Sunday, 16 August 2015


I am often asked how I select books for my school library and my response is to ask how long the enquirer has because there’s no quick, simple answer to this question. Sometimes I just buy a book from hearing about it – I know the calibre of the author and have read several of their books previously, it is part of a series or I can tell, from experience, that it will be popular because of the cover or theme. Most of the time, I prefer to physically see the book (this is especially true for non-fiction) and assess it via the cover, blurb, dipping into it to determine its level, suitability, relevance, ascertaining whether it fills a gap in the collection or whether it will add to the several books I already have on that theme or subject. Often I will buy something slightly esoteric that catches my attention and will then be asked for exactly this topic a week later … sometimes I think there’s a sixth sense at work. However I choose though, the process I use is a skill gained through experience and expertise.

Thus in answer to the question, in no particular order and most definitely not a definitive list because I’m bound to have forgotten something:

v  Talking to friends and other librarians (either in real life or online) – not surprisingly, many of our conversations involve books and what we have read/are reading;

v  General recommendations where people have praised a book they’ve read, often on Facebook or Twitter, sometimes at local School Library Association (SLA) or CILIP School Library Group (SLG) meetings - not necessarily people I know personally;

v  Specific meetings where the focus is on new fiction; our local SLA meetings always have a slot for book recommendations;

v  Goodreads – which enables me to see what books others are reading and what they think about them;

v  Tweets from librarians, authors, publishers, people that inhabit the book world;

v  Enewsletters from the CILIP YLG (Youth Libraries Group), publishers and other literacy-related organisations such as Booktrust and the National Literacy Trust. These organisations also have useful booklists;

v  Websites that focus on teen/YA books, reviewed by young people, librarians, adults … too many to mention or keep up with, the best way is to use what works for you;

v  Publishers’ catalogues;

v  Browsing in bookshops and other libraries (both school and public);

v  Conferences – where we have author talks, publishers’ stands, meet other librarians and talk lots about books;

v  Author’s news via Twitter, Facebook, their own websites;

v  Pinterest;

v  Book Awards – definitely the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway but there are all sorts of others: SLA Information Book Award, Excelsior, Blue Peter, Roald Dahl Funny Prize, Peter’s, Bookseller’s YA Award. Not to mention local ones such as the Berkshire and Hampshire Book Awards. And I don’t just look at the winners but also what made the shortlists too;

v  SLS meetings and book exchanges – if you still have one!;

v  Newspapers and magazines – although there’s not enough in them about children’s/teen/YA books;

v  Newsletters from companies such as Peter’s, Scholastic, Waterstones, etc.;

v  Reading books – the majority of my personal reading is teen/YA, often chosen for myself but then added to my school collection.

All these sources combine to create a sort of multi-input into my consciousness of “information about books” which is the start of the process of “selecting books” – you can’t make any choices unless you know what’s available. It’s difficult to ascertain the exact number of children’s/teen/YA books published each year (although the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook suggest about 10,000) but regardless of the number, it is a necessity for me to keep up-to-date, maintain awareness, sign up for (and read) relevant newsletters, check out social media sources, be aware of trends, popular authors, curriculum topics, my own students’ needs and interests as well as what’s coming next to help me make an informed selection as to what to buy. Especially as I have both a limited budget and available space.

I see this as part of my job and it’s something I cannot do at my desk so is often done in my own time. This is true for almost every school librarian I know. Fortunately, I’m slightly obsessed with books and even just reading about them gives me pleasure (not to mention making my to-read list exceptionally long) but this is also why I argue that librarians are the “book experts” in schools …

Sunday, 19 July 2015


Reading for pleasure is a discussion topic that occurs quite a lot amongst school librarians. Usually it results in an exchange of ideas and ways to use our resources but during the past week, the discussion has turned towards whether you can “teach” reading for pleasure – as opposed to teaching children how to read, the mechanics of deciphering those squiggles on the page into meaning and context.

