Martin Jeeps, head of English at The Fulham Boys School, has led a move to reduce the number of books in his school library. Here he explains why.
What do you call a library with just 250 books? An over-hyped bookcase? A shelf with ideas above its station? In fact, this was exactly the library that the first intake of boys at Fulham Boys School (FBS) encountered when their fiction library was launched just over a month ago. I can already hear the collective groans of all of the librarians in the schools that I have ever worked in. What is perhaps going to upset them more is the news that quite a lot of those 250 books are duplicates. In fact, nearly half of the total is made up of the same 15 books, eight copies of each. The reason for this is not a deficit of finances or a lack of appreciation for the benefits of a library. It is a specific strategy for inspiring boys to become prolific readers of fiction.
Over the past decade I have spent a vast amount of time with young people in well-stocked, highly-organised school libraries of which many schools would rightly be envious. The one thing that has stood out to me throughout these experiences is the difference between the way that boys and girls behave in the face of such a plethora of choice. There is a danger of stereotyping here and I am happy to acknowledge that for many boys the idea of a library with thousands of different books in it is heaven on earth. However, in my experience, those that thrive most in this sort of environment are generally girls.
Girls enjoy browsing through shelves of different books for something that captures their imagination. They will read blurbs, skim the first few pages or ask the librarian for some background information. They will take a risk on something they have neither seen before nor heard anything about. The majority of boys react very differently. They are, in many cases, paralysed by the choice that such libraries provide. Above all, they do not want to waste time reading something that might not turn out to be any good. Instead they play safe, choosing something that they have already read before or something that they know will not disappoint (and not challenge) them. So what is the answer to this? In my experience, the thing that unites boys most in terms of enthusiasm for reading is getting into a new series, especially one that has been recommended to them. Boys love the competition of reading the same series as each other, sharing their progress and predicting what will happen next. Once you get them into a series, they will not rest until they have exhausted each and every book.
In schools that I have worked in before, we have recommended the first book in a series as a "book of the month", but this falls down as soon as the single copy available to students has been loaned out. What we have done at FBS is to choose 15 series that we know will appeal to boys. We have eight copies of the first book in the series and then two of each of the others. This means that the boys are much more likely to have access to the same book as each other and our aim each month is to make a different series go 'viral'. To coincide with the film release, our first book of the month was The Maze Runner. Within minutes, the first eight copies had gone, but before the week was up, they slowly started to come back in as the boys moved on to the rest of the series. As word spread around the school community, so the competition emerged as rumours started to fly around as to who had made it to the last book in the series. Now, obviously, this strategy suits the fact that, at present, we only have Year 7 boys. As they get older and the school expands, we will need to invest much more heavily in our fiction stock to meet the demands of our most voracious readers.
But hopefully their experience of fiction in Year 7 will help to hook them on reading. Of course, we will need to move beyond teenage series and start to promote the classics. However, they will only listen to these recommendations if we have built the library around their interests. A library built for boys.