We can’t let schools become book-free zones

School libraries are suffering, and even closing, as resources are cut, staff ‘redeployed’ and the internet deemed more important to learning than printed matter and professionals who can sort the wheat from the chaff. Tara Brabazon says we must fight to defend the invaluable contribution libraries make to information literacy and to an informed citizenry


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My article this week commences with friendship and ends – I hope – with intervention. I have forged some profound relationships with many teachers, librarians, writers and students since migrating to the UK. One of the closest is my friendship with Debbi Boden, deputy director of information and learning services at the Peirson Library at the University of Worcester. After I delivered a speech for her at a recent information literacy conference, she told me about a silent and corrosive threat to her profession and our education system. Throughout the country, school libraries are closing. Librarians are being sacked or demoted. Debbi told me that the problem was worse in comprehensives than in elite private schools.

It is very easy to complain about a lack of information literacy, and to sigh, titter and whine about dumbing down. It is much more difficult to intervene, to create spaces for thinking, reading and reflection. Libraries are the cranium of our culture. Librarians are the custodians of knowledge. When Debbi conveyed this story of closures and redundancies, I asked if there was anything I could do to help. Within a few days, a message started circulating on lists asking librarians to send me an e-mail detailing their experiences in the sector. The correspondents may be anonymous and have had the right to check my words before publication.

Within 24 hours, I had received 355 responses. The day before I started writing this article, I had received more than 600 messages. Only three of my correspondents had a positive story to tell. The rest catalogued desperate narratives of declining – or evaporating – book stock, the replacement of librarians with staff lacking professional qualifications and endless battles with head teachers who dismissed libraries as redundant, expensive, or both. Repeatedly, educational “leaders” looked to the internet and to the Google search engine as a cheap replacement for library services.

We have accepted the metaphor of the internet being a library for a decade. It was always an odd and incorrect affiliation, but we are now seeing the consequences of this metaphoric misalignment. If the internet is a library, then librarians are redundant.

Principals and head teachers throughout the history of educational technology have imposed top-down directives to “reform” curriculum and classrooms. “Reformers” have been endlessly disappointed by the behaviour of teachers and librarians who aim for efficiency in practice rather than a celebration of new media without context or application. Larry Cuban’s Teachers and Machines: The Classroom Use of Technology since 1920 tracks a cyclical tale of managers introducing a new technology into schools and libraries because it is new, and teachers and librarians selecting only the platforms that solve real pedagogical problems rather than invented managerial crises.

Librarians know more about libraries than head teachers. As a profession, librarians have earned the right to autonomy of judgment. But the e-mails I received show that the working conditions for many librarians are dreadful. Their expertise is not respected and their role in the development of informed citizenship is not recognised.

There is particular ignorance of the Schools Library Service, which is part of the formal educational provision of local authorities. It provides the frontline loaning service for teachers and ensures the development of quality materials throughout the sector. Its staff hold a specialist expertise in curriculum, matching resources to educational priorities and quality assurance. While the SLS is undertaking important initiatives around the country in both resource provision and advocacy, there is a stark neglect (or denial) of their knowledge by local authorities, head teachers and politicians.

One of the three positive e-mails I received came from Gillian Harris, head of Tower Hamlets Schools Library Service. Her energy and commitment has ensured that a library – by definition – has a librarian managing it. Twenty-three schools within her care now have a librarian for either half a day a week or two days a week.

The most disturbing messages I received detailed the situation in the Highlands Schools Library Service. I have seen many public documents that refer to “Savings Measure Statements 2008-09” from the Highlands Council that include withdrawing central support for the School Library Service, closing the Resource Centre at Dingwall, and the “deletion” of principal schools librarian and resource assistant posts. Staff in the SLS found out about the cuts only when they read Item in the budget, which confirmed “Library Service Review support structure for school and community libraries, including deletion of 4 posts”.

What is called “efficiency savings” is achieved through the loss of librarians’ jobs, reduced access to resources by teachers, reduced acquisition of stock and the “delay” in the development of online facilities. These deletions and closures will “save” £98,000 knowing that there will be “reduction in service”. For small schools, the Resource Centre has supplemented local collections, using the expertise of SLS staff to develop materials and foster a love of reading. For specialist needs, such as borrowing books for students with dyslexia and developing a commitment to reading through the Highland Book Awards, this single decision to “save” £98,000 will have consequences on reading and writing for a generation. For those homes without books, let alone broadband, library resources are crucial to disadvantaged students in education. But even an expansive personal library and internet connection cannot teach information literacy.

This is not a Scottish issue. This is not a British issue. This is an international issue. If a generation of students in primary and secondary schools, particularly in the state sector, are “managing” education without a properly funded library and the help of qualified librarians, then not only will literacy levels and examination results suffer, but so will our universities and workplaces. Without an ability to read, interpret and think, citizenship and democracy will be traded for consumerism and voting contestants off Britain’s Got Talent. We may discover some great singers, but we will “restructure” and lose committed and inspirational librarians.

