Don't worry about the children; it's teachers who should learn how to do research, says Louise Searl
Have you read any good books about coat hooks lately? No, I thought not. As a children's librarian I am assailed daily by requests for books to assist with homework. Usually the information requested is easily located. Recently, however, a child in Year 7 asked, for the second time, for books about coat hooks. Unfortunately, on her previous visit, she had failed to mention that the information was required for craft, design and technology (CDT), and a member of staff - not a trained children's librarian - had found a book on sewing, with reference to hooks and eyes. The pupil went back to school and told her teacher she could not find books about coat hooks. The teacher said she had not looked hard enough.
Apparently not put off by this unhelpful comment, she returned to the library. Although 99 per cent certain there were no such books in our library, I carried out a thorough search of material on CDT, do-it-yourself, carpentry and woodwork. Of course there was nothing specifically detailing coat hooks.
It will be surprising if that girl ever seeks help from the library again.
This episode bears out the sad fact that a surprising number of teachers do not use a public library regularly, and have little idea of what books contain. While it is unreasonable to expect teachers to be as familiar with books as librarians are, one might assume that any competent teacher would be fully aware of the books and other material available in his or her subject area, for the relevant age range.
Many teachers, however, have a touching faith that the library service has at its disposal multiple copies of books in which every subject they may happen to mention, not only those in the national curriculum, is simply explained, presumably to save them the bother of teaching their pupils themselves.
To a lay person it seems obvious that research on a subject should be done only after the basic information has been taught and explained - by the teacher. Further material can be discovered and added later, in order to fill in the gaps. Too often, children are asked to start from scratch on a subject about which they know nothing. Frequently they can neither pronounce nor spell the question to which they seek an answer. A fine old guessing game ensues.
Teachers are in schools to teach. Included should be lessons on the use of reference books, explaining alphabetical order; classification; indexes; and how to take notes. But, of course, many teachers cannot impart information skills, presumably because they lack them themselves. Not being regular borrowers or users, they still expect their pupils to master the skills, possibly by osmosis, when entering the library.
Obviously, the role of children's librarians is to help youngsters search for information; but because of the large numbers of young people seeking assistance at peak times, it is frequently expedient to find the facts for them, rather than show children how to search themselves.
Teachers place much value on illustrations in project work. Often pupils photocopy pictures from books, or draw an appropriate picture. Sometimes, however, they cut illustrations from library books and stick them in their homework. This appalling practice is becoming more common. What is truly amazing, however, is that teachers regularly fail to spot such blatant vandalism. Probably it is because of their unfamiliarity with books that they do not recognise or realise where all the coloured pictures come from.
In National Libraries Week, the teaching profession should resolve to become better acquainted with the public library service, one of our greatest national institutions. Goodness knows teachers need us.
Louise Searl is a children's librarian in the London borough of Redbridge. The views expressed here are her own