Tuesday, 17 June 2014

School Library Services – and why we need them – by Emma Barnes

Something rather nice happened a few weeks ago. I hacking away at the coal face, trying to complete the edits for the third book in my Wild Thing series, when the publisher of my previous book, Wolfie, called to tell me that it had just won a prize – a Fantastic Book Award.

Writing is a funny kind of profession. It’s lonely, insecure, there’s no pension, and you never know if the next book will be taken on – but, being so unpredictable, it does produce its golden moments.

It was a real treat, winning the award. I got a certificate, a fountain pen, letters from the child judges. Best of all, I was invited to the presentation ceremony to meet some of the participating children. I heard what they thought about Wolfie, read their reviews, was stunned by their wonderful Wolfie board games and illustrations, signed their books and led a workshop brainstorming magic animal stories. (I’m tempted to steal some of their brilliant ideas!)

Celebrating the award!

I also got to meet the lovely folks at Lancashire School Library Services (Lancs SLS) who  actually run the award.

So, at this point, you’re probably wondering what this all has to do with the title – Emma supports School Library Services because they gave her a nice day out?

No, no, and no. Encouraging authors, nice though it is, is only a side effect of what School Library Services (SLSs) do. First of all, the point of regional book awards, like the Fantastic Book Award (FBA), is not really about the prize. It’s about the process. And that means the children reading, discussing – enjoying – the books. It’s all about bringing books and children together.  And that is what every School Libraries Service aims to do.

My winning book!
To which some might say – why can’t schools do this without a School Library Service? Just consider the following facts:

 - most primary schools don’t have a librarian
 - most primary schools have limited space for a library, and limited stock
- most primary school teachers are not experts in children’s literature, and so primary schools rarely have someone who can choose stock and advise children on which book to read.

 I know these things because I regularly visit primary schools, and have encountered many “libraries” that consist of little more than a handful of Roald Dahls and Dick King Smiths. I do meet teachers and teaching assistant who are passionate about children’s books and reading – but it is through their own personal interest. Wide knowledge of children’s books does not seem to be considered a key part of the job or its training. (I don’t blame hard-pressed teachers – I do blame an education system which has given so little priority to encouraging children’s reading.)

It’s the children that suffer. Here are some of the things that I have witnessed first hand, the result of primary schools without librarians:
 - a Year 3 child struggling and failing to read an ancient copy of Thackeray’s The Rose and The Ring from the school library. Nobody was aware that this was not in fact a young child’s read.
-  a boy giving up on a non-fiction book in disgust because its classifications of dinosaurs was decades out of date. 
- a school library that was revamped by parent volunteers, but where there was no library time, and no chance for children to borrow books, because there was no staff member to oversee this. 
- a school which was over 60% non-white, but where none of the books on the shelves had characters of the same ethnicity/religion as these pupils. 

Here, by contrast, are some of the things I’ve seen with a designated school librarian:

 - children’s reading being guided in a good way – e.g. if you like this, then perhaps you’ll like that: if you like The Rainbow Fairies, maybe you’ll like these books by Emily Rodda (also about fairies but more challenging).
- children able to say “I’m interested in Monet/dinosaurs/space/Greek Myths” and immediately being given something age appropriate that reflects their interest.
- regular library times, for quiet reading, but also finding out what library does and how to use it. 
- a wide range of stock which does not rely completely on just a few well established authors, and which reflects all ages, abilities and interests.

 It’s hard for individual schools to tackle these issues alone. The Society of Authors has been campaigning for every school to have a librarian, a campaign I HUGELY support, but the truth is it’s not going to happen any time soon.

Meanwhile School Library Services (SLSs) provide back up. They are the infrastructure on which individual schools can rely.

What does that mean in practice? Well, the first thing I saw when I visited my local SLS in Leeds was a huge warehouse full of books. There were shelves and shelves in all kinds of categories – and all of these books are available to, and regularly sent out by the box load, to the schools that subscribe to the service.

(A bad back must be an occupational hazard in a SLS!)

A school could phone up and say, “we’re doing a project on transport for Year 4” or “we’re struggling to find books for reluctant readers” or “we need books with Muslim characters” and the SLS would help. SLS staff know the stock. They can advise schools on how to access it, how to create a better school library, and how to create a reading culture in schools. They also organize author visits – so that children can meet authors face to face, and teachers can hear about new books too.

They also organize regional book prizes – like the Fantastic Book Award (FBA). For the schools and children involved, the FBA meant a chance to:

- meet in a weekly group to read and chat about the shortlisted books (chosen to reflect a range of abilities and interests)
- read purely for pleasure and to do other fun things, like post reviews online
- spread the word about the books in school
- let teachers know which new books are out there, and which their pupils enjoy
-  engage in activities like drawing the characters in the books, designing board games and eating chocolate muffins at lunch time! All these things help make reading “cool”.
- correspond with authors and meet them in person.

After the event, I was sent feedback from the children. Here’s a couple of quotes:

This morning was brilliant. Especially when we made the story with Emma Barnes, it was fantastic!

I think today was probably the best day in my life because I saw a real life author!

Unfortunately, School Library Services are closing.  Schools have to subscribe to their services – if they don’t subscribe, the service closes. Many parents don’t know what an SLS is or does, so won't protest – which must make them a soft target for cuts. In my own area, Bradford SLS closed in 2012, and  North Yorkshire SLS is to close next year. Who will step into the gap? Public libraries? They may try (I recently did a wonderful schools’ event organized by Oldham Libraries) but public libraries are also subject to deep cuts.

At a time when the value of reading for pleasure is being recognized and acknowledged – the research evidence for its benefits keeps mounting – it's bitterly ironic that the services needed to support it are being reduced.  I just hope that the politicians and public see what's happening before it's too late.


Emma's new series for 8+ Wild Thing about the naughtiest little sister ever (and her bottom-biting ways) is out now from Scholastic. The second in the series, Wild Thing Gets A Dog is out in July.
"Hilarious and heart-warming" The Scotsman

 Wolfie is published by Strident.   Sometimes a Girl’s Best Friend is…a Wolf. 
"A real cracker of a book" Armadillo 
"Funny, clever and satisfying...thoroughly recommended" Books for Keeps

Emma's Website
Emma’s Facebook Fanpage
Emma on Twitter - @EmmaBarnesWrite


Joan Lennon said...

Makes you want to spit nails - thank you for writing about it!

Sue Bursztynski said...

I blame the gradual privatisation of schools,except private schools have the money to keep libraries going. Principals given the power of "hire and fire" use it only to make cuts and when you have to decide that, it's easiest to cut the library first. "They're all using the Internet, aren't they, why do we need to waste money on a librarian?" My own principal is one of those, but then, he's a former maths teacher, isn't he?

Well done you for bringing this up. Perhaps it's time for a petition or two? :-)

Nick Green said...

Congratulations on Wolfie! I was amazed by it, for the impression it made on my elder son who otherwise avoids fiction in general. I don't know why he made an exception for Wolfie, it's a complete mystery to me... but there it is.

Nina Simon said...

Thanks for your support for School Library Servicies, Emma. I manage the Redbridge SLS and next week we will be having our 11th annual Book Award. 17 secondary schools and 10 Primary schools take part. We also support school librarians, in what can be a solitary and unsupported role as well as helping Primary schools remodel their libraries and supply wide-ranging, up-to-date resources to teachers in their classrooms. I also go into schools to do book talks and read stories. What I love about my job and the role of the SLS is the knowledge that we do make a difference and bring new, exciting books to children who might otherwise never read them.

Emma Barnes said...

Thanks for commenting, Nina. I think too few people - even authors - know about the School Library Services and the important work they do. And thank you for mentioning the work that you do with secondary schools. Because I mainly visit primaries, I didn't discuss that aspect.

C.J.Busby said...

Great post, and I agree, it should be statutory for schools to have a librarian - and the SLS should be run as an adjunct to the public library service. Too many small schools just can't afford to subscribe to services that are increasingly being privatised and hence profit-making (the SLS in Devon is run by Babcock, whose main remit is defense...)


Jenny said...

I agree whole-heartedly with your comments about Schools Library Services (I used to work in Herts SLS, which was shut a couple of years ago). My boys' school has just decided not to buy into our local SLS, which I'm really upset about. I wrote to the Head and Governors, but am a lone voice. Money needs to be found to support SEN / the SLS is too expensive / we can do it better ourselves and get to keep the books....

20 years after SLS's funding was delegated to schools, some are still hanging on, but I can't see they will for much longer.

Sad times for us who know what good they do and for all those kids who never will.

Jenny said...

I agree whole-heartedly with your comments about Schools Library Services (I used to work in Herts SLS, which was shut a couple of years ago). My boys' school has just decided not to buy into our local SLS, which I'm really upset about. I wrote to the Head and Governors, but am a lone voice. Money needs to be found to support SEN / the SLS is too expensive / we can do it better ourselves and get to keep the books....

20 years after SLS's funding was delegated to schools, some are still hanging on, but I can't see they will for much longer.

Sad times for us who know what good they do and for all those kids who never will.

Mefinx said...

Sadly I think the problem goes deeper - schools are dealing with an official culture that is anti-reading, and pro-IT. My school - amazingly given its small size - pays a part-time librarian (me) and the PTA funds the book stock. Yet we have to fight for even five minutes per child to allow undirected browsing of the stock - plus the area is in constant use as a teaching space, meaning that desks are literally in front of the books and children can't physically get to them! Much of this can be traced back to an over-prescriptive timetable that starves children of independent learning opportunities and turns them into exam drones - a situation that probably frustrates the teaching staff as much as me.

Emma Barnes said...

Thanks for your comments. Jenny, that's such a shame. I would think every school would benefit from belonging to a SLS, and when some withdraw that makes the service less and less viable so that in the end everyone loses out.

Mefinx, I recognise what you're saying. I've been shown around computer suites, which must have been fabulously expensive, while the "library" is a few scruffy books on a bookcase in a corridor.

I'd also like to draw people's attention to this blog post which came out today, and which sadly illustrates all the issues in a very concrete and human way http://www.playingbythebook.net/2014/06/18/where-next-playing-by-the-book-is-at-a-crossroads/

obat herbal ambeien said...

Nice blog,, i'm very enjoyed to visit this site. have a nice day :D

fifa 14 xbox 360 coins said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Dawn Woods said...

SLSs are cost effective while enough schools buy into them. Heads can choose to prioritise reading and educating their children for this information rich world and buying into SLS should be top in this priority. Funding is not fairly distributed, but we all need to be able to read and denying children that skill and pleasure should not be a choice anyone has to make.