Friday, 2 August 2013


Paula Rawsthorne discusses the value of school libraries which seem increasingly under siege.

 I’ve heard a great many secondary school students say that they never, voluntarily, read a book because studying literature in lessons has made them feel that reading is work.  I know that talented English teachers do their utmost to enthuse their pupils in lessons.  However, sometimes the tedium of having to go over and over a text, picking it apart in anticipation of exam questions, can destroy the enjoyment of even the most brilliant book and kill off the urge to read at all.

 Often schools need to reignite (or ignite) the desire to read for pure pleasure.  It’s liberating to pick up a book, safe in the knowledge that you won’t be tested on it.  It’s great to become engrossed in a story whose themes and characters may well hold meaning for you, but you have the luxury of deciding whether you want to explore them, or just finish it and think, “I really enjoyed that.”

I believe that school libraries play a vital role in enabling students to discover, and get into the habit of, reading for pleasure.  An enjoyable aspect of my job, as an author for Young Adults, is visiting secondary schools to run workshops and to talk about reading, writing and my novels.  As well as meeting hundreds of students, I get to meet a lot of school librarians and see their libraries.  The librarians I’ve met have come across as dedicated and hard- working and they want to do everything within their power to engage the pupils in reading  (hence, they have gone to the trouble of organising the author visit)

But during my travels I’ve noticed how varied school libraries can be and their quality seems to be highly influenced by the head teacher’s perspective and priorities.  In some schools it’s obvious that the libraries are being colonised by ‘ICT suites’.  Ironically books aren’t the focus of some school libraries and this is often (but not always) signposted by the change of name to ‘Learning Resource Centre’.

Sometimes, when I enter a school library, computers are the first thing I see.  The computers dominate the room whilst the books lurk around the edges or are demoted to a corner.  I understand that it must be very tempting for some heads to invest in ICT suites at the expense of the school library.  Maybe they believe that books are redundant now that you can access anything and everything on the Internet. However, I believe Hschool libraries are essential and that the Internet is no substitute for books. Schools without libraries are not helping their students to become discerning, independent learners.

The 2011 Ofsted report ‘Removing Barriers to Literacy’ recognised that school libraries ‘contribute markedly to inspiring literacy skills.’  It stated that the enthusiasm and responsiveness of the librarians generally had a direct impact on the attitudes of the students towards the library and reading.

The school library offers the opportunity to open up the world of books and reading for pleasure, especially for students who’ve never had books at home and aren’t of the mind-set to use their community library.  Some school libraries I visit are inviting spaces, bright with comfy seats, quiet areas for study and well stocked, with a variety of the latest YA fiction as well as classics, non-fiction, magazines, newspapers and journals.  It’s possible to make the libraries attractive to even the ‘too cool for school’ kids.  An enthusiastic, knowledgeable librarian is able to open up the world of reading  by spending time finding out what kind of story interests even the most reluctant of readers.  I find it’s useful to chat about what films/t.v  reluctant readers are into and then suggest a book in the same genre.

I’ve seen schemes that encourage ‘pupil librarians’ who learn to use the computer system, how to stock the shelves and recommend books to their peers.  In some schools, library lessons are timetabled so that pupils can learn how to use a library and develop their information literacy, aided by the librarians.  These lessons help to increase independent learning skills and teach students to be more selective about information they use instead of just picking the first article they find on a search engine.

Many librarians set up school book groups and it’s always a pleasure to talk to them.  These groups have an enthusiastic, welcoming atmosphere and the students appreciate having the autonomy to choose and debate books that appeal to them. These librarians are doing any invaluable job.

 But I’ve also been in schools that have ‘got rid’ of their library (and hence their librarian) to make way for an ICT suite and so have redirected library resource money into buying computers.  One school told me that the Head saw that only a few pupils used the library anyway, but surely that Head should have been asking why this was the case and at what they could do about it.  Shouldn’t they have been proactive, raising the profile of their library and the status of reading for pleasure; making the school library an inviting place to spend time, getting authors in to enthuse pupils about reading, investing in the latest books that will appeal to teenagers, instead of running the library down into a forgotten wasteland?

I’ve been in schools were the librarians have felt undervalued by staff and management.  I’ve been in schools where over-stretched English departments have no time or interest in working with their school librarians to create a buzz about reading.  They are so confined by the curriculum that they only focus on getting students through exams, rather than the wider value of cultivating a love of reading for pleasure.  Whilst this is understandable it is unhelpful; not every pupil is going to get excited about Shakespeare!  Research keeps showing that students who enjoy reading do better in their studies.  
There are many dynamic school librarians out there and they and their libraries need to be valued and given the status and resources they deserve.   

It’s required by law to have libraries in prison, but it’s not in schools.  What message is this giving to our head teachers as they measure up the school library to change into an ICT suite?

What are your thoughts and experiences of school libraries?

Paula Rawsthorne is the author of the award winning The Truth About Celia Frost. Her new novel Blood Tracks is out now. “Blood Tracks confirms Paula Rawsthorne as one of the U.K’s best young adult authors.” (The Lancaster Guardian)


  1. I am a secondary school librarian and I welcome your article. Last year our school moved into a brand new building and I am fortunate that the Head and SLT share my vision of the importance of a school library with a full-time librarian and library assistants. We designed it as a library – a book based environment with a limited number of pcs. There are plenty of ICT facilities in other areas of the school. It is a beautiful space, with tranquil areas for reading, lots of great fiction stock for all levels and boasts a great view over London.It is a popular space despite being on the top floor, and we have several keen student helpers.

    We frequently invite authors in and have recently started a programme of visits called ‘Becoming a writer’ which are held once every half term in which writers and illustrators are invited to run a workshop in the library and talk about their experience.
    There are lots of keen readers at my school and my favourite part of the job is finding ways to encourage young people to pick up a book. Reading groups, competitions, and author talks all play an important role in this.

  2. A school library should surely be a must in every school and not need it set in law, but sadly unless it is, I think more and more school libraries will disappear - or gradually complete the transformation into ICT rooms, as if school librarians didn't already have an uphill task.