What memories and images spring into life when you think of school libraries?
Chances are they’ll vary enormously depending on your own experiences and perceptions. When did you last visit, in what circumstances and what were your first and lasting impressions of the school library?
Perhaps it’s a fond memory of formative years devoted to learning. An institution that kickstarted a habit of curiosity and knowledge-seeking that has lasted a lifetime. Some may recall it as a place of order, refuge, and tranquillity while others consider its enforced quietude as an affront to the senses, remembering how you clock-watched until you could escape its clutches.
Perhaps you’re a parent or guardian and are puzzled, concerned even, over the present and future role of the school library and how it will navigate the waves of budget cuts and tsunami of technology that seem to threaten its very existence. Or maybe you see libraries as an outdated, highly centralised concept, requiring fundamental reimagination to remain relevant and cost-effective, to embrace the next generation of digital formats like artificial intelligence, and augmented and virtual realities.
According to the Equals Futures report, published March 2023, some of the best school libraries have dedicated staff with no secondary teaching duties. There is a clear organisation structure with the lead librarian often reporting to the head teacher.
Well-run libraries have clear goals and objectives that are closely aligned with the schools’ vision and mission statements. Facilities are on-site with generous opening hours, allowing pupils to enjoy planned and unplanned access. Unsurprisingly, the library’s role and purpose is woven into the school curriculum and teachers make use of its facilities to teach best practice in self-guided and team-based research using a range of tools and media.
Some of the highest-performing libraries ensure a rich and diverse mix of academic and community events, bringing in school alumni and guest speakers from industry and academia to sponsor and inspire learning in school and beyond.
As we learn more about the role of libraries, it becomes clear that, despite their vast potential as incubators for lifelong learning, they face very real risks of being left on the shelf by successive government administrations.
The Equal Futures report paints a concerning picture of how school library provision is in decline. And it’s those most in need – often the most deprived, and vulnerable in society – who are on the front line for reductions and cuts:
- According to the report, 14% of UK schools do not have a library, severely limiting access to books and knowledge
- 70% of primary schools do not have a dedicated member of staff for the library
- One in ten secondary schools does not have a librarian
- Schools that have a high percentage of children eligible for Free School Meals are least likely to have access to library space and a dedicated librarian or library staff.
- Children from disadvantaged backgrounds have less access to fewer books than those in more affluent areas.
- 80% of library staff state that their librarian role is not their sole responsibility
- Two-thirds of school libraries in Scotland have no library budget at all
- In Wales, a quarter of schools are without a school library, and of those that have a library space, over three-quarters are not looked after by specialist school library staff.
- Pupils in Northern Ireland are the least likely to have access to on-site provision, and those with existing school libraries are least likely to have a designated budget.
So what can we do about it? As ever the answers are complex and nuanced. Here are some ideas below.
- More data and insights to prove the link between the role of school libraries and desirable, measurable educational and economic outcomes that extend beyond the school setting
- Initiatives to drive awareness of the benefits of dedicated librarian staff, leadership, and aligned goals and objectives
- Models and policy instruments – including funding – that deliver targeted relief in the form of staffing, facilities, and book inventory to the schools and pupils with the greatest need
- Increase awareness of how to run effective library operations and embrace current and future media and technology, including case studies, references, and white papers
Despite the headwinds of falling stock, reduced staffing, and access, most teachers agree that libraries play an important role in access to reading and learning resources.
What do you think? Are you concerned by the diminishing status the school library has in today’s funding picture and what measures do you think should be taken to halt the decline and ensure the future of our school libraries? Want to get involved and donate your spare books to schools and pupils in need? Follow the links to donate or receive books to your school using our Android or iOS apps and help us bring reading to the world.