Yesterday I was lucky enough to be asked to officially open the library (or Learning Resource Centre to give it its proper title) at Lambeth Academy in Clapham – the school where I am writer in residence. Look at it this way, I’d have been upset had they asked someone else. As part of the gathering I was asked to come up with a speech. Many, many authors have spoken out against library closures, but this was the first time I’d given the subject serious thought and I was surprised at how strongly I felt – especially about the need for a library in every school.
In the Internet age, non-fiction books are no longer a classroom essential. I have seen the future, readers, and it is every child with a tablet on their desk. Many classrooms also have a ‘book corner’ where pupils have access to dogeared copies of book 2 and 3 of a trilogy, book 1 having long since failed to emerge from under a pupil’s bed. It’s this kind of logic that has seen many schools dispose of the traditional library and librarian set up.
But this is WRONG. Wrong-diddly-wrong-wrong-wrong. First the basics. Number one: the Internet is a swamp of contradictory shit, advertising, and ‘ask anything’ forums with spectacularly misleading information. Much fiction is dressed up as fact. Teachers (remember I was one for eight years) spend half their time teaching pupils how to find reliable sources online (which, to be fair, is a vital life skill), but providing them with quality non-fiction books would have probably taught them more about the subject they were researching. Number two: librarians are experts. I also know I was a freak in that I was a busy teacher who ALSO had a bang-up-to-date knowledge of YA fiction. This is rare. Librarians ensure that libraries have the latest, most important, most attractive and most relevant new books. They’re ahead of the game. They can also spend time ensuring books aren’t lost or damaged – something teachers do NOT have time for in their ‘book corners’. Librarians are also responsible for budgeting and ordering new books, another job teachers don’t need. Perhaps more importantly, teachers will always push To Kill A Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men (because they HAVE to) and kids tend to stick to what they know (Wimpy Kid on repeat). Librarians are sooooooo vital to newish or debut authors because they are responsible for enticing pupils to new series or new authors. Thanks you guys!
But there’s an even more important reason for schools to have a library, something that really struck a chord for me when I was writing my speech. Libraries are SANCTUARIES. Bear with me. As has been widely recorded elsewhere, I had a shitty time at school. Even in the late *decade redacted*, schools were waking up to how widespread bullying was, but my school did little to protect students at, what I call, ‘vulnerable times': the shift change between lessons; break time; lunchtime and hometime. As a teacher, I now know that this is because the poor frazzled staff needed to eat their ham sandwich or dash to their next lesson via the photocopier queue. At the time though, I dreaded these transition periods.
That was where my school library came in. We had a lovely librarian called Mrs Lythe and she provided a safe space – an island of calm. For a start, a school library is ALWAYS monitored by the librarian, meaning potential bullying is quashed. Nothing too awful could happen in that building. Unlike the rest of the school, we were encouraged to sit on bean bags and lay around on the carpets. It was a misfits’ paradise. Those who weren’t fast enough, cool enough, tough enough all had somewhere to go. Although we weren’t strictly allowed to, Mrs Lythe turned a blind eye to us eating our sandwiches as long as we didn’t make a mess. We were safe. It was in that library that I made my friends for life – the people who went on to inspire the gang in Hollow Pike. The scene where Lis escapes from the school bully and heads for the safe haven of the library cushions was my tribute to that time.
Touring Hollow Pike around dozens of schools and libraries has shown me that nothing has changed. The outsider kids – the least confident, most vulnerable pupils STILL seek refuge in libraries. They often take on the role of ‘Student Librarian’, giving them a purpose and a reason to be away from the rest of the school. I have met dozens of nurturing librarians who are actively protecting such pupils. A quiet, safe place where nothing bad can happen. You don’t get that in a ‘book corner’.
Lambeth Academy even use their library for student counseling and intervention groups – recognising the dual role of that space. I would urge all schools to ensure that libraries remain. It isn’t about a book budget or the English budget – it’s as much about pupil welfare. No student is going to willingly go to a ‘Nurture Room’, but they need a library…y’know – for books – *wink*.