Don't ignore the library;Opinion

18th June 1999 at 01:00
Jane Johnstone asks if pupils are getting best value out of the book bonanza for primary schools

THE EFFECTS of the money provided by the Scottish Office for a "Book bonanza for Scottish schoolkids" towards the end of the last financial year should by now be reaching schools. Arrangements for selection and purchase of suitable books and support to help primary schools organise these resources effectively vary considerably between authorities.

In some areas, schools will receive their books catalogued, labelled and ticketed, recorded on a database compatible with existing systems in school, ready to go on the shelves for display and loan almost immediately.

In some schools there will be a team of people, possibly including parents, volunteers, teachers, auxiliary staff and pupils, headed by a member of the teaching staff, ready to prepare these books for the school library, display them effectively, make the information about them available to teachers and pupils and share their enthusiasm for this windfall with the whole school community.

Have these books been purchased to raise standards of literacy by encouraging pupils to become enthusiastic, self-motivated readers? We do need more books, a wider choice, selected from the extensive range of children's literature currently in print, to appeal to all our young people, to grab and sustain their interest, to engage them individually as lifelong readers and learners.

And to make best use of whatever books we have, we need to organise them effectively. The management of our primary school libraries should support the achievement of our aims and targets for literacy and should ensure pupils get best value from the book bonanza.

Lack of organisation limits pupils' access to books: it can give them the impression that there is nothing there for them and there is no point in looking any further. Teachers, too, can become disheartened by their own inability to find appropriate books, not just because of lack of funding for new books but because efficient systems for accessing them, and information about them, have either not been put in place or have not been effectively maintained.

The systems should work so well that teachers are enabled to express and share their own enthusiasm with confidence, and children are liberated from functional literacy to discover the lifelong pleasures and rewards of reading for themselves.

Primary schools have a unique opportunity to attract children to books, but commitment, direction and support are needed to bring a primary library truly alive, developing to meet the needs and interests of the pupils, integrating information and communications technology with other sources of information in a meaningful context, extending ownership to the whole school community, and perhaps, if circumstances and location allow, to a wider community to promote lifelong learning.

Not all local authorities have seen primary school library management needs as priorities. Not all schools have been able to take on the task of organising their resources effectively. School library support services for primary schools, if provided at all, whether by education departments alone or in conjunction with the public library service, have in general been low profile, underfunded and unappreciated.

Those lucky few with sufficient budget and staffing to develop services have done so efficiently, effectively . . . and quietly. It is enough that their own schools know about their services; they have remained unsung, and largely unacknowledged farther afield. Even in this National Year of Reading they have worked, as for many years now, under the threat of cuts, regrading and restructuring imposed by distant managers who may seem incapable of understanding the value this small group of specialists can add to the investments in books and ICT now being made for schools.

If all those who know the value of the service from their own experience present the proof, articulate the arguments and spread the word, then we can dare to hope that the publication of Standards for School Library Services by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Audit Unit's performance indicators will inform and inspire the Scottish Parliament to make these services statutory in order to ensure that the Government's commitment to increased funding for books and ICT is linked to the means of getting best value.

Jane Johnstone, a chartered librarian and registered teacher with more than 20 years of experience in Scottish schools and resource services, is a freelance library consultant campaigning for primary schools to bring their libraries to life during the National Year of Reading.

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