The plight of school libraries has hit the headlines in recent weeks. Labour’s education spokesman, Iain Gray, criticised the government for creating a fund to improve library services while at the same time failing to address the ever-diminishing number of secondary school librarians (see graphic, below).
Meanwhile, demand for the fund, which was launched last September promising £1 million over three years, is far outstripping supply, according to one daily newspaper report – with £600,000 worth of applications made for a £100,000 pot of cash.
Duncan Wright, the school librarian who has spearheaded the campaign in Scotland to save school libraries, is clear about what he wants: a school library run by a qualified librarian in every school.
That is what Wright, who is now also the chair of the professional body that represents school librarians, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland (CILIPS), has been campaigning for since 2015 when he presented the Save Scotland’s School Libraries petition to the Scottish Parliament.
However, he feels more optimistic about the outlook for school libraries than perhaps might be expected, given the recent media coverage. For a start, having politicians like Gray making the argument for school libraries instead of bodies like CILIPS – or Save Scotland’s School Libraries – is a major coup, he believes. That kind of political pressure is needed to turn things around, he says.
“Now we have MSPs asking the questions we have been asking for a long time. That shows how far we have come,” he explains.
He also defends the new, and much maligned, Scottish Library Improvement Fund (SLIF), arguing that it has made an impact. It has allowed school librarians to show what they can do when they have proper financial support, he says, which is vital at a time when school libraries are having their budgets slashed.
According to the School Library Association, school libraries should be funded to the tune of £15 per pupil, which would make the budget in an average-sized secondary of 800 pupils £12,000 – but some survive on as little as £500, says Wright.
“Even if school libraries are still there, they are feeling the pinch in other ways. You could be the greatest librarian in the UK, but with a limited amount of money you can only make a limited impact,” he adds.
“You will only be able to replace a small percentage of the book stock and you won’t be able to get authors in for visits.”
At the moment Wright, who is senior school librarian at St George’s School for Girls in Edinburgh, is considering investing in an audio book library, but that too would be a pipedream for many state school librarians.
Flourish or flounder
Wright started out as a school librarian in the state sector, but two years into his first post a new head arrived who made it clear the library was not a priority. That prompted him to move to Stewart’s Melville College in the capital, which he left in 2016 for St George’s.
A school library can either flourish or flounder at the whim of the headteacher, Wright explains, and in Scotland headteachers are on the cusp of being handed more say over how their schools are run. Does that give him more reason to fear for the future?
“We have to look at it as a positive,” he says. “We have to make the case for school libraries to these headteachers – hopefully the strategy will do that.”
Wright is referring to the national strategy for school libraries in Scotland, announced by the government in September and due to be published this summer in time for the new school year. It will set out the minimum standards a school should expect from its library. Data is also being collected on school library budgets and professional school librarian numbers.
“If budgets are being cut or numbers are going up or down in the future, we will know about it,” says Wright.
Growing up in Dumfries and Galloway, he was the first person in his family to go to university. It was because of his parents he became a librarian. “They were very supportive but if I was going to go to university they wanted me to study something that had a clear job at the end of it,” he explains.
Joining a school library when he finished his degree was a steep learning curve, he recalls, as behaviour management was not covered on his training course.
Having swapped a boys’ school for a girls’ school, he has been able to examine how their reading habits differ: and his answer is “not much”. The main challenge he faces is that reading for pleasure tails off in S3, when exam pressure begins to bite and teenagers’ social lives improve – and that, he says, applies to both girls and boys.
At Stewart’s Melville College, Wright coached football as a means of engaging with the pupils and getting them through the library doors. He is doing the same thing at St George’s, where he has set up the school’s first football team and next month he will join S1 on an outdoor education trip.
Key to the survival of school librarians is that they throw off any vestiges of the stereotype of the stuffy old librarian, he says – but Wright is “cautiously optimistic” about the future of his changing profession.