Scotland's librarians should be sent into poor communities to reduce the attainment gap that can emerge before children start school, according to a US libraries chief lauded for his work in tackling illiteracy.
Librarians should work closely with schools to drive up standards, said Patrick Losinski, citing the success of formal "homework help centres" and summer reading programmes designed to prevent children from poorer areas falling behind during school holidays.
His call comes after the Scottish Library and Information Council (Slic) has announced plans for a scheme to make every child in Scotland a library member.
Speaking at the Edge Conference in Edinburgh earlier this month, Mr Losinski - the chief executive of Columbus Metropolitan Library in Ohio - said libraries were traditionally "very middle-class institutions", meaning that "if you failed in school, that's not a place you necessarily feel comfortable".
Under a pioneering project he led in Columbus, the 15th-biggest city in the US, librarians were sent out in pairs to mix with people from poor communities in churches, homeless shelters and launderettes. They handed out books and library cards, as well as visiting 1,000 homes in the city each month to work with parents, "helping them to understand that they have to be their child's first teacher", Mr Losinski explained.
Homework centres have been set up in the city's libraries, complete with computers, textbooks and library staff who coordinate community volunteers to support children between 3.30pm and 7pm. Pupils who register say what they need help with and this information is then fed back to schools.
"[Libraries and schools] are both in the business of making sure that our kids succeed," Mr Losinski said, adding that the effectiveness of library-run education schemes depended on "forging a really close and tight bond with schools".
More than 90,000 children have joined a summer reading programme in Ohio, which has increased the number of young people in the state who are aiming to go to university, Mr Losinski told the conference, which was run by Edinburgh City Libraries. "That's the power of the library - to create that level of aspiration and awareness," he added.
Slic chief executive Amina Shah said libraries were "a free and accessible environment" in the heart of local communities, making them an "ideal space to support children and young people through their education". More children were using their local libraries as part of the UK-wide Summer Reading Challenge, she added - although, unlike the Ohio scheme, this was not specifically targeted at poorer communities.
Duncan Wright, a librarian at Stewart's Melville College in Edinburgh, said libraries could play an important part in helping certain groups of children to keep pace during the holidays.
But any increased role for public librarians should be in close partnership with their school-based equivalents, he added.
"The most important thing is that pupils have quality school libraries and school librarians," said Mr Wright, a board member of the School Library Association Scotland.
Greg Dempster, general secretary of the Association of Headteachers and Deputes in Scotland, said Mr Losinski's ideas seemed "urban-centric" and might not be suited to rural areas of Scotland. He was also concerned that the cost of training staff to work with children could be prohibitive.
"If there is additional resource available to promote literacy and parental involvement in education, then schools would seem to be the most natural home for that," Mr Dempster said.
TESS revealed last year that school libraries were being hit hard by local budget cuts ("Cuts take libraries `to the edge of the cliff' ", 28 November).
Ken Cunningham, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, said: "It is a shame that in these straitened times we see a significant reduction in qualified, skilled librarians in schools."
Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS teaching union and a former English teacher, said that many school librarians were already involved in supporting parents, and local libraries often had good links with schools.
"It would be for librarians and their representatives to decide the appropriate parameters for new developments, but children would clearly benefit from a coherent approach to tackling the impact of poverty on literacy standards," he added.