The Highlands is a key concern right now because these services will close in July, and the staff will be “redeployed”. But it is a lever into much wider closures. In one London borough that already lacks an SLS, the librarians self-organise. Karen Hans, librarian at St Martin-in-the-Fields High School, convenes meetings for this group and is also an advocate through her role as a local lead professional, contacting schools without a librarian to make the case for the profession’s importance.

The difficulty blocking public awareness of the situation in London schools is that most libraries have not “closed”, but they have been reduced in space and scale. There is a silent and steady decline. Many are run by unqualified staff. In one school, new books are uncatalogued and unclassified, so they cannot be used by students. The books that are “available” are issued incorrectly and not returned.

Kent schools have also suffered from closures following the pattern witnessed in the rest of the country: replacing a librarian with a part-time non-trained staff member, reducing the physical space of the library, dispersal of books to departments and changing the space into a computer suite that is then renamed a “learning resource centre”.

In the case of many new academies, no library has been included in the plans or building. An Ofsted report two years ago on West London Academy questioned why the school did not have a library. Similarly the Mossbourne Academy in Hackney does not have a library, only computer suites. A case has been reported to me of a new head teacher in a Newcastle-based school that is about to enter the Building Schools for the Future programme. He is questioning whether a library should be part of this “new build” because the goal of the programme is to “transform learning”. As the man who decides where the money is spent, his attitudes towards reading, research and scholarship are crucial. Other correspondents confirmed that new school buildings – including cybercafés – are being designed, but no library is in the plans.

One Cambridgeshire librarian had no autonomous budget to develop a collection. The school’s business manager was her line manager. In response, she left the organisation. Her reflection on the process was: “They didn’t value the library, they thought anyone could do it, and they eyed the money and took it. Not good.” Another librarian went for an interview to be told the library would be “book-free”. She laughed, explained that libraries need books, and was not employed by the school.

Librarians have committed to knowledge and education throughout their careers. One of my correspondents stated: “When I first heard that the library was going to [be] cut by two thirds to make way for computer suites I was very distraught. I have built the library up in the six years I have been here.” All the initiatives she created, such as author visits, reading games and homework clubs, have now disappeared. She has no room for books and there is a disconnection between teaching and the library, students and the librarian.

We can no longer assume that head teachers – or teachers more generally – believe in the value of a library as the architecture for knowledge. It is ironic that the new “education speak” – facilitate, empowerment, reflection, student-centredness – is now being used to marginalise and close libraries because “we’re all on Google now.” The point is not – to paraphrase that Newcastle head teacher – to “transform learning”, but to transform students and citizens.

CILIP, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, is concerned. In a memo from December 2007, it observed that “many schools provide library services with minimal staffing levels, using staff with inappropriate qualifications… School senior managers may feel that they are providing a full, effective and efficient library when, in fact, they are simply making available an open space that lends books and has access to the internet.” The damaging chimera of the digital age is the assumption that information is cheap and easy to find. Actually, gaining expertise in information literacy is expensive and difficult to obtain and much more complex to develop and deploy than in analogue environments.

The loss of books matters, but the loss of librarians matters more. The notion that “anyone” can run a library in a time when information literacy has never been more important is an unfortunate twist in the digital tail. One of my correspondents expressed her fear.

“Many of us feel we are a dying profession – a recent survey discovered that the average age of school librarians was 50, so unless schools, library schools and CILIP wake up soon we may well be reduced to the scenario of the Google generation and IT geeks taking control.”

Google has not caused this disrespect for librarians. The key problem is “the Google effect”, where head teachers have assumed that a search engine will – intrinsically – teach students how to find, manage and interpret information. What we learnt from the study commissioned by the British Library and the Joint Information Systems Committee and released in January this year about the Information behaviour of the researcher of the future, often called the Google generation report, was that “the information literacy of young people has not improved with the widening access to technology: in fact, their apparent facility with computers disguises some worrying problems”. Teachers were also reminded in this document that the information literacy skills they hold were not being passed to students.

It is not too late to change our present for a better future. Those of us who believe in education have one decade to respect and deploy currently employed librarians to train and shape the next generation. At this moment of dire need, local governments have demanded that librarians have their jobs “re-evaluated”, which has resulted in many losing thousands of pounds because a professional and chartered librarian is not a statutory requirement. Here is the impact of this “re-evaluation” on one woman.

“I was employed at the start of the 2006 academic year as learning resource manager on a salary of £25,000. I manage two sites and a staff of one-and-a-half clerical assistants. The governors and principal made the decision in September to suspend the sixth form. Because of this, there will be a restructure and my job is to be downgraded to a clerical assistant on £14,000 … I submitted comments on the restructuring pleading to keep a professional librarian (even if on a lower grade) in the school, but it fell on deaf ears. One feels helpless when dealing with a principal and governors who have no interest in or knowledge of school library services when it has so much to offer the school in raising standards and improving results.”

In the information age, librarians are pivotal to sifting the necessary from the banal. The question is not whether students go first to the web and then books, but that experienced information professionals assist students in pausing – for a conscious moment of reflection – to select the right platform and source for their requirements rather than clicking through the easiest pathway to the most accessible material.

Over a decade ago, Frances Jacobson and Emily Ignacio, writing in the journal Library Trends, offered a crucial maxim that we have ignored in the enthusiasm for replacing research protocols with a search engine. They argued: “Even though the new information systems encourage interaction and offer user-friendly interfaces, the ability to search effectively across systems and critically evaluate retrieved information still needs to be taught”. Intervention and planning are necessary as media platforms hybridise and only some materials are digitally migrated.

As a librarian from Kent told me: “There is no one to help them find appropriate resources, no breadth of resources that they can use for A levels apart from what departments can afford to buy. Students will lose their empathy through not reading of other situations and people, and their imaginations and therefore their English skills will eventually suffer. Reading ages are dropping here in Kent; I have seen a decline in the three schools I have worked in during the last 12 years. We have a grammar school system here, so the top 25 per cent of students are creamed off before we see them, at 11. Of the others, reading ages of seven and eight are common when starting secondary school – it used to be around nine and ten. I use Accelerated Reader [software] to try and stem the tide of illiteracy, but am fighting a losing battle, to be honest.”

Social justice is based on the availability of information to build knowledge and create informed decisions. Reducing human and financial resources in libraries at a time of complex, diverse and variable-quality print and digital sources is damaging to education but also democracy. If a student in secondary college cannot read, then his or her life choices in work, leisure and family life are circumscribed. The il/literacy divide will always be wider and more damaging than the digital divide.

Many of the experienced librarians who contacted me have been “restructured” out of the state sector and are now using their expertise in private schools. It is the comprehensives and new academies that are suffering most severely. It is unfortunate that a Government promoting “education, education, education” has forgotten “libraries, libraries, libraries”.

Stories of demoralisation, ridicule and disrespect have pinged into my inbox. But one e-mail remains an inspiration of what could happen if we – as a learning community – unify and become damn angry at what is happening to our school library sector.

Lynne Varley of Sponne School in Towcester told me of the Learning Resource Centre she inherited 12 years ago. The fiction stock was “elderly”, and there was no catalogue for student use. From this base, she convinced her senior management of the value of a library for both staff and students by visiting departments and tailoring the service to their curriculum. Lynne organised a Book Week, managing the entire event including a visiting author, and encouraged involvement in local literature quizzes alongside the National Children’s Book Week and World Book Day.

Sponne School’s Learning Resource Centre is the heart of the school both physically and virtually. All new staff are inducted in the systems and practices. Lynne is well supported, with an assistant working five days a week, and a computer specialist at break and lunch times. These staff have a direct role in the curriculum. She told me, “We now provide library lessons for Year 7s – one timetabled lesson every fortnight for each Year 7 English class over the school year. This year we have provided information skills lessons for Year 8 in English (Shakespeare), geography (European Union countries), music (Caribbean and Latin American music) and are due to run one for history (transport during the Industrial Revolution) next term. We do a number of information skills [sessions] with sixth-form students within subject areas, advising them of the resources available.”

Considering these initiatives, it is not surprising that Sponne has won Northamptonshire’s Award for the Best Secondary School Library. Lynne has been promoted to the head of LRC and now attends faculty learning leaders’ meetings, connecting the library with curriculum. A school information literacy policy has been introduced throughout the institution, starting with the senior leadership. The school more generally is supported by Northamptonshire’s Schools Library Service with long-term loan resources and assistance by telephone, visits and network meetings.

There are models for success in British primary and secondary schools. We need leaders, parents and head teachers who understand the function of a library in the curriculum and the role of librarians in education. The difference between the best and worst schools and experiences are vast and unjust. Google has been an excuse to reduce and remove services and staff, while the most forward-thinking schools have realised that the information age requires more information literacy, not less.

For teachers, parents and policymakers reading my words, we need to value, validate, celebrate and commend librarians at every opportunity. They are not “support” staff – unless that adjective is used to describe the very foundation of what is required to build an education system. As one of my correspondents from Northern Ireland reported: “School librarians don’t constitute a powerful interest group (or even an interest group).” Another from Kent charged me with a responsibility: “Hope your article shocks people into realising what they are losing.” Words can shock, but what we need is anger that propels us into action.

Chef Jamie Oliver asked parents, teachers and citizens to improve the food being fed to students in school dinners. Turkey Twizzlers, pizza and chips were the targets. But we need a new revolution – a new intervention – not in eating but reading, not dinner ladies but librarians.

Tara Brabazon is professor of media studies, University of Brighton.

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