The Pink Elephant of the Student Librarian

Sorry for my absence the last few months – turns out studying for a librarian course in your spare time kind of zaps that time away! One thing I have noticed though whenever I come up for air after learning about the joys of metadata and cataloguing is that starting out my career in libraries gives me a little bit of an odd viewpoint. And the depper I delve into the world of books, bookdom, libraries and librarians, the more it seems there’s a bit of a pink elephant in the room that you just don’t see in the the bookish worlds of bookshops, publishers and social media. The blushing pachyderm in question? Why don’t libraries talk to each other?

I talk to a lot of schools where I work. A LOT. Only two of the primaries I talk to have a library or a librarian, and they’re  both independants. The other primary schools don’t neccessarily even have a library, let alone a librarian, and this is in an area with no School Library Service. The secondaries are different and more often than not will have both a library and a librarian but again, the libraries still don’t seem to talk to each other much, if at all. A colleague of mine said that the public library she used to work in did talk to others in the borough but still, they didn’t talk to school libraries. Considering how little the school librarians chat together in my area, that’s a whole lot of librarians not talking to one another and ultimately not sharing tips, tricks, ideas and knowledge. I know some pretty genius librarians (seriously, some of these guys should be up there with the literary gods by now) and some of them do spend an awful lot of time chatting to other librarians flung all over the country and world, but mostly there just doesn’t seem to be the attitude within the profession to talk outside of their immediate librarian-colleagues (or at least in my area anyway). For that matter, why don’t these guys team up with the similarly bookish workers in local bookshops or the literary charities, or even the publishers? I work in a not-terribly-wealthy area where reading levels are well below average for a lot of kids. The publihsers, bookshops etc have the access to authors and the libraries have the space and the audience. If all four work together, one lot of readers meets three brand new resources and everyone is better off all round – book buyers can become book borrowers and vice versa, both libraries and bookshops can help a bookish charity and publishers can only benefit surely from meeting so many new readers they wouldn’t neccessarily have had the chance to meet and show off their authors/books to before. And of course, those kids with backgrounds that can’t neccessarily support a well-rounded literary diet get access to a whole new world of reading and books than they would ever have encountered before and aside from the obvious benefits this brings libraries, publishers, charities and bookshops you also get the added bonus of perhaps engaging a few more lapsed or reluctant young readers.

Granted, I don’t have much in the way of experience of working in a bookish charity or a publishing office but in an area that’s so deprived of readers like mine, promoting books and literacy through the four big daddies of reading can only be a good thing, right? How much more interesting is an author or a publisher-backed event to the reluctant reader, or how much easier is it for an avid reader to become an obsessed reader with an all-singing all-dancing library or bookshop brimming over with literacy-related ideas to engage them? And don’t all four of us need kids to be engaged with us for us to, you know, keep doing what we do?

I was shocked recently when I judged a Year 5 and 6 writing competition. The writing itself looked for the most part more like Year 2’s had written it and although the ideas were absolutely sparkling the kids just couldn’t seem to get them out properly into words. The language skills just weren’t there yet. This same school brought in their Year 5 and 6 classes to pick out some books but very very few of them went away with a book that was of a level beyond a 7 year old. I have no idea whether this is due to the culture of reading at home for these kids, the culture of reading at school, lots of EASL pupils or bad teaching and I’m really not interested in pointing the finger either way, but it’s worth noting that this is not an isolated case – my colleague is dealing with another school just a  few minutes down the road from this one which is in exactly the same boat and from reading the newspapers there are primary schools like this all over the country. These kids are going to struggle horribly at secondary school and they will in all likelihood never achieve their full potential at school, all because they fell behind at reading. For someone who’s grown up with books and values them beyond the words my little brain can put together, this just breaks my heart. I cannot stand the idea that these kids will never properly see the point of a book or will grow to hate reading (if they don’t already). Reading should never be a chore and although yeah, I know some kids will never be happy happy I-love-reading-foreva! readers, but they shouldn’t grow up to hate it either.

