School Libraries: The Big Picture and the All-important Details :: NEWS
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School Libraries: The Big Picture and the All-important Details

09 December 2021 Share


 I read with interest an article in TeachWire which addressed the question “Do schools still need physical libraries?” last week. And while there were a few points on which I could agree, namely that we shouldn’t have school libraries simply because we always have and that all locations within a school should be joyful and vibrant, I was disappointed by the rest of the article.  

 I was disappointed because it seemed to rely on a presumption that there’s a binary choice between physical and digital libraries, and further than that I’d suggest much of the article relied on a lazy stereotype of what modern school libraries are, or would want to be. At one point the author said: “A library can still be all of these things, just with digital media” – as though there are librarians out there staunchly refusing to engage in digital media, something I’ve never come across. Later on, it’s said that, instead of libraries, schools could have “a flexible common space that also supports readers who login to digital resources”. Someone’s going to have to point out that this is a library. 

 But, of course, the situation is far more nuanced than this. The article states that “everything” in school libraries can be “accessed digitally”. I’m not disputing this at all, but the point of a library collection is that it is curated. Items are chosen with knowledge of the readers, curriculum, personal development and other factors that mean readers don’t have to wade through everything. There is a reduced selection to help them find resources at the right level, faster. It’s worth reminding people that the internet is not predominantly focused on children, or education. This may seem like an obvious thing, but it can be hugely overwhelming and lead to misunderstanding, distractions and misinformation. Some estimates put the amount of material with an educational purpose as low as 6% (Maureen Henninger, Don’t Just Surf the ‘Net: Effective Research Strategies, UNSW Press). That’s finding a needle in a haystack at the best of times. Then you need to factor in that many educational resources are behind a paywall, and that the ‘digital natives’ who may be able to instinctively find their way to these educational resources just don’t exist. Today’s children need to be taught how to find and use information ethically – which librarians do, through media and information literacy – as much as previous generations. 

 Another point made in the article was that “arguments for retaining physical libraries are often difficult to evidence”. I suppose this may be the case, though there is a wealth of evidence for the impact of school libraries (admittedly, mostly outside of the UK), many of which can be explored here: https://www.sla.org.uk/impact. More recently, the need for physical libraries has been made quite clear by the impact of lockdown, which clearly highlighted the digital divide and the limitations of online-only resources and support. 

 The article also stated that at “a time when most textbooks have migrated online, and when students’ experience of the wider world is increasingly digital, using e-readers won’t present any threats to human potential.” I’d like to know who had suggested it would. The Softlink and School Library Association survey from 2020 showed that only 20% of respondents don’t provide access to any e-resources, and those that said they didn’t provide e-books said this was mainly down to both a lack of budget (60%) and a lack of interest from senior leaders (16%). The areas where e-resources were being provided included: curriculum support, encyclopaedias, journal archives, news and databases. 

 A glaring omission from the article was any mention of a staff member for the library. Many readers may imagine that a school without a physical library doesn’t require a librarian, however this is simply not the case. Online collections need to be found, purchased, managed, evaluated and promoted in exactly the same way as physical collections and, with both, students need support – whether that’s logging on, finding the right resource or, at its most basic level, reading the resource. I was pleased to see this must be another point where the author and I agree, as the school which he leads has a Digital Librarian. The school also delivers the International Baccalaureate, in which the library clearly plays a wide and central role: “libraries are where most forms of inquiry, not just academic ones, begin… either by design or learners’ needs… and the librarian is responsible for energizing and maintaining the inquiry process” (Ideal Libraries: A Guide for Schools. Cardiff: International Baccalaureate Organisation, 2018, p. 9). 

 At this point, the question changes slightly. If you’re going to have a space, with staff to support students, it is self-evident that the space should have both physical and digital resources. The school library community have been clear about this for generations. It is not due to some sentimental commitment to physical libraries that schools do not have equal provision of digital and physical resources. It’s because school libraries are underfunded, and many school library staff lack training and support from their senior leaders. I’ve heard countless stories of library staff asking to buy e-books as the pandemic unfolded, and being told no. If that situation didn’t convince senior leaders about e-books, you have to wonder what would. 

Senior leaders are right to be cautious about e-books if they know their school communities would not be able to access them, due to a lack of hardware, data, broadband or otherwise. The e-book landscape is not as simple as the physical book landscape, with various different models of e-book lending and licensing in existence, many of which work far more for publishers than consumers. This means librarians are more likely to get more for their money with a physical book, and are pushed through a lack of resource to make decisions on this basis. The intricacies around this can be explored here: https://www.cilip.org.uk/page/LetLibrariesLendEbooks 

The article seemed to display a lack of awareness around many of the situations that school libraries are facing, but I trust that the author has made the best decisions available to him, and that his proposal works in his school, for children in their context. I would welcome a conversation with him though, before writing any more on the future, or current state of school libraries. 

However, this blindness to the conversations and considerations of school library staff is by no means restricted to this one example. It’s a plague which is limiting and reducing the impact of school library staff across the UK. Senior leaders are under-utilising their library staff, or using them in the wrong way. Again, lockdown has resulted in some library staff being told they’re unable to support readers at all, which seems like maximising a loss. Many were able to continue supporting reading engagement and progress through exactly the same online platforms which were used to deliver lessons and assemblies. So for some to have been prevented from supporting reading at such a time is incomprehensible to me. 

There have been other reports recently which have highlighted the importance of school library staff. The CLPE Reflecting Realities report shows that this isn’t a topic which can be engaged with on a surface level, and that teachers need support and resources to create necessary change. School library staff could also be a part of your EDI policies, something which Temi Akindele Barker, the founder of Inclusion Labs, thinks is important to the overall success of these policies. A recent National Literacy Trust report on the Future of Primary School Libraries clearly shows that skilled staff are central to achieving the aims of a wide range of diverse resources, an attractive and engaging space, and promoting literacy across the wider school community. 

Last night we were fortunate to have hosted a conversation between Richard Gerver and Baasit Siddiqui, two influential educationalists who were speaking with passion and understanding about the importance of school libraries and the challenges that their staff face. They spoke about the collegiate feeling that you have when you work within education; the respect offered knowing all parties are contributing to a wider purpose and were including school librarians within this. I'd encourage Senior Leaders to have a conversation with their school library staff and check that they feel as part of the team; many do not.    

In conclusion, the School Library Association is here to support all schools develop their school libraries in a way which supports their pupils and helps them achieve their aims. If you’re a senior leader who thinks they might be missing something about their school library, please do get in touch. Don’t rely on myth or preconception, there’s so much more to school libraries than books - physical or not. 


The Softlink and School Library Association survey for 2021 is now open. Help us gather more information about what it’s like in school libraries today by taking 15 minutes to complete it. https://www.softlinkint.com/blog/2021-uk-school-library-survey/