Richard Gerver in conversation with... Jonathan Douglas :: NEWS
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Richard Gerver in conversation with... Jonathan Douglas

06 April 2022 Share

The write-up!

“The role of the library is to bring literature and learning alive, to infect children with the desire to read.”

Each term, the SLA are delighted to host a virtual evening where our President, Richard Gerver, is joined by a special guest to discuss their values, experiences and how they relate to the world of school libraries. This time, we were delighted to welcome Chief Executive of the National Literacy Trust, Jonathan Douglas.

Jonathan considers himself a librarian at heart, and the start of his career saw him develop a crucial understanding of the relationship between libraries and the communities they serve. As he puts it, that’s what literacy is all about: making a difference in communities. So, Richard asks, how exactly can we use books to make a difference?

Jonathan pinpoints the issue of access as the main obstacle to making a meaningful impact. Research from the National Literacy Trust found that 1 in 11 children from disadvantaged backgrounds do not own a single book. Given that access to books is the foundation of becoming a reader, this is why both school and public libraries are so important. Jonathan speaks of how we must encourage children to identify as readers, which involves being adaptable enough to connect with the fluctuating passions and identities that we so often see in children as they grow up. 

As we know, this cannot be achieved with one simple formula. The issue of access is underpinned by cultural, societal and economic challenges. But, in their position as a space where the familial and academic worlds collide, school libraries become integral to tackling it. Particularly in the current economic climate, Jonathan suggests that selling libraries as a place where children can be entertained at no cost may be a way to bridge the generational challenges that often accompany getting children to read. He reminds us of the value of basing our approaches on the interests of the families we want to engage with, stating that successful advocacy is that which works from the outside in, rather than from the inside out.

When it comes to advocacy, Jonathan encourages school library staff to be their own biggest champions. A frequent challenge faced by school library staff is how to demonstrate the school-wide impact of the library. To help SLT connect the dots, Jonathan stresses that the library must be positioned as the hub of the school. Expressing the relevance of the library to your school’s wider ambitions is key, as what happens in the library can undoubtedly radiate back into other areas of the curriculum. Be confident in articulating what you do on a daily basis and ingrain the understanding that schools never operate in isolation. Everything that goes on within their walls is connected in some way, and the library is no exception.

To achieve this, Jonathan emphasises that parental involvement is essential. Rather than simply being the icing on the advocacy cake, obtaining the support of parents and carers will not only work wonders for the library, but providing children with parental role models for reading has the power to make a significant impact on their reading behaviours. Schools may find that parents and carers are often coloured by their own school experiences but, in the same way it so often provides a safe space for pupils, the library holds the advantage of being able to be utilised as a more comforting place within the school environment for parents and carers too. The very fact that it’s not a classroom, and instead is home to a different set of values, makes it a welcoming gateway for those parents and carers who may find traditional forms of interaction with the school challenging, helping them to find their way back into the community.


The conversation then moves on to something that is becoming increasingly pertinent in our current world: fake news. Richard asks, what can libraries do to combat it?

Jonathan brands reading and information literacy as the twin pillars of libraries. However, he acknowledges a key shift in recent years that positions young people not just as consumers, but as creators of news. As Jonathan sees it, the future lies in our ability to equip the next generation with the skills to participate in a news economy. Therefore, when teaching information literacy, we now need to be looking at how libraries can equip young people with the skills necessary to be active participants rather than just how to review existing sources as spectators. 

Jonathan highlights the importance of information literacy through stressing that faith in democracy correlates with the ability to navigate information. There’s a clear link between socio-economic background and these skills, whereby it’s often made easier to lie to poorer communities where these skills are frequently lacking. This is where school libraries can step in as a hub of current affairs, complete with a skilled librarian to help children understand and navigate them. Jonathan shares National Literacy Trust research demonstrating the anxiety that young people feel about fake news, the role of critical literacy skills and the importance of the school library. Providing effective reassurance to these children therefore needs to include equipping them with the skills to better understand and, consequently, tackle these worries.

Finally, Richard draws the evening to a close by asking for Jonathan’s thoughts on another topical issue of decolonising the curriculum. Jonathan stresses that when addressing this issue, it’s important to remember that it’s not about getting it ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Rather, it’s a conversation that we all need to make space for and be part of. Whilst school libraries are examples of a space where these conversations should certainly be happening, it’s not up to staff to have one right answer. Jonathan believes that the biggest asset of school library staff is, generally, their values. Be open minded and encourage students to be part of the process by inviting them to help curate and build the library collections. He cautions that decolonisation is often difficult because it requires a shift in power. Texts need to expand beyond what teachers were taught themselves. The knowledge of contemporary texts that school library staff hold, combined with their ability to advocate for these books is, as Jonathan says, “immensely powerful”. Don’t be afraid to be confident and be part of these conversations. And remember, the SLA is here to support and encourage school library staff with exactly these sorts of challenges, as well as to provide the space for us to learn from each other.

As is usually the case with these evenings, we are inspired to remember that libraries are life-changing, and that’s a story school library staff should never be afraid to share.


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All our ‘in conversation’ events with Richard Gerver are FREE to members! Make sure you keep an eye on our calendar to find out who Richard will be chatting to next.

If you’d like to watch the full recording of Richard and Jonathan’s conversation, it’s available to members here: www.sla.org.uk/members-webcasts

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