Libraries deserve the best

8th September 2000 at 01:00
Keep the experts, says Kath Kilburn

Time and expertise don't come much cheaper than free, and knowing the perilous financial state of many a primary school, I've been happy to volunteer the odd hour or two a week to improving the organisation of the library at my children's school.

With my modest re-classifying project now into its third year, I've realised just how much input is needed to ensure pupils can make the most of the resources the library now holds - not to mention the extra effort required should we ever add suitable electronic sources or manage to buy appropriate cataloguing and circulation systems.

With this in mind, I've been increasingly dismayed by the continued attempts of, not only primary schools, but also many secondary schools, to harness their library's potential without the aid of a qualified librarian. As the Library Association puts it: "There's only one person qualified to manage your school library - the chartered librarian."

Librarianship qualifications are, by and large, equivalent to those required of a teacher - first degree (in anything), plus a postgraduate diploma in librarianshipinformation science, or a first degree in librarianship. Following qualification, there is a period of experience-gathering and report-writing to gain the entitlement to use the letters ALA (Associate of the Library Association), at which stage you are, finally, a chartered librarian.

And why does your school need one of these chartered librarians? Well, for a start, do you or your colleagues have the time to manage the library to a suitable standard? We'll assume not. Many teachers, on top of lesson planning and marking, provide extra-curricular activities for their students. Where does the library appear in any teacher's list of priorities?

And do you have the skills to identify, collate, catalogue, classify and exploit materials for students and staff? Could you keep abreast of current issues and developments in library matters? Would you be able to ensure co-ordination between departments, liaise with colleagues, supervise the library environment and offer tailored study skills training to students?

Would you be able to support students in information retrieval techniques across the whole spectrum of formats - books, periodicals, abstracts, indexes, the Internet, CD-Roms, and so on? Would you know where to find or how to present information required by governos and managers?

The qualified librarian is trained to do all these things - and has the advantage of a truly cross-curricular approach. Many teachers have excellent knowledge of resources within their own subject, but the librarian is capable of an objective view, ensuring an even spread of provision.

Almost as alarming as the reluctance to appoint librarians are the apparently cynical attempts to appoint "library assistants" who are nevertheless expected to fulfil a librarian's role. Teachers' own complaints about low pay do not stop schools from attempting to appoint similarly qualified people, full-time, on salaries starting at pound;8,000 a year. (The Library Association recommends a school librarian's basic grade salary should be in the region of pound;18,500-pound;21,500.) Too many schools do not wish to examine closely the difference between a library assistant (stamps books, shelves books) and a librarian (deals with information enquiries, chooses and exploits materials, has management responsibilities).

It's worth remembering also that many who choose to work as librarians in academic institutions are also qualified teachers.

FE and HE students are increasingly expected to take responsibility for their own learning rather than passively soaking up facts. As a result, some students, lacking guidance from qualified and experienced personnel, are arriving at university unable to use even the simplest resources without help.

Some institutions do appreciate the part a chartered librarian can play - it was heartening to see in a recent Library Association supplement two ads for school librarians on reasonable rates of pay, one of which specified head of department status.

But a secondary teacher friend who also takes responsibility for his school's library told me he'd be delighted to have a qualified librarian run the library, but that he would resist strongly any attempt to take from him the enhancement in pay he enjoys for his part in running it. Maybe this isn't a typical remark, but while similar attitudes persist, secondary school pupils will be deprived of qualified library help, and teachers will continue to have one more duty to perform which encroaches on teaching and preparation time.

Surely it's time for more knowledge, understanding and mutual respect? Let's work together - but be prepared to pay.

Kath Kilburn is a librarian at the University of Huddersfield

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