The mystery of shrinking school libraries

My friend has just retired from her teacher librarian position at a local primary school in a disadvantaged area in Sydney. I don't think the school has plans to replace her. Last year the library was culled mercilessly of books which were then shrunk into an area fractionally bigger than the teacher librarian's knocked-down office. The library space was given an 'Apple Store' makeover, adorned with gleaming white desks, complete with kiosk style stools and benches. The contrast is stark.

I fear this will become a metaphor for the student's minds, blank spaces devoid of the knowledge, understanding and wisdom that comes from books. The shame is, it's not just this school.

How has it come to this?

It's not rocket science to realise that properly staffed school libraries contribute to improved educational outcomes, and that falling literacy rates in our schools goes hand in hand with shrinking school libraries. There's a link at the bottom to an article that explores this, citing A QUT study that identifies a direct correlation.

 Reading for pleasure has been shown to have a plethora of individual and social benefits, like stress reduction, confidence, self-esteem, sense of connection, increased empathy and imagination, as well as being the more important indicator of child's future success than socio-economic status. As an author, this news brings me much joy! So why would we shrink access to these things for any student, let alone the most vulnerable? Do we really want to impede these student's ability to imagine a better future? Do we?

I've heard anecdotes of school libraries without teacher librarians. Borrowing rates plummet as students have little encouragement to read and no help to extend what they are reading, and with no one to curate the collection, the system becomes a mess of misplaced books.

Teacher librarians are experts at knowing how to engage children in reading: whether it be personal knowledge of the students and of literature, or big-ticket items like author visits, which are known to boost the interest of children in borrowing books and reading, as are activities to engage children in Book Week.

Of course, encouraging children to read for pleasure is only a fraction of what a good teacher librarian does. They are also experts at teaching students digital literacy and research skills, essential for this age of information explosion. And yes, class teachers can find books that teach to the curriculum, however, how much more resourced would they be having access to a teacher librarian with an expert knowledge of the best and the most current books and resources to teach to a topic?

And what of intangibles? From my time as a social worker working in similar areas of disadvantage, I know that a disproportionate number of these children are haunted by things like poverty, problematic substance abuse and incarceration within their families. By shrinking school libraries, we deny these children access to the refuge that can come from the within the pages of a book, where they might find someone just like them, a good friend, or a place to escape from the harsh realities of life.

Or what about the safe haven at lunchtime for the child who's overwhelmed in playground settings, or just wants someone to sit with when life is overwhelming? Or those who get valuable work and life experience taking on the responsibility of being a library helper? What of these children?

Like a good picture book, a school library is more than the sum of its parts: it's a dynamic interplay of books and people, experiences and possibilities. When we shrink school libraries, we don't just take away books and teacher librarians, we shrink hope.

How can we deny students, and by extension, our society, this?

It really is a mystery to me.

Debra Tidball

More about the author

Debra Tidball is an award-winning children's author of picture books and short stories. A social worker who morphed into an author, Debra has an MA in Children’s Literature and is a zealous supporter of book creators in Australia. She reviews books on Sydney radio 103.2, and blogs regularly for Just Write For Kids and on her own website, www.debratidball.com.

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