How to save libraries from the e-predators

In struggling to keep pace with technology's whizz-bang novelty, we fail to draw proper attention to the blessings of a good book

Claire Fox

I recently spoke at Enquiring Minds, the biennial conference of the estimable School Libraries Group. For me, school librarians are the unsung heroes of education, responsible for countless children developing a love of reading for pleasure.

Despite the general vibrancy of the gathering, it had an anxious atmosphere; librarians feel unloved. Like their colleagues outside schools, their future is shaky, threatened by budgetary cuts and eyed up by philistine, space-hungry headteachers.

Financial constraints are only one problem. The spectre at the feast is a rather lazy orthodoxy: that children are too busy instant messaging and playing computer games to get stuck in to books. Additionally, in a world of Kindles and free downloads, do we really need physical places to house books?

Terry Deary, author of the Horrible Histories series - a favourite among pupils - controversially declared in November that giving out e-readers would be a "hell of a lot cheaper" than keeping libraries "open at all costs". He was roundly denounced by fellow authors such as Alan Gibbons, who called his views "downright irresponsible". But ironically, Deary's demand that, "If libraries want to survive.they've got to be part of the electronic age" is not far removed from what librarians themselves seem to believe.

This is not to rehash the tired argument about electronic versus physical print. It seems largely immaterial whether children pick up great literature or reference books on Kindles or off library shelves. The decision by prestigious private school Wellington College to replace half of its library's 20,000 books with state-of-the-art touchscreen technology may perhaps be going too far. But having the world's classics freely available on iPads seems a modern miracle of technology.

Neither should we feed the panic that led the ATL teaching union to warn at its recent conference that children are "addicted" to iPads and iPhones and unable to complete traditional exams because their memories have been destroyed by overexposure to technology.

But although we should avoid iPad-phobia, I am unimpressed by how defensive many school librarians are being in response to the digital challenge. Before blaming Deary or school management or digital culture for sidelining books, they need to look to themselves and clarify what libraries are actually for.

The main focus of any library must be books. If once that might have been stating the obvious, today such a view is shrugged off as hopelessly old-fashioned. Take a recent panel debate, which asked: "Can reading win the war against Angry Birds?" or the TES article concluding that "teachers can't compete with addictive video games, but they can use the same principles to make their lessons just as gripping".

If librarians - who should be the guardians of a literary culture - believe that books need to be sexed-up to stand a chance against Call of Duty or Super Mario Bros., surely the war is already lost? This approach implicitly accepts that there's little special about the unique pleasures of reading; it is just one of the forms of entertainment vying for young people's attention.

There is surprisingly little discussion about improving the quality and range of a school's book stock but endless excited chatter about e-resources. It is depressing to hear erstwhile bibliophiles discuss in awe newfangled digital outpourings. Forget that these artefacts often encourage readers to watch, to play, to be distracted - anything rather than read.

Hence we have the To Be Or Not To Be app, where "readers" navigate a choose-your-own-adventure version of Hamlet. One enthusiastic reviewer explained: "Maybe read the story first in the role of Ophelia and then Hamlet senior.excellent entertainment". But before getting excited about the supposed novelty of being able to put yourself in the protagonists' shoes, might we not ask, isn't that precisely what literature does so sublimely already? Does it really need improving with an app?

The tyranny of interactivity

The role of libraries as special places to discover books in an atmosphere conducive to reading is also under threat. Instead, the trend is for libraries to transform themselves into immersive social activity centres. The rebranded "discovery hubs" buzz with activity: web-surfing, book clubs, reading events - all intent on "including" and "engaging".

It's as though libraries are seeking to ape the busy, interactive experiences of new technologies. It has become almost impossible to find a quiet area to be serious, studious - and, yes, to read. But isn't a library's raison d'tre to provide a protected, hushed world free from distractions? A place where pupils are free to lose themselves in a book, surrounded by the silence that is rarely found in the playground or classroom - or, indeed, anywhere else in an age of myriad digital diversions.

The biggest mistake from certain sections of the School Libraries Group is to demand that England's education secretary Michael Gove makes school libraries statutory to guarantee their future. Cinderella librarians are desperate to have their roles formally recognised; they must be the only school professionals who want to be inspected by Ofsted.

This panicky plea to have their worth weighed and measured also means that librarians tend to justify themselves using the language of utility. They boast that they're crucial to delivering curriculum outcomes, offer to monitor pupils' library usage and formally assess reading attainments. They claim that their ICT expertise makes them best-placed to equip pupils with the skills necessary "to be successful in our increasingly information-driven, technology-powered world". Yet one of the virtues of libraries is precisely that they are free from the bureaucratic target culture found elsewhere in schools.

Happily, a healthy minority is keen to resist these moves, aware that it is today's test-focused schools that have fostered this attitude towards books and the attendant decline in reading for pleasure. Textbooks are often reduced to answer books for exams, while fact sheets, websites and even gobbets from novels are deemed sufficient to produce the desired outcomes.

In such a dispiriting educational context it is the freedom from such narrow prescriptions that makes the school library indispensable. This is a special place where pupils can be encouraged by those who should not be ashamed to admit that they love books. Those who can point them in the right direction, to indulge in reading whatever takes their fancy without being vetted, assessed or labelled academically. If librarians keep the faith, I suspect Mario won't stand a chance.

Claire Fox is director of the Institute of Ideas

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