The nerve centre: readers, libraries and librarians.
Last week I had a fascinating conversation with one of our librarians. When you work in a school with an excellent library and librarians you just take it for granted that this is the norm. Our librarians are amazing: they are eminently knowledgeable about fiction of all kinds; they respond helpfully to practically any request they are presented with; and, to top it all, they keep an immaculate and wonderfully organised library for hundreds of students to use every day.
I had never realised just what a time-consuming and highly skilled job this is. The sheer number of hours it takes to keep these places ordered as you have all those anarchistic young people coming in and out every day is eye-watering. And the stock. I had no idea, but a good library needs at least 10 books per student. Most schools have about a thousand kids, so this means that the librarian has to have knowledge of at least 10,000 books at any one time. On top of this, at least 10% of stock should be replaced each year. Imagine the decisions that need to be made. Which 1000 books should we buy? Which 1000 should we get rid of? And all this working within the confines of the available space and allocated budget. The mind boggles.
As our discussion continued, another point arose. Inevitably we had begun to discuss the very real decline in the amount and quality of reading and writing that teenagers now do. We scapegoated the usual culprits: the rise of video gaming, TVs in every room, poor diets, parents working unsociable hours, the lowering of the quality of linguistic communication across various media platforms etc etc. But then our excellent librarian made a point that I had never thought of before: until not long ago there was no such thing as Young Adult Fiction.
It had never occurred to me that this could be cause of lower literacy levels. Surely by making books more accessible for our kids in more adult style genres, they’re more likely to read them? But I suppose it makes sense. If there are only children’s books and adult’s books, and if the kids want to access the adult themes, then they will have to read the more challenging books that deal with these themes.
I’m not saying I totally agree with this hypothesis: clearly the kids who don’t have a reading age of 16+ will be pleased to access Young Adult fiction. But it’s certainly true that they won’t be challenged to the same extent as a teenager who’s reading adult books covering the same material, and this this could be hindering their progress and development in literacy terms.
Anyway, regardless of this, I have absolute no qualms about kids devouring the multitudinous output of teenage fiction that authors churn out if it means that they are reading. And it also adds weight to the argument that, in English lessons, we shouldn’t reading anything other than challenging and rewarding great literