We didn’t have a school library at my junior school. We had teachers who read to us (Stig of the Dump, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe being two books I vividly remember) but actual books that I could take home to read came from across the road at Garforth Library. We’re not talking about anything grand here – Garforth Library was a long rectangular room within the drab and functional Council Offices; Carnegie- inspired it was not, yet its small children’s section in the corner was enough to keep me going and turn me into a reader for the rest of my life. Enid Blyton, Arthur Ransome, Frances Hodgson Burnett (we’re talking the early 1960s here) kept me riveted throughout my junior school years. When I was 11, we moved away and I lost that special connection with that particular library but I never lost the memory of visiting it, of choosing books by myself and for myself, of discovering new authors and of the sheer joy of handing over my little beige library tickets to the librarian so that she could stamp out my books.
But what if my school hadn’t had a public library across the road? What then? Where would I have found my books ? There was no bookshop in Garforth and even if there had been my parents couldn’t have bought me one a week, let alone the six I was allowed to borrow from the library – they simply didn’t have the income. There were no charity shops back then full of second hand books either, and jumble sales were full of real jumble – mainly old bobbly cardigans and bric-a-brac. So I don’t know what I would have done to feed my reading habit. True, there were comics. Comics were cheap and cheerful and we used to have bundles of Victors, Beanos and Dandys passed down to us from our cousins in Leeds. But comics could only take my imagination so far. I preferred the printed page full of text so that I could insert my own images of what the characters looked like and conjure up my own pictures of the landscapes in which the heroes fought dragons and thwarted witches. So, while I’m eternally grateful to my teachers for reading stories to me, and to comics for entertaining me, it was a public library that led me to becoming an independent reader.
Forward fifty years. What’s different now? Although there’s still no bookshop (it had one for about 20 years until recently but it’s now closed) there’s a new ‘library’ at the bottom of Lidgett Lane not far from the original. Sadly, it’s not called a library but a ‘One Stop Centre’ (Link: Garforth One Stop Centre) which makes it sound more like a bus station than a library but I have been inside and it does still have the look and feel of a library and is still run by the council. I hope it is staffed by librarians rather than being purely volunteer-run but I’d need to check that.
What I presume is that, unlike my junior school, each of the 5 primary schools in Garforth today has a school library. I don’t know if they have, though. You’d think I’d be able to put ‘and each school has its own library’ automatically but I can’t. School libraries are not mandatory in the UK’s state schools. I find that odd. How can a library not be part of an educational establishment? It’s like having a restaurant without a kitchen or a car without an engine or a football match without a football. Every primary and secondary school should have a proper library, right? Especially when public libraries are closing on an unprecedented scale.
That’s why I’m totally behind the #GreatSchoolLibraries campaign being promoted by library campaigners such as Dawn Finch . Not only do we need school libraries we need GREAT school libraries. Anyone asking why can download this pdf from the Literacy Trust on how important they are.
To be fair, most schools do have school libraries but a lot don’t meet my definition of a library. A bookcase in a corner full of dictionaries with one row of tatty paperbacks is not a library. A library area kids can’t access because it’s used for teachers’ meetings/ counselling/ drama rehearsals etc is not a library. A ‘library’ left to its own devices because it doesn’t have a librarian or even a parent volunteer in charge of it, is not a library, it’s a room full of messy books or, as I like to call it, a crime scene.
And don’t even get me started on schools that have opted out of their local Schools Library Service because ‘it’s too expensive.’ Is it? Is it really? Aren’t these schools concerned about raising attainment levels at all? Money is tight, I know, but the main job of a school is to educate. How can you educate without up-to-date books? How can you foster reading for pleasure if the books are so old they’ve got ‘Long Live Queen Victoria’ bookplates inside? And don’t say ‘Google’ because, for a start, pupils need to search for information without the distraction of 500 pop-ups per page.
The trouble is, once too many schools opt out, the schools library service becomes underused and then dismantled. The newest region to lose this vital resource is Derbyshire. That means goodbye age appropriate topic books for your next project, Derbyshire pupils and students, goodbye experienced librarians helping schools set up an effective lending system with a wide variety of stock, Derbyshire teachers. It also means no more free school events such as visits from amazing authors. Nooooooooooooooooo!
What’s ridiculous is that if this trend continues, children, especially those from low income families like mine, will have less opportunity to read real books than I did half a century ago. That’s plainly wrong. How can we stop the rot? By getting behind the #GreatSchoolLibraries campaign. By shouting about the good service that still exists up and down the country. By convincing schools that they need a librarian, not a leaflet from companies selling pile-’em-high books at a quid each, to help choose new stock. Let’s make sure this generation – and the next – are given chance to meet books face-to-face and make friends for life.