Reading for pleasure is the Holy Grail. It is what we all want to achieve in every single one of our students. The benefits of reading for pleasure are well documented via research: increased attainment in all subjects; improved writing and communication skills; increased self-confidence, empathy and tolerance, to mention just a few. In fact, reading for pleasure is more important to educational achievement than a family’s wealth or social class. This is recognised by the government and Ofsted so you have to wonder why more support isn’t given to school libraries and librarians, one of the major players in the reading for pleasure arena. Below are just a few of the articles that a quick search brings up and there are many more:
But can this be taught? Can you “impart knowledge or instruct someone how to read for pleasure”? I’m not sure you can – and if it is possible to teach then we haven’t yet found out how, otherwise we would all be doing it and have a nation of readers!

It’s a bit like teaching somebody how to swim. They may well master the methods and become good swimmers but still not actually enjoy going into the water. Reading is like that. There are many programmes and reading schemes designed to encourage students to read using various techniques. Several work via a reward system or by adding an element of competition. I’m sure that some students, participating in these, may find that particular book which sets them on their reading journey but I think many don’t. They join in because they have to and it may well improve their reading skills so that targets can be met and boxes ticked but they don’t choose to read for pleasure.
However, there are things we can do to increase the likelihood of this, to create situations and provide catalysts. Obviously it helps if a student has basic reading skills in place but even the youngest child can enjoy “reading” a picture book sat on the lap of a grown-up and differentiation enables targeted activities.  So what can schools do?
·         Create a whole school reading ethos – again there are lots of online resources about how to do this so I’m not going into details here. The important thing to remember is that it will take time, possibly around 2 – 3 years.
·         Get staff on board (although don’t stress if not everybody is as enthusiastic about this as you are).

·         Get parents on board – this is extremely important. Parents reinforcing the message about reading and supporting school initiatives are one of the major success criteria. It is particularly important to get male family members involved.

·         You need a school library! With a wide range of relevant, up-to-date and appropriate resources. Reading for pleasure is about CHOICE, it is not about choosing something that everyone else is reading (though peer recommendation works) or that the class needs to study or because it’s at the “right” level.

·         Give students GUIDANCE and advice to help them choose something suitable. People who are non-readers need this help; they need to discover what type of reader they are and what resources are available to them. But even more-able readers need assistance with helping them progress. This is where the LIBRARIAN comes in! Most teachers, with the best will in the world, do not have the range of knowledge or expertise that librarians have.

·         Ensure that students have TIME where they are able to browse books, to pick up and reject, to dip in to and continue reading. Where, if they need to talk about what to read and to explore the shelves, they are not being urged to “find a book and sit down”. This is where library lessons come in. Many schools do not like these as they cannot visibly see “progression and learning” but anyone who does not read for pleasure will not go near the school library voluntarily. Thus you need timetabled periods to give the seeds of reading for pleasure time to grow and work their magic.
Our reasons for reading for pleasure are not right or wrong but different and personal to each of us, and teenagers are likely to be lured by the same reasons so make the experience relevant to what is important to them, to what they enjoy and are interested in. I knit so can happily spend hours browsing books full of knitting patterns which would be completely incomprehensible and totally boring to many;  my partner likes to read computer books which may as well be written in another language for all the sense they make to me. We both read for pleasure.

Friday, 27 March 2015


Throughout the UK, day in and day out, you will find a large group of reliable and committed pupils giving up their time and volunteering in their school libraries. Many of them do this for years, providing a valuable service to other pupils and staff and yet, so often, this goes unrecognised. School receptions and display cabinets are full of certificates and awards given for sporting achievements, drama performances and prizes won in writing competitions. Occasionally an individual school will acknowledge the work a pupil does in their library and present them with an internal award but there is nothing on a national scale. And it was this idea of a national award that gave shape to the CILIP School Libraries Group/School Library Association Pupil Library Assistant of the Year Award. 
Launched in September 2014, the award is open to all secondary school pupils who have volunteered in their school libraries for a minimum of two years and is supported by the two main professional bodies that represent school librarians; the CILIP School Libraries Group and the School Library Association. Aware of the time pressures on people, it was decided to run most of the award electronically with the judging panel meeting for the first time to discuss the nominees and create the shortlist. Additionally, the structure and guidelines for the SLA School Librarian of the Year Award were used as a starting point and to add a sense of connection.

