School libraries have long been at the heart of education and learning. But what does the future hold for them in the digital era? Chris Bond reports.
IT was the late Ray Bradbury who once said: “Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future.”
Public libraries have long been viewed as bastions of learning and pillars not only of democracy but any civilized, forward-thinking society. However, in recent years they have come under threat in this country as cuts to local authority budgets have begun to bite, with these keepers of knowledge seen as soft targets.
Librarians themselves are fast becoming an endangered species, relics of an analogue world in a shiny, digital age, with around 8,000 jobs in UK libraries disappearing in just six years.
There are concerns, too, about the future of school libraries amid reports that some face cuts or closure, with schools increasingly viewing books as objects that should be jettisoned in our age of digital learning.
But books are wrapped up in nostalgia for many people. Most of us can remember our old school libraries - the well-thumbed paperbacks with the names of former pupils scrawled in spidery print inside the front cover, the stamp marks and that sharp, unmistakable, musty smell.
They are not only a treasure trove of stories they’re also a portal to other worlds. My school library was where I read The Hobbit and first discovered the joys of Alfred Hitchcock’s Three Investigators books.
But what about school libraries today? Tricia Adams, director of the School Library Association (SLA) says it’s a decidedly mixed picture. “They are changing dramatically, we have everything from traditional school libraries with wooden bookshelves to libraries that are centres of collaborative learning, with books, PCs and tablets. In good schools, libraries are vibrant, lively spaces and support reading as well as the rest of the curriculum.
“But they aren’t just a room with books in, you need somebody there who can enthuse the children and manage the stock.”
Adams says the main problem is schools don’t have to have a library. “It’s down to the head teacher and the governors, there’s no statute saying a school must have one which means you’re left with a very uneven playing field.”
At present there’s no clear indication of just how many schools have libraries or librarians, making it difficult to assess how services can be improved. This is one of the reasons why the SLA is among the teaching charities, organisations and unions that have been calling for libraries to be included in Ofsted inspections.
So far this hasn’t happened, but the Government says it trusts schools to decide on whether to provide and maintain a library service for their pupils. The Department of Education has also made a big play of its desire for Britain to be “the best in Europe for reading” by 2020 and has emphasised the importance of libraries.
They play a key role in fostering a love of reading among youngsters, but there’s a belief in some schools that reading can be done on tablets and ipdas and that traditional libraries, which take up valuable space, are becoming obsolete.
However, Tricia Adams says that while digital learning is useful it isn’t the be all and end all. ”You can get an awful lot of information online, but is it the right information? Children need to be taught how to search and what to look for, which is why you need librarians. Teachers can help with some of it, but they have their own jobs to do.”
Former school inspector turned best-selling author Gervase Phinn believes libraries are “vital to schools” but is concerned at the move towards greater online reading and e-books.
“Some schools are getting rid of their libraries. One head [teacher] said to me you can get all your information by searching on Google without the need for lots of non-fiction books taking up space, and that all fiction is available on kindles. Instead of a traditional library he was creating a ‘virtual’ room with computers and laptops.
“I just think that’s terribly sad, a library should be a place full of books where you pick something out and turn the pages.”
For Phinn there is no substitute to a ‘real’ library and points to the new £180,000 library at Beecroft Primary School, in Leeds, which he opened last week.
“It’s brilliant, it’s got reading cushions and a writing room with big windows looking out on to the woods and they have really high quality books, it’s like being in a bookstore.
“John Major said ‘unless we teach a child to read, we hobble that child for the rest of his life’, and I believe libraries encourage reading in a much more effective way and they can bear the fruits for a lifetime. Reading is the centre of learning and libraries are at the heart of this.”
Jason Vit, literacy hubs manager at the National Literacy Trust, says physical libraries and e-learning centres can co-exist. “Some young people with lower skill levels are more likely to read on digital devices, so they do have an important role to play.”
The bottom line, he says, is that children are encouraged to read from an early age. “All the evidence points to young people who develop literacy skills early going on to achieve better results in maths, English and other academic pursuits. It opens up a life of opportunity and school libraries have a huge role to play in this.”
Last autumn, Sandal Primary School in Baildon, near Bradford, opened a new £15,000 library after winning a competition run by the National Literacy Trust and the School Libraries Association, alongside BookSpace which designed and funded the renovation.
The new library has proved a huge success and registered a 276 per cent increase in book loans in the first two weeks after it opened. It’s easy to see why. It’s bright, colourful and has picture books for the younger children and everything from poetry to sports books for the older pupils, with all the different categories clearly signposted.
The library is next door to the school’s computer suite but headteacher Louise Dale says the two aren’t competing against each other. “It’s not about one being better than the other. It’s important that the children can use this new technology but as a school it’s also really important that we have a library like this.”
She says the youngsters enjoy spending time here. “It’s made a huge difference, they find it relaxing coming in here. Children like to be able to pick something up and browse through it and they can do that with books more easily than they can with tablets or ipads. Sometimes they see pictures and just want to read some quick facts about them.
“Things move on but the value of books hasn’t diminished. The children can come in here and immerse themselves in a world of books. Even the most reluctant reader can walk in here and be inspired.”