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UK Parliament Week – School Libraries and Democracy; more than meets the eye

07 November 2019 Share

A special blog for UK Parliament Week


Many school library staff will be aware of the latest definition of information literacy from CILIP’s ILG, which puts the ability of young people to participate in society at the core: “Information literacy is the ability to think critically and make balanced judgements about any information we find and use. It empowers us as citizens to develop informed views and to engage fully with society” (CILIP Definition of Information Literacy, 2018) – and this is never more important than when it also involves our democracy.

Taking part in democracy is so much more than simply turning up to the polling station; it requires critical thought, digital skills, and the ability to be seen and heard. I’d argue that to participate in democracy a number of complex skills are needed: a critical mind, the ability to debate, a sense of self belief and confidence, being literate and being able to search for information and find it are all important things that determine whether someone will be able to fully engage in our democracy or not. The list doesn’t stop here – there are many more I’m sure – but for me, these are the ones that came to mind first, and perhaps that’s because school libraries can be central in ensuring all their pupils have this skill set.  

Critical thought – the ability to think questioningly about information or a claim, the ability to debate – not necessarily in voice, but in thought and reasoning – are both key components of research skills. Research skills have become increasingly overlooked in certain circles – with children being told to ‘go and find out about’ rather than having lessons delivered that shows them how to do that. Being 9 and told to ‘go and find out about’ Valentine’s Day for example, is a minefield – you go to a search engine, and have to wade through Hallmark, sales, and the massacre before you find what you think your teacher actually wants. A simple discussion about keywords would help immensely, and set students on the path of not only finding information, but finding it efficiently. (More information about how research skills can be embedded into inquiry learning in a purposeful way can be found here: https://fosil.org.uk/)

Self-belief and confidence are essential – without these some people will always think their opinions are worth less than others, which will limit their ability to speak out about their opinions, experiences or ideas. This costs them – it limits their involvement in society as it doesn’t reflect them – but it also costs society as a whole, as we lose out on the richness of thought and idea development we would otherwise have. In this book ,’Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking’ Matthew Syed (John Murray) makes this point incredibly strongly, with many examples from real life, in a variety of different situations. School libraries are a hive of activity much of the time – with many different activities happening all at once – from homework and reading, quizzes and creative writing, to drawing, chatting and playing games. School libraries run competitions, clubs and meet ups, complimenting and sometimes filling the gaps left by departments – enabling each child to find something that meets their needs, ability and interest. Over time this develops into something important – knowing themselves, and finding their group.

The final two – being literate and finding information are the double helix of a school library. Ensuring that curriculum topics have matching resources for each cohort and an endless array of resources to tempt children into reading for pleasure means that the ability to be literate is more likely to come – learning to read is hard, and the struggle, embarrassment and frustration can only be got through if children are reading something they want to read. They need to be able to see the end-point.

Finding information is ever more important in this time of 24-7 news and claims that are instantly distributed. Why put something through a team of people for fact checking when you have an immediate audience at your hands? Young people need to be encouraged to seek out counter claims, check the statistics, and given the skills find out for themselves – unfortunately something which has little relevance in the curriculum leading up to GCSEs. But it is in the school library that these skills can be taught – not one off hour long sessions that pupils then supposedly ‘transfer’ to all the different subjects, but by working with teachers to ensure that skills are embedded, and research is given time. After all, it may not be relevant for GCSEs, but these skills are desperately needed at university – where bibliographies, citations and independent learning are an expected and necessary skill – but also to the economy, which in 2005 wasted over £3.7 billion through inefficient use of the internet as a research tool (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/235299332_Information_literacy_amongst_UK_SMEs_An_information_policy_gap).

And finding information at school, when you have people you trust to have conversations with, is even more important. Matthew Syed continues his argument for the importance of ‘rebel ideas’ by citing research and examples that show that trust is as important as encountering differing opinions – if not more so. Syed builds on research that shows the difference between an information bubble, where information is controlled to a single view point, and an echo chamber, where differing views are available but not engaged with because the mistrust of the other party is so significant. Syed compellingly argues that we need trust to change minds otherwise already held ideas simply become further engrained. Once young people have formed their opinions, it takes a lot to challenge them, and a school library can be a force for good in this sense – a melting pot of ideas from across cultures, time periods and outlooks. A fully representative collection is a vital thing – ensuring that everyone is represented, and all can hear a voice that sounds like theirs – there is an inherent danger that a lack of representation drives a lack of participation – across many lines; race and class being only two. Being represented allows others to be seen; and seeing promotes engagement.

So school libraries are not only important for developing the skills to allow people to engage in democracy, but also for ensuring access to the ideas and the history of the society that went before them. We should be taking all opportunities in school libraries to promote these things, and ensuring the understanding of participation is more than a single vote every five years – but it is in the conversations, the reading, and the engaging in culture that we do as we go about our business.

Parliament Week is more than UK elections – it’s all levels of democracy and promotes understanding and engagement. Regardless of whether it’s a display, a mock election, or a debate, get involved, and build these skills for our young people.

You can find out more and get involved here: https://www.ukparliamentweek.org/about/ or see how the SLA is supporting here: https://www.sla.org.uk/campaigns