I thought the award might attract a dozen or so entrants so was pleased when we received almost sixty nominations, all of an extremely high calibre showing excellent work being done by pupils within their school libraries, although this did make selecting the finalists and then the winner very difficult. We also attracted some very supportive sponsors including our guest speaker, Charlie Higson, and had our logo designed by Chris Riddell.

As for the award ceremony itself, this was held at the BT Centre on a lovely afternoon affording us wonderful views of St Paul’s. All finalists, their librarians and members of their family were able to attend, we arranged for each citation to be read out and award to be presented by an individual author, and succeeded in making the focus of the afternoon the pupils and their achievements.
So … apart from an excuse for a ceremony with cakes, balloons and books, why have a Pupil Library Assistant Award?

School libraries do not exist in isolation. There is a synergy between them and their pupils that extends beyond the room and the obvious. The school, the library and the librarian benefit from the work that pupils do within their libraries – be it desk duties, creating displays, helping others to find a book to read or a resource for homework, leading reading groups, talking in assemblies about the library – the list is long and varied. But this is a reciprocal arrangement because the pupils that volunteer in their libraries also benefit, in ways that are sometimes impossible to measure but that are extremely important, gaining those soft skills that employers find so essential: increased self-confidence, improved communication, working both as a team and using their initiative, working under pressure, customer service – skills that impact on academic work, career and life choices.

So this is one reason for the award, to acknowledge this mutual impact between school libraries and their pupil assistants, to show the difference a school library has made to them. But it is also an opportunity to showcase the incredible amount of work done by school librarians throughout the country, with the help of their pupils. To illustrate that a school library is not just a room full of books and other resources, that it is not just a place to go and read or study, it has a much more pivotal role to play within a school and when you close a school library, you are removing a place that is unique within the school. A place where interaction and collaboration occur to change pupil’s lives.  As the winner, Abbie Craske says, of her school library: “In the beginning it was an escape from life – now it enhances my life. It has made such a difference to me and it is a privilege to give something back to the place I love.”


Thursday, 19 February 2015


Part of my weekend was spent catching up on my professional reading which included the Read On Get On campaign report, published by Save the Children – it makes for a rather depressing read. A lot of the evidence I already knew about but some of the research was commissioned especially for the report so it’s useful to have up-to-date statistics. And seeing everything put together in one document like this really brings home the situation regarding the appalling literacy levels of children in the UK.

25% of children at age 11 are not reaching the expected levels of literacy for their age. If you break this figure down into demographics, the highest number is white British boys in the low-income bracket (45%). The gender difference is one of the widest in the developed world and one of the things I found most shocking was the variance in language development of children aged three years, with the gap between the poorest families and those in the high income bracket being 17 months. There's more but I'll leave you to find that out ...
All these translate into problems in adulthood and impact on poverty, crime, well-being and unemployment. Another statistic for you to think about: 47% of adults with low literacy levels have problems reading the instructions on their medication.
And, as the report says, after 150 years of compulsory primary education, it cannot be business as usual because that’s not working. We are failing our children.
So what is the answer? Fortunately the report realises that this problem needs to be addressed regardless of which political party is in power and it has come up with four key areas of focus:
·         To create and celebrate the enjoyment of reading in all our communities

·         To support very young children in their language development before they start school

·         To provide support and information for parents

·         To support and enable teachers and schools
The aim of the campaign is to have all 11 years olds at a literacy level of 4b by the year 2025; it is an ambitious project but one that needs to be tackled and a paper is being produced ahead of the general election detailing what action is needed to address these four points. One thing I hope is recognised is the important role that professional librarians and libraries can play in this campaign. Librarians have skills and expertise that can feed into every single one of those four drivers; indeed many of us are already working in these areas from delivering rhyme times to babies in public libraries to promoting reading for pleasure across the school curriculum. To ignore this would be to waste a valuable and unique resource and, if we seriously want to address the issue of low literacy levels, then we should all be working together.
A final note: the report talks about the fact that it isn’t just disadvantaged children and adults who are affected by low literacy levels but that there is an economic cost to the country and new analysis has been carried out to assess this. These results show, based on a cautious scenario, that if the UK had taken action in recent decades to ensure children were reading well by age 11, then the GDP could have been around £13.8 billion higher in 2014, with an optimistic scenario putting it at £18.4 billion. The figures are extrapolated to 2025 with the cautious estimate being £32.1 billion and the optimistic, £42.9 billion.
I wonder how much it would cost to ensure that every child had access to both public and school libraries with professional librarians, working together with parents and schools to create a generation of literate children?



