A school library is (or should be) a whole-school facility, enabling the learning needs of all students, supporting staff to deliver the curriculum, and providing resources for reading and information within a unique space. That’s the theory. The reality, however, is likely to be a librarian constantly juggling between the diverse needs of various groups; library lessons full of hands-on activities, busy research lessons using a multitude of resources, quiet periods of study and times of silent personal reading. All this usually in one room during one day! It is said that you can’t be all things to all people and yet that is exactly what a school librarian tries to do.
Most of the time this works although it does depend on what sort of space you have – an area that lends itself to being “zoned” will be more accommodating to differing needs than a large square room – and it also requires tolerance, recognition of diverse needs and flexibility but it is no surprise that sometimes the needs of one group override another’s. This is not usually a problem if it’s short-term, such as during the intense exam period when students may need a quiet place to revise but when the school library is permanently designated for a specific use, it means the rest of the school population lose out.
There have been a couple of trends I’ve noticed recently in many schools: one is to use the library as a dedicated sixth form space, making it a silent study area often with the librarian supervising students (a waste of their skills and expertise) and preventing other groups from accessing resources and services. The other is to stop regular library lessons, deeming them lacking in progress and learning, with the often-heard comments that “students don’t need to read in the library because they read in English” and the general consensus that the library is open at breaks for them to visit.
Does this matter? Do students need regular library lessons? What do they lose when these don’t happen?
· Library induction delivered in one or two sessions does not work. The beginning of a school year is a busy time, even more so for new students who have to cope with finding their way around a huge site and integrating with their peers whilst remembering what to bring each day, where to go for each lesson and what their teacher’s name is! So it’s no surprise that the Dewey Decimal Classification system is low down on their list of priorities. How to use the library and where to find resources needs reinforcing via several lessons not delivered in a quick session fitted in between other subjects.
· Regular library lessons mean that students become comfortable with both the space and their librarian. They soon recognise that the library is somewhere “different” in the school; it’s not a classroom - and the librarian is not a teacher yet has that authority of being a member of the school staff. Students also learn that whilst certain behaviours are expected of them during lessons, the library can, and often is, a much altered room at breaktimes. Every school librarian I know will tell you that their library is a safe haven for the vulnerable, for those students who have not found their niche within school, and for those who are not easy with the masses. This pastoral role is much undervalued yet so important as the library provides a unique space for such students within the school.
· Library lessons mean exposure to books! Even if a library is accessible at breaks, those visiting it are likely to already be readers and comfortable with being surrounded by books. The students that you want to lure into the library – the reluctant and non-readers – are unlikely to be anywhere near the library. And contact with books on a regular basis sends an important message – that the school values reading and considers it important.
· Regular library lessons are SO important! They enable the librarian to develop relationships with each student, to find out what type of reader they are, what sort of texts (if any) they like to read and what their interests are. They allow us to guide each student in selecting books, something even the more-able readers need at times. They expose students to a wide range of genres, medium and authors and, essentially, give students “permission” to read. In an environment where reading is often seen as “not cool”, regular library lessons incorporating time for reading enable those who enjoy books to do so knowing that this behaviour is expected of them and they won’t be disparaged. Without library lessons, you are unlikely to turn non-readers into readers for pleasure.
· A lack of regular library lessons means it is difficult to organise and promote many of the activities that encourage reading and boost literacy levels such as competitions, book talks and author visits as well as participation in both local and national initiatives. Communication via tutors and posters dotted around the school site has a limited reach.
· In addition to library skills, many librarians deliver an information skills programme teaching basic competences that are essential for both further education and the workplace, and that create independent learners with the capabilities to cope with further and higher education. These skills are sometimes taught via the curriculum albeit in a piecemeal fashion so the librarian is able to incorporate all of them into a cross-curricular programme using research lessons designed in collaboration with teaching staff. Restricting use of the library limits the delivery of such a programme.
Basically, reduced access to books (which is what happens when the library is used exclusively for one group of students or library lessons are not part of the timetable) means a reduction in reading. This impacts on reading for pleasure which needs choice AND access as well as discouraging students to use the library for their information needs. A school that allows this to happen is not using its librarian or library efficiently or effectively, and is providing a much diminished service to its students..