A library in every school, please

Susan Elkin
library 300x199 A library in every school, please

Schools need libraries. Full stop. // Credit AFP / Getty Images

Books are to education and learning what air and water are to life. Every child needs access to the printed word and lots of encouragement to explore it in order to develop properly.

You might, therefore, be surprised to learn that many schools do not have a library or a librarian – which seems a contradiction in terms. How can you have an organisation whose raison d’ ê tre is learning if it has no library? It’s like a restaurant without a kitchen or a zoo without any animals.

There is no law requiring schools to have libraries either. I worked in a Kent secondary school in the 1990s which had a reasonable – if not wonderful – library extensively used by pupils until the head, clearly not a real educationist, decided that it was, quite literally a waste of space. She decreed that the books be shelved (marginalised?) in the back of English classrooms because she wanted to use the former library room for something else. Result? Reduced emphasis on wider reading and much less access to fewer books for students.

The Society of Authors, which represents over 9,000 writers, is campaigning with other organisations for school libraries to be a legal requirement.

A recent open letter from the Society to schools minister Nick Gibb   asserted, among other things, that ‘Primary and secondary schools should be required by law to have a school library and a trained librarian.’

Out of the question for small schools? The letter acknowledges that ‘While we think dedicated librarians should be compulsory in secondary schools and all but the smallest primary schools, we recognise that librarians are an expensive resource and at the very least a designated teacher should get specialist training in such schools.’

To Gibb’s credit he said at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers conference in April: ‘I passionately believe that every school should have a library.’ But one man’s passionate belief is a long way from the complete change of mindset – and financial investment – that a proper school library provision needs.

Children need protecting from philistinism just as prisoners did thirteen years ago. As in schools today, library provision in prisons must have been patchy. The Prison Rules came into force on 1 st April 1999 and were made under the power delegated to the Secretary of State by Section 47 of the Prison Act 1952.

Rule 33 states: ‘A library shall be provided in every prison and, subject to any direction of the Secretary of State, every prisoner shall be allowed to have library books and to exchange them.’ Separate, but similar, rules govern Young Offenders’ Institutions.

Now, I am one hundred per cent in favour of education and books for people who have landed themselves in prison. It is almost certainly their best hope of rehabilitation to a non-criminal life.

But it seems absurd that, although there is no definition of the term ‘library’ for prisons – so provision could still be pretty poor – prisoners have in general a better protected right to libraries and books than school children.

Yes, school libraries and librarians cost money so what about some imaginative thinking?

Many public libraries are closing – to the outrage of civilised people and those who care about education and learning. If local authorities and schools were to work together it would be possible to combine local and school libraries. The community library is then run within the school by a designated librarian and is open to both the public and school pupils.

Variations of this idea have been tried quite successfully in some places – at Sawston in Cambridgeshire, for example, where the local library is part of Sawston Village College. Let’s have much more of it.

Another thought: Surely very small schools could combine library resources and share a librarian? If one school housed the library children from elsewhere in the group could be transported there once a week to choose and exchange books. And teachers could take resource boxes back to their own schools for limited periods. Not ideal or perfect but a great deal better than nothing.

Books, libraries and access to the printed word are not only the key to all other learning and educational achievement, they are also a basic human right. It is scandalous that many of our children are being denied. Legislation please, Mr Gibb. ASAP.

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  • librariesareace

    our library – Wootton Fields Library, Northampton is both a school library  (for The Caroline Chisholm School, which caters for children from age 4 yrs – 18 yrs) & a public library. We are part of The Wooldale Centre for Learning ( which also comprises a day nursey) This yr we were shortlisted for The Bookseller Industry Awards Library of The Year award ( 1 of only 5 libraries in the country to be shortlisted) we are extremely well used by the school & its students & by the public.

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