Thursday, 5 February 2015


Saturday is National Libraries Day and tomorrow (Friday) about 80 schools around the UK are taking part in a Guinness World Record Book Swap in celebration of this. From past experience I know there’s going to be a buzz around the activities and events happening but it’s rather dreadful that we have to use a day of celebration as an advocacy and promotional tool to support something that is so basic and fundamental to many people’s lives.

Time and time again we hear the argument that libraries are irrelevant, that people don’t use them, that you can download ebooks and find anything you want on the internet. None of these are true, by the way. Not everything published is available in an electronic format and even if it was, not every book lends itself to that particular medium (“That’s Not My Dragon - his ears are too tufty” on a tablet? …. don’t think it really works); you can’t find everything you need online; and people do use libraries – around a third of the population, with that figure going up to 50% in deprived areas. That’s over 19 million people in most areas … just think what the reaction would be if every single one of those library users decided to write to their local MP or the DCMS!
So that leaves us with “libraries today are irrelevant” and that made me think about my own library use. I am, as Ian Anstice said, “A librarian, a library user and a lover of libraries”. For as long as I can remember I’ve used my public library but, as I currently work surrounded by about 13,000 books, pick them up at various promotional events and am lucky to be able to afford to buy (some of) them, you’d be forgiven for thinking that I no longer need to use my public library. That it was irrelevant to me. But you’d be wrong. And I had a look at the last few years of my borrowing history to see exactly what type of stuff I’d been borrowing and why … so, in no particular order:
·         Guide books – I can never decide where to go next so end up borrowing a selection of books from the library to help me choose. I wouldn’t want to buy all of these because most of them wouldn’t be any use to me afterwards.
·         Guide books – once I’ve decided on my next trip, I like to have a selection of guide books to help me plan my activities. I do buy a guide book to take with me but looking at a few gives me more of an overview and I wouldn't want to actually buy that many. And websites don’t work in the same way … I’ve tried!

·         Stories on CDs – I have about a 50 minute drive to work and it’s a great opportunity to catch up on my “reading”. I also belong to a reading group so listen to the month’s book choice. It’s interesting how often I’ll carry on with a book on CD and enjoy it whereas I know if I was actually reading it I would give up.

·         Teenage/YA books – yes really! Even though you’d be forgiven for thinking that surely I’d have enough of these at work to borrow. But sometimes the book I want to read is popular and always on loan. I know I could pull rank and borrow it but that feels too mean to me so I borrow a copy from the public library. Sometimes I’m waiting for the paperback to be released (those hardbacks can be a bit expensive plus students don’t always like to borrow them … they have enough to carry around without adding a weight tome to their bag) but I want to read the book so I’ll reserve the hardback. Sometimes I want to read a book before I decide whether to buy it for my shelves.

·         Baby books – these have been a recent borrowing addition due to the granddaughter and, whilst I already have quite a collection for her amassing in my living room, I love taking her to the library and letting her choose what she wants to bring home to read. This is where reading for pleasure and that life-long love of books starts.

·         I also have a stepdaughter about to become a teenager and, since she’s been in my life, I’ve turned her from an “okay” reader into a book-obsessive! This is fantastic but there’s no way I can keep up with her reading tastes and demands … plus part of this process was regularly taking her to the library and letting her choose (that word again!). And we still go.

·         Totally random books that have caught my eye:  Just My Type, a book about fonts by Simon Garfield. I found this fascinating, in fact, so much so that I have now bought my own copy. The Network Effect – a business book. Core Strength Training – didn’t work! 60 Baby Knits – why would I want to buy it when I only wanted to use one pattern?

·         Those coffee table books that are lovely to dip into but cost the earth, things like “London’s Bridges”, “Wildlife Photographer of the Year”, etc.

·         Books that have been recommended to me … for example, The Rosie Project by Don Tillman which I enjoyed so much that I bought several copies as gifts for friends. It’s unlikely that I would have bought the book personally but I’m glad I read it.

·         The latest book by an author I enjoy but don’t want to wait for the paperback to be released.

·         Magazines! I was amazed at how many of these I had borrowed.

This is just a selection out of several hundred books borrowed in a relatively short time for all sorts of reasons. It’s a very haphazard and eclectic range but illustrates well the relevance of the public library to me personally, and I haven’t even mentioned those items borrowed for study, self-development or to extend my understanding in a particular situation. Surely I can’t be the only person out of 19 million who does the above.
So, the next time somebody says that libraries aren’t relevant, tell them to ask a library user what they’ve recently borrowed!
Happy National Libraries Day #NLD15

Monday, 26 January 2015


So … the Government have launched a library scheme to support dementia sufferers; from February, GPs and health professionals will be able to “recommend a selection of 25 approved books for people with dementia or their carers.”

This is a fantastic project. It is already well documented that reading can improve your health and well-being so targeting specific health problems this way makes sense, especially as the organisers have said that this is a cost-effective way of delivering community care and support. I personally know how valuable it can be to have access to books to help explain various health matters.

As a school librarian I’m used to departments not being aware of what others are studying. That’s why the librarian is in a unique position as we are usually the only person in the whole school with an overview of the curriculum – which means we can ensure our resources get as much use as possible and departments don’t have to waste their budgets purchasing duplicate stock. We can see that the books purchased for use by History can also be used in English or that those selected for a Geography topic will also be useful in Science.

But what amazes me about this launch is that Norman Lamb, Minister of State for care and support, and Ed Vaizey, Minister of State for culture and the digital economy, were both there. Now the former could be excused for not being aware of the current situation regarding the mass closure of libraries with the handing over of many others to volunteers but Mr Vaizey has no excuse. Libraries are his remit, he is fully aware of the devastation of the public library system that is occurring throughout the country because he refuses to do anything about it. He knows that the structure for delivering this scheme is probably non-existent.

So I’d like to ask …

How is this library scheme to support dementia sufferers meant to work when there are no libraries to run it?

Thursday, 22 January 2015


So Nick Clegg has pledged to eliminate child illiteracy, a commendable aspiration and one that I’m sure we all agree with. And as we’ve managed to eradicate smallpox and rinderpest worldwide surely this can’t be that difficult. Although I seem to remember Michael Gove saying the same thing not that long ago

The problem with this idea is that he hasn’t thought about what you really need to do to create literate children … get them reading. And to read you need access to reading material. And where do you find access to reading material, enough to satisfy every demand, every interest, every level of ability? Certainly not in the majority of homes considering National Literacy Trust research shows that one in three children do not own a book

And forget about the idea that you don’t need books because everything is available on the internet (it isn’t) since this doesn’t take into account the 17% of households who do not have internet access Besides, how can you read a pop-up book or explore those touchy-feely books on a screen?

The answer is libraries, both public and school. Libraries with librarians.

Nick Clegg has concentrated on the education system and promises more money to deal with literacy problems. But creating readers has to start before a child gets to school. A child needs to learn that those symbols on a page equate to words; sounds that they associate with things, feelings, actions. And this is done by reading with and to them. We need to support parents by providing the facilities and resources (and by this I mean both stock and people) to do this and shutting their local public library is not helping them.

And when those children do get into the education system, throwing literacy initiatives and reading programmes at them is not going to engender a love of reading. It’s probably going to have the opposite result. I’m not saying that other aspects of literacy are unimportant, capital letters and full stops have their role to play but you cannot write unless you can read! Children need to be exposed to a wide range of reading material and given the chance to explore it so they can make their own discoveries. And where in a school can you find this? What department will have such a range of resources, selected by a professional who knows what is available, who has the time to find out what individuals are interested in and what type of readers they are? Yes, it’s the school library. The one and only place in the whole school that inclusively supports reading for pleasure. So closing school libraries is not helping children either.

I would say to anybody who is serious about eradicating illiteracy that public and school libraries have to be the support system in this initiative. Take them away and it’s like removing the skeleton from a body, it will end up a crumpled mess on the floor.