A Powerhouse for Reading (and why your school should have one!) – Alec Williams
Imagine a warm, colourful space where children can sit, or lounge, on the carpet – and just read: read what they’ve chosen themselves; read without follow-up tests; browse, skip and skim; become glued to books or magazines, or discard them at will; gaze at pictures as well as soaking up words. Imagine them talking to each other excitedly about what they’ve just read, or the amazing facts they’ve discovered from books or IT devices. Imagine a space that they feel is theirs; one that says ‘Be yourself’ rather than ‘Be careful’. And, in whatever size the space may be, imagine that (in Ted Hughes’s phrase) they’ll ‘turn the key to the whole world.’ (1)
Wow! That would really give reading for pleasure a boost, wouldn’t it – along with supercharging those enquiring young minds? It would be a ‘greenhouse for brains’, as author Nicola Morgan put it. The school library is where this kind of magic happens, and this of course is the powerhouse I mean. Lest you think I’m getting dewy-eyed (or perhaps Dewey-eyed?), let me assure you that I’m well aware of ‘the other side of the page’: children who are sent to the library for punishment; older students who wouldn’t be seen dead there; poorly-stocked libraries that have become unloved and moribund; and yes, even fearsome librarians (2) (or their tiresomely long-lasting stereotypes). But your library isn’t like that, is it? It certainly needn’t be.
Ballas, Du Beke, Mabusi, Horwood – and more
A lively school library can be a showpiece (even a ‘showstopper’!) for the whole school, and parents might be the ones judging this. On several occasions, parents choosing a secondary school have said to me: ‘We found that classrooms looked pretty similar in each school, so we thought we’d make a point of looking at the libraries.’ In your school, I hope they’d find something like the first paragraph above, rather than the second, and that they don’t pull outdated books off the shelves – as I have – with titles like The Artist and his World or Strange People from Other Lands…
Others judge your library, too. Alongside tales of inspection teams writing their reports in school libraries – and yet not mentioning them – one honourable exception that I know of came in the form of an RE inspector some years ago, who said: ‘I see the library as the intellectual barometer of the school.’ Authors also notice. As Anthony Horowitz said: ‘I’ve been visiting schools for over thirty years, and you can tell a school instantly by its library.’ (3) A school library (and how much it’s used) shows children how much you value books, too. As they say where I live in Yorkshire: ‘So, think on…’
Three pillars (and some cushions)
My personal answer to ‘What is a school library for?’ comprises three parts, or ‘three pillars’. The first of these is: to provide materials to support all areas of the curriculum. When I say ‘materials’ I include books, IT, audio recordings, posters, children’s own creations – anything which can inform, excite and entertain its users. And when I say ‘all areas’ I mean just that. A library’s books – including fiction – can support subjects like Maths (Jon Scieszka’s The Maths Curse), PE (Allan Ahlberg’s Friendly Matches), and modern foreign languages (Asterix and Tintin in a variety of languages). However it’s managed, the library should not be regarded as simply ‘part of the English Department.’
My second and third pillars are: to support and promote reading for pleasure, and to teach information literacy (‘learning how to learn’). It may be that the former features slightly more in primary, and the latter slightly more in secondary, but both are important, in each phase.
To do these things, the school library must have space (ideally for a whole class – making it perfect for visiting authors and storytellers!). This means that any island shelving may need (lockable) castors to move and create room. It also needs soft seating on the one hand (including floor cushions, rugs, etc.), and study-height tables on the other, to echo pillars two and three above. Finally, it needs to look different from a classroom: in style, seating, and maybe even in colour scheme.
A school library saves money…
The immediacy of classroom book collections is important, but if they’ve developed haphazardly, the chances are that some books will be duplicated. Bringing books together in a school library shows where you might have overbought, and once catalogued, also shows where the gaps are, saving you from buying further duplicates. It also means that every child can access every book, rather than just the ones in their own classroom. And it prompts a need for order (fiction by author or by genre, non-fiction by a simplified Dewey system) which means that when children use a public library, or their next school’s library, navigating the shelves will be second nature to them.
…so it’s worth spending on!
Spending on materials first, of course. I’m a firm believer that, generally, children ‘treat things as they find them’ – so if they see old or shabby books, it’ll breed the ‘Well, it’s only a library book, isn’t it!’ mindset. Non-fiction can be read for pleasure too, remember – but some subjects date quickly, and need replacing. Your fiction, though it may look presentable, may lack both exciting new titles – such as Phil Earle’s When the Sky Falls – and also stories that reflect the diversity of today’s authors – such as Nizrana Farook’s The Girl who stole an Elephant.
Having decent shelves and furnishings shows children your library matters, and also gives your stock the best chance of jumping into their hands. Try browser boxes for picture books; face-out shelves to show off fiction covers; display panels to highlight ‘author of the month’; and the ability to move stock around and surprise readers (put poetry in the foreground, or have quick-read suggestions near the counter – like supermarkets do with sweets!). Just as carpets encourage lounging, sofas encourage sharing, a big armchair encourages storytelling sessions, low tables encourage random choices of books you’ve artfully left there, and so on.
Lastly, don’t forget libraries need people. That magic I mentioned earlier doesn’t start with a roomful of books alone. It starts when you add in a human presence to organise, advise and enthuse. A librarian (however defined) can bring the library space alive. If the librarian is qualified, that’s a real plus; if they’re training, that’s great; if they’re full of energy for books and discovery, and loved by the children, you are working in one lucky school!
‘Right – I’m going to power up my school library!’
Glad to hear it. Whether it’s reviving an existing library, or creating one from scratch, there are many more ideas than can fit in this blog post, including no-cost and low-cost ones – plus information about grant-giving bodies, sponsorship options, publisher giveaways, and how parents might help. Ask your school library service if you have one, or contact the School Library Association: my recent free SLA Get Everyone Reading download (4) will tell you more, including internet and social media sites to check.
1. The last verse of Ted Hughes’s 1997 poem Hear it Again, a paean of praise for libraries
2. Try Eoin Colfer’s The Legend of Spud Murphy, but offset it with Mrs Phelps, the librarian character in Roald Dahl’s Matilda. I cheered when she said: ‘And don’t worry about the bits you can’t understand. Sit back and allow the words to wash around you, like music’
3. During the Sir Simon Hornby Memorial Lecture, 2nd March 2011