When I was at primary school we didn't really have a school library. As it was a small village school space was scarce and so what passed for a library was a square of carpet and some bookshelves on wheels that occupied a corner of the school hall so long as assembly, lunch, P.E. or music lessons weren't underway, which of course they often were. So it was with great delight that I discovered on my first library lesson at secondary school in St Helens that we had a wonderful traditional school library. It was long, dark and full of books. Wednesday morning with Miss Bancroft was our library lesson within English time. We swapped books and had to fill in a short review form and I loved everything about it: the choosing, the reading, the reviewing. Sadly, we moved house so I moved schools and the new school had a modern library with lots of glass (too hot to read) and not quite as many books.
Fast forward ten years and by a quirk of fate my husband is now teaching at my old school, the second one that is, with the modern library. But it is not modern enough. Building work, a mezzanine floor and lots of computers appear. It is no longer the library, it is O.R.A.C.L.E. which is its even fancier name for the LRE (Learning Resource Environment) of most schools. (ORACLE = Open Resource and Continuous Learning Environments, didn't you guess??)
Around the same time, I was still teaching English, and went for, and got, a promotion which included being 2nd in the department and whole school literacy co-ordinator. As the candidates were shown round the school before the interview we saw the library. It was being packed up with most of the books destined for expulsion. Around two thirds of the space was being cleared of books and bookcases to make way for long rows of computer desks. This was the main space in the library. There was an awkward z-bend of cubby holes to one end, and here resided what was left of what you might recognise as a library. Very sad.
I later realised that what won me the job during the interview was the moment when I said, "Literacy can be encouraged through use of non-traditional means such as reading web-based material, as well as books." Whilst I meant what I said, I was thinking that for the most reluctant male type teenage non-reader the computer can be used as a means to tempt them back into engaging with the written word. Not simply books out, pcs in, and let's forget the library and have a computer suite instead.
Computers are of course very necessary. I love mine and use it everyday. Kids need to learn to use them safely. Our five year old has her own progammes on her own safe desktop and uses it two or three times a week. Kids need access to all the good stuff available on the web and to be able to use word processing and other facilities. But nothing enchants like a book, and for a bookish kid nothing enchants like a library. Schools should cater for readers and non-readers alike with a good, book filled library.
Sadly the Bookseller has this piece on school libraries which makes it seem like things have got worse not better since I left teaching. Books advising on the subject say things like: "The so-called traditional school library, designed for education in an era long since passed, is simply not appropriate for the strong and vibrant school ..." (Designing a School Library Media Center for the Future by Rolf Erikson and Carolyn Markuson, ALA Editions, 2007). Which frankly just makes me sigh.
What are your memories of school libraries and how do they compare with your children's or grandchildren's experiences? Do you think they are still important?
The library picture at the top is of St Bede's Grammar School Bradford, 6th form in the library in the early 1960s © Peter Stubbs www.edinphoto.org.uk