It’s Not About Shelving The Books and Keeping Kids Quiet

This post was originally published on Nick Earls' blog on 21/09/2015.

Some schools no longer have teacher-librarians and, the more I see of teacher-librarians, the less sense that makes to me. What’s next? No teachers? Kids turning up to the classroom each morning and inventing the day ahead? Maybe there’s a note on the door about what the curriculum has in mind, maybe there isn’t …

Each time I’m told that a school no longer has a teacher-librarian, I’m told that the school still has a library, as though the building does the job all by itself. I imagine, as usual, classroom teachers are expected to take up the slack and add the library to their already overcrowded list of duties. And kids are taught how to check books out, as if they’ve suddenly been up-skilled, and as if that’s what it is that teacher-librarians do (along with putting them back in the right place, and stopping things getting too noisy).

Some news for schools thinking of going librarian-free: having some books on shelves in the school’s second-biggest building – along with a chillout zone with half a dozen lunch-stained beanbags – does little for your students lives without a well-trained passionate human or two in there to wake the place up and get the most out of it.

Some advice to anyone running school budgets anywhere: CUT THE TEACHER-LIBRARIANS LAST. Cut other things and give the T/Ls more money. Cut other things and hire more of them. Sell as many lamingtons as you need to to keep them. Because I’ve seen what they do. I’ve seen it plenty of times, but let me name a couple of recent schools that brought the importance of teacher-librarians home to me: St Eugene College, Burpengary and Emmaus College, Jimboomba (two places almost an hour’s drive from Brisbane’s CBD, in opposite directions).

The librarians in these schools worked in different ways, but in each place there was a passion to create a reading culture, and a whole lot of imagination applied to ways of doing that. Why does that matter? Okay, so I like books, and I like the idea of promoting reading, but that’s about 5% of it. Promoting reading does far far more than that.

Promoting reading promotes literacy and prepares students for life. Promoting reading promotes questioning, exploring and thinking. Reading broadens a student’s view of the world, knowledge of it and understanding of it. Reading can dramatically increase a student’s options for the future. Reading can help erase disadvantage and create advantage. Reading can increase understanding and empathy. Time Magazine recently headed an article Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer because there’s evidence it can and it does.

Teacher-librarians know that reading (deep reading, the reading of books, whether e or p) can change lives significantly for the better and that’s why, despite us almost always underpaying and overworking them, they keep coming back. And they do change lives. They see it and I’ve seen it.

I’ve seen the alternative too. I’m not saying every school without a dedicated teacher-librarian is automatically diminishing its students prospects, but I’ve been to schools with human-free libraries. One of the more demoralising comes readily to mind, with its half-empty shelves of books from the 60s and 70s (by which I mean not reprints of books from then, but actual books from then, with cinnamon-coloured pages and more dog ears than a puppy farm – books that, if offered as a donation at my local Lifeline bookstore, would be met with a ‘thanks, but no thanks’). The only decoration was a saggy inflatable solar system mobile hanging from the ceiling, planets out of order, Pluto at the margins, still holding on. I’ve spoken in that library with the shelves pushed back, to a cluster of blank-faced kids who had never had the chance to learn how to be an audience, who had never really connected with the idea that books had authors, who had mostly learned to be quiet but perhaps not to listen, who couldn’t think of a question to ask or answer a question asked of them, who didn’t seem to have have been given the tools to play a word game or solve a puzzle.

‘We don’t have a librarian, but they check their own books out,’ I’ve been told. Do they? Really? And what do they do with them then? No one’s morale is high in a room like that, and mine’s around boot-level when I leave, nonetheless determined to go back if the chance arises. Not that sporadic author visits can fix much at all. Put a dedicated teacher-librarian into that building though, and the prospects are very different.

Someone there every day, dedicated to books and reading and bringing skills, imagination, energy and passion, can stop books being a blank, an uninteresting mystery or a chore, and start turning them into access points to stories, entertainment, facts, ideas and a wider world. Not every day will be easy or see great progress and not every child will be won over, but any child who is has his or her life changed for the better. And that is a very very big achievement. We lose something every time we underestimate it.

Nick Earls

Author Nick Earl

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