Learn to love a library lock-in

30th March 2001 at 01:00
In your local branch you will find the perfect role models to encourage reading, says Michael Thorn

For those with a home computer and a modem, there may seem little need to step out of the door to do research. Information is available at the click of a button. Young teachers are accustomed to the generous dimensions and long opening hours of the big chain booksellers. An oversupply of books has meant titles less than a year old turn up in remainder shops for a fraction of their cover price, often making a hardback cost less than the paperback. You may never have felt the need to use the public library on a regular basis. Why should you encourage pupils to make use of what might seem a redundant service?

When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, public libraries were exciting places. Bookshops were poky. There was no information superhighway. Few households owned more than a single shelf of books. My mother thought books looked untidy. She kept her Penguin Crime novels in a glass-fronted cabinet, with an interior curtain drawn across. By contrast, libraries were well-stocked, and responsive to reader reservations and requests. Better still, they didn't keep their goodies under wraps. Only in a public library did you see bay after bay, row after row of tightly packed bookshelves. A visit to the library was a thrill.

Public libraries are no longer the unique providers of that frisson of pleasure bibliophiles feel at seeing so many books massed together. So what inducements can teachers muster to encourage students to use a library card?

The most compelling argument for using a public library is that it puts young people into an environment where adults and children share an interest in reading. There's a lot of guff guffed about "encouraging role models", but what better example could there be than watching adults select and borrow titles? That is why I'm not keen on public libraries with independent children's departments.

Teachers who do not live near their school are well advised to make occasional visits to the school's local public library. There they can make friendly contact with the librarian for the children's section, take advantage of chance meetings with parents and get to now the library's stock. The increasingly short shelf-life of new books makes libraries the best source for older ones. Libraries starved of funds no longer buy as many new titles, but are invaluable for out of print books. That elusive title on the backlist of a favourite author could well be on the local library shelf, or obtainable from another branch. Most libraries now have videos and CDs to borrow, and online facilities. As a way of "selling" public libraries, especially to older students, it is worth emphasising the range of newspapers and magazines stocked by the larger libraries, including back issues.

Many readers at key stage 3 and beyond - particularly boys, it seems - reject the teenage and young adult material on offer from children's publishers, and jump straight to adult books. Secondary school libraries have started to take this on board, and are beginning to stock books by Bill Bryson and the like. The public library, of course, can offer a far wider range.

Tell students how important libraries have been for notable authors. Gary Paulsen attributes his life as a writer to the encouragement of a public librarian. Robert Cormier was so in love with libraries that he visited several daily, even on holiday, until he died last year. However much you "talk up" the local public library, nothing can beat a class or group visit. If these don't occur in your school, the schools library service should be able to help arrange one.

I recently spent the first morning of half-term in my school's local library with a group of children and parents. Many were already members of the library. Others were able to join on the day. The visit concluded a series of Reading Together sessions in school, and its purpose was to ensure a continuing interest in and access to books. As an added bonus, the children were given first grab at a box of newly-arrived titles.

We had been given privileged access on a day when the library was normally closed. Some other families saw the lights on and tried the door. But we were firmly and exclusively locked inside, a fact that the children seemed especially to savour.

Michael Thorn is deputy head of Hawkes Farm primary school, Hailsham, East Sussex

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