Now what about something novel? What about giving these kids a library or getting them into the regular habit of visiting one? What about this library being in touch with other libraries in the area to swap ideas and, if you really want to push the boat out and get clever, share the stock? What about maybe just organising more School Library Services? Malorie Blackman as the current Children’s Laureate has often been quoted wondering why on Earth it’s a legal requirement for a prison to have a library yet the same cannot be said of a primary school. Why don’t we not only make it a legal requirement but also give schools the monies needed to actually make this happen? What possible downside can there be to this, having a library in a school? Yes, you will need to have someone to look after it but at the very very least this just requires someone to tidy it, monitor it and make sure books are being taken care of when they’re loaned out. Not the all-singing all-dancing library we would all like but it’s at least a library. I’m a realist and I know that on primary school budgets at the moment the bells-and-whistles library just ain’t going to happen unless it’s a private school. But just having a library to start with goes a long way I think towards improving the culture of reading in a school. If nothing else it tells the kids that books are valued and are worth a school’s time, investment and storage. If properly taken advantage of they can even become the same sort of wonderful resource as a computer suite or tablet, especially if they buddy up with other libraries and librarians and swap over ideas and discuss the various events going on in the bookish world. Just one example would be that if publishers are looking for schools to host an author event, my experience is that they’re looking for mahoosive audience numbers. Great if you’re a school that has 8 form entry etc, not so great if you’re a tiddly but lovely little primary school. However, if you buddy up with another school via the library, that’s  a bigger audience instantly and more chance you’ll get to host that author – see what I mean about the benefits of buddying? That’s just one, Internet and Twitter is chocabloc with librarians over in the US (where the profession seems to be more highly valued than over here in the UK at the moment) collaborating and going all out with activities. So now how can we make this happen over here?

I’m currently training to be a librarian and would ideally love to become a primary school librarian. I have ideas coming out of my ears for stuff to do with younger children to help inspire a love of books, get them into books, make the library THEIR library, but with little to no non-private primary schools in London investing in a staffed library in their school (and with all the current private school librarians staying put :p ) I’m a wee bit out of luck, not to mention a bit flabbergasted that this kind of situation can exist in the first place. Not that I’m disappointed in the schools (because God knows I know you have enough draws on your budget as it is – been there, done that, got the PGCE etc), but at government responses to this. Check this out – CILIP wrote to three of the major parties before the election asking them what their policies were towards libraries and information. Not all of them covered themselves with glory to my eyes (from two of the three there seemed to be quite a few excuses, fingerpointing and figures-plucked-out-of-nowhere promises of funding), especially when I work in an area with such low reading levels (the very levels all these ministers bang on about) where the kids desperately need not just a library but someone other than beleagured, overworked but dedicated teachers to really put some time, effort and enthusiasm into promoting and teaching reading, books and literacy.

I think the point I’m trying to make is that if we want the kids to really get reading, and all the benefits of it (and who doesn’t want that?) why is it so much harder to get a library into a school than it is into a prison? Why do schools have to choose between having a library or having other equally vital resources? And then if they do have a library, why doesn’t this library and other bookish places in the area like the public libraries and bookshops and the farther-flung bookish people like the publishers and charities all just talk to one another? Why not use each others’ resources to make things better for everyone, charities, publishers, authors, bookshops, libraries and readers all? All through my studies this has been the most enormous pink elephant in the room and since I’m sick of looking at the great prancing pachyderm I finally had to ask this question online.

Have I got the wrong end of the stick? Is this just a problem in my area? Is everyone really talking together and I’m out of the loop? If you have any thoughts on this please share them at the bottom – like I said, I’m a librarian in training, I’m not the font of all knowledge when it comes to public libraries, bookshops, publishers and charities so any and all input welcome. This is me taking my own advice and asking all you librarians, booksellers, publishers, authors and charities out there to help me figure this out. Hope to hear from you soon 🙂

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