (hence as a passionate librarian I organise as many author visits as I possibly can). It should be our job to enrich, empower and expand pupils’ reading without the hurdles of peer-pressure.’

Primary schools often lose out and if they have a library at all it is all too often staffed by a parent or part time by a teacher and at times it is reduced to a few shelves in a corridor.  Far from reducing the number of librarians, because they seem like a soft target,we should be increasing them by making sure that not only every secondary school has a trained librarian but also that each and every primary school also has, not only a proper library but a well staffed one, too

At least Edinburgh Council have put it to consultation,far too many councils have been reducing the number of school librarians by stealth, simply by not filling posts when they become vacant. This way they disappear
without even a whisper of loss.
Sadly even as I write this I have heard that another region is about decide whether to split school librarians between two schools, reducing the number by half.  The worry is that after this has happened and the librarians that remain are unable to keep doing all the work twice as many people did, will that leave them even more vulnerable to even more cuts?

What kind of society do we want to belong to?
Reading for pleasure is a way of understanding the world around us, fiction and non fiction have an important place in the education of our children at all ages. Reading gives children the opportunity to experience life beyond their immediate surroundings and experience, it can show them how to empathise with others in situations we might hope they never encounter themselves, to consider and question other views and to understand the past and how it might influence their future.

School librarians are a vital resource. Parents should ask whether their school has a full time librarian, but to make sure we have a literate and educated society we all need to take responsibility to make sure that this vital resource is retained and not lost by lack of a vote or by stealth when we are not watching.

Does your child's school or your local school have a full time librarian?


Linda Strachan  is  Patron of Reading to Liberton High School, Edinburgh 

Author of over 60 books for all ages from picture books to teenage novels and a writing handbook  Writing For Children  

Her latest YA novel is Don't Judge Me  

blog: Bookwords


Sue Bursztynski said...

Well said, Linda! I work at a four campus secondary school. As of next year, only two campuses will have a teacher librarian and we aren't even full time in the library. Library staffing has been cut back over the years I have been here. One campus next year will have a technician who is keen to do the best she can for staff and students, but will have no help and doesn't have the qualifications to do more than she is trained or. Another campus is staffed only by an unqualified integration aide who has learned on the job. She can do a nice display and record AV resources and that's about it. She can't even catalogue. It's about money. Simple as that. The principals of schools don't know what we do because they don't WANT to know; if they allowed themselves to find out, they would have to staff and fund us properly.

We don't really think much about what we do, it's just - well, what we do. But thinking about it: I run a lunchtime book club. I arrange for students to read manuscripts for publishers and provide feedback. I've done three book launches. Author visits are nice, but not unusual - you don't need much skill to ring up an agency,as long as you have the money - we don't. I have had a few voluntary visits by new authors who want the practice and I make sure they get local paper promo, a keen young fan club, signings and lunch.I review books myself so I know what's out there and I can donate them to the library, because with a tiny budget of about $3000 a year, it's the only way. I've organised author interviews as part of Literature Circles(I have to teach English) and published them on my website. I've taken students to free or cheap events at our State Library. I do trivia quizzes for Book Week. I help with readability tests and advice for our school literacy program.

There's more, much more, but that's off the top of my head. Hope it helps!

catdownunder said...

Oh yes Linda - I can only agree. We have secondary schools here which no longer have a library. The argument was made that the students could access anything they needed "on-line". The reality is that they read even less than before and that they are not reading fiction because that is no longer available in the way school texts are.
When I worked as a school librarian I chose to keep the library open at lunch times and it was always crowded with children wanting to return and borrow books. One of those children told me that her children are not even allowed to read at lunch time. (It's considered ant-social.)
Our local council library struggles to get funds for Children's and YA services - because schools are supposed to be doing the work. In reality neither is doing the work - although the staff would dearly love to do it.

Nicola Morgan said...

Hear, hear. The research about reading for pleasure producing better results on other subjects is older than the most recent 2013 one - there have been several, all saying the same. The OECD PISA study is the biggest, I think, and it's highly compelling. And without school librarians in every school, the only kids who will be reading for pleasure will be the ones from highly literate "reading" households, not those who need encouragement. More inequality looms.

Shame on you, local councils who would do this. We will fight you all the way. And if we lose, more shame on you,

Anonymous said...

All true, all too true, of course. Agree with everything here.

But I'm stumped by a mystery of a more private nature. My eight-year-old has been marinaded in books (read to him) from birth. We go to the library every week. One of his parents is an author, the other reads three times as many books as the author does. The kid's bedroom is overflowing with books of every description.

Will he read? Will he heck.

He can. He just won't ever pick a book up.


Nicola Morgan said...

Anonymous, two possibilities to suggest (and I speak as a former expert on literacy acquisition). Only offered as possibilities not a "diagnosis". (and forgive me if you already know all this!) First, the fact that he's steeped in books will stand him in good stead for such time as he decides he wants to read. So, patience and a long game. Second, however, the most common reason for a child choosing not to read is that the child finds something difficult about reading. There are a number of reasons for this, from psychological to more actual. If he feels (rightly or wrongly) that he is less good at it than his peers, even if no one has told him this, he then is very likely to develop an antipathy. And the trouble is that the direct result of that is that he will do it less/be more reluctant, and thus compounding the problem. If you think there's a chance that the second reason applies, it would be good to make enquiries, while being very careful not to put pressure on. Does that make sense? Meanwhile, keep reading to him.

Elspeth Scott said...

Thank you so much for your heartening post, Linda! As a practising school librarian I am finding it hard to stay positive in the face of the onslaught of short sighted cost cutting by councils. When we meet people as individuals and explain what we do - as we did at the lobby of the Scottish Parliament last year-they are so often surprised to find out what we offer.
As Catdownunder says, arguments are made that everything is now available 'on-line' - but who is it who teaches pupils how to find, select evaluate and use this online material? In my (38 years) experience of schools,it is usually the school librarian! We are the people who aim to develop the skills needed for learning, life and work and instil the love of reading which, as Linda so eloquently pointed out, is the key to future success.

Penny Dolan said...

Well said, Linda. It's so easy - and so much a modern management cliche to say it's "all online", without knowing what the "all" actually is, and is not.

In my darker moments, I'm sure there's big business and influential people behind the online "one-approach fits all" drive, and they are using all sorts of apparently "good messages" to drive out libraries and other spaces and subjects that don't conform easily to sit-and- watch and or fill-in-the-worksheet/form. Dickens "Hard Times" schooling model, updated. again. All these brave initiatives and determined librarians who fight on as best they can win my admiration!

Linda Strachan said...

Hi Sue,thank you for your comment. I think it is telling when you say.. "The principals of schools don't know what we do because they don't WANT to know; if they allowed themselves to find out, they would have to staff and fund us properly."
I am sure it is sadly all too true but perhaps it is time. All the great things you do should be documented and acknowledged.
I also know it does take time, effort, and some skill, to run an author visit well so that the students get the best out of it, (and it sounds as if you do!)
From the author's point of view far too many are not as well organised as one might wish, but the great librarians are those who you know will have thought of all the things you mention!
As you obviously know, it is not all about money,but enthusiasm and imagination to make a small budget stretch. I am sure your students appreciate it and this is exactly why schools and the next generation will miss out if School librarians are allowed to become a thing of the past.

Linda Strachan said...

Cat, I am horrified by that attitude, and as Penny, and Elspeth said this 'all online' approach is very shortsighted.
I am constantly amazed at the knee-jerk reaction about online versus books.
It is not that everything online is great or on the other hand that we should bury our heads in the sand and ignore it, like so much else eventually a middle ground will emerge.
As has been seen over the years in other areas it will all level out and we will find that we marry both online/ebook reading with paper books in a way that suits our lifestyles in the future.
In the eighties (I think it was) everyone was in a panic that cinemas would completely disappear because people could watch films on video. The reality was that, yes, some smaller cinemas did disappear but we still go to the cinema, and we also access films in other ways.
Books will stay with us, but ebooks and accessing information online will also be part of the lives of our children, much more than they were for us growing up.
We do, however need school librarians and libraries to be there to help the next generation find out what a joy reading is, which books to try, to encourage reading in different ways and help those who find it a difficult skill to master. They will still need to discover what to read through book clubs and quizzes, and reading may also become more of a social event in the way book clubs bring people together to discuss their books and festivals have exploded into almost every small town.
We need librarians to take the time to encourage and promote books and reading for fun to our children so that they know what to access either on paper or online.

Linda Strachan said...

Anonymous I agree with Nicola. Possibly he will come to them when he feels ready, and better with no pressure. Sometimes it is just that one book that will open the door for him and perhaps he has not found it yet.

Ann Turnbull said...

Anonymous, I agree with all that's been said. But I also wonder, could your son be feeling a little bit bolshie? Maybe having such very bookish parents makes him want to be different. But if he can read, he surely will read when he wants to.

Excellent post, Linda.

Barbara Band said...

Totally agree with everything you've said (although being a school librarian myself, I'm unlikely to disagree) and so glad that the education chiefs have decided to rethink their decision. The situation in England is sadly very different. The decision as to whether to have a school library lies completely with the Head and not with the local education authority. And Ofsted happily inspect schools and give them an outstanding grade without ever going near the library.

As for what school librarians do: we manage a busy space accommodating a diverse range of needs from students and staff; we are responsible for the selecting and promotion of the stock ensuring this supports the curriculum as well as reading for pleasure; we constantly promote reading and literacy with a range of strategies and promotions throughout the school; we provide a safe environment for vulnerable children; we encourage them to explore their interests and hobbies; we organise clubs and activities both within and outside the curriculum; we participate in collaborative projects with departments; we teach a range of information skills at all levels ... it might actually be easier to say what we "don't" do!

As has been mentioned, a school library with a professional librarian impacts on the attainment of students throughout the curriculum. Literacy levels in the UK are falling, there is concern regarding this. Research shows that school libraries improve literacy levels. And yet no-one insists that schools have a library ... why doesn't someone join the dots here!

Linda Strachan said...

Thanks, Ann.

Barbara you are right it should be part of school inspections. The Society of Authors has been campaigning to get the school inspectors to recognise that the library and also author visits should be included.

It is something we all need to shout about together, again and again, so that someone listens!