Don't overlook the library

Children have vivid imaginations and there is nothing like reading and becoming aware of other people, worlds and circumstances. Vivienne Durham explains why the school library should be at the heart of every good school.

Photo: iStock.com/Martin Barraud
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I've always thought that the school library lies at the heart of a good school. Libraries empower and educate. Children have vivid imaginations and there is nothing like reading and becoming aware of other people, worlds and circumstances – real or fictional – to fire young imaginations and enable children to dream. For it's in such dreams and imaginings that the seeds of learning, inspiration and indeed aspiration are able to grow and take root.

Interestingly, there is no legal requirement for schools in England and Wales to have a library, though many do. For those unfortunate enough to be without one, it is often the case that the teachers and other staff who work hard to bring the joy of reading, independent enquiry and research to their pupils – despite the lack of a physical hub or ready access to resources – are without doubt some of the unsung heroes of the education profession. Thankfully, like most other independent schools, GSA schools give libraries a high priority and are fortunate that they are able reflect the cost of such important educational facilities in their fee-charging structure.

The role of a school librarian is more influential than I'm sure most parents are aware and I always advise parents to make sure they visit the school library when viewing prospective schools. A good librarian is at the heart of a school's literacy programme, supporting children who may need extra help as well as providing extension resources for those who will benefit from extra challenge.

Today's librarians are digital ninjas, curating not only books and periodicals but also pathways to online resources such as websites, online magazines and research journals, digitised books, audio and video material as well as a plethora of educational apps. They are often intimately acquainted with the syllabus content of each subject their school teaches across the various age groups, involved in providing relevant resources and creating helpful and inspiring materials. Not only do they find such materials, it's not unusual for librarians to create intricately-linked online pathways through them, so that pupils in each year group can access and research the most useful information.

Pupils whose school has a library will almost certainly experience regular library time where they have special lessons to learn how to navigate the indexing system, how to access and make the most of periodicals and online journals, and how to use the internet effectively. This is where they will learn what plagiarism is and how to avoid accidentally doing it. These are the kinds of skills that enable students to become independent, high-achieving learners, and they are skills that they can use long after leaving school, whether at home or in their university or local public library.

"Today's librarians are digital ninjas, curating not only books and periodicals but also pathways to online resources."

I would argue that school libraries are essential to a good learning experience. Yet what excites me even more about them is their added ability to provide children with extra intellectual fun and exploration beyond normal classroom time. Libraries engage young people in the delights of literacy through a whole range of activities: book clubs, creative writing clubs, visits by authors and poets, what-are-you-reading-this-week initiatives, Harry Potter sleepovers, Mad Hatter tea parties and much, much more. These are just some of the brilliant things that happen in and because of libraries and the hugely talented and dedicated people who run them.

Then there is the opportunity that the school library provides for quiet time to read, study or simply reflect. This is not to be underestimated. Schools are busy places and even the most orderly of them can be noisy as children move around and enjoy recreational time. A library can provide a safe, quiet environment with its flexible spaces for study and silent reading and seating areas. If the hubbub of lunchtime becomes too much, it may well be the library to which your child turns for a few moments of peace and quiet as well as to enjoy a gripping new story that has absolutely nothing to do with lessons or homework and everything to do with who they are as an individual and how their young mind and imagination is fired by stories and the sheer pleasure of reading.

School libraries are places of expansion rather than restriction. The old stereotype of the librarian who tuts and glowers couldn't be further from the truth (although I admit a little helpful shushing might well take place). Remarkable learning can happen when children are able to browse and select their own reading material, as is exemplified by this story told to us by one GSA librarian, Lucy Ivison: 'A girl in Year 8 walked up to me with a book about the Holocaust. She showed me a page and just asked: 'Is this real?' I sat with her while she processed that it was. For all the unadulterated joy that reading for pleasure brings, it can bring something much more powerful too – the desire to understand the world, and the desire to be part of changing it.'

This is the magic of a good school library – the ability to be a hub of industrious learning, an oasis of calm, a place of great fun, as well as one of potentially life-changing insight. Long may school libraries continue to delight, engage, support and inspire our children.

Vivienne Durham Photo

Vivienne Durham is Chief Executive of the Girls' Schools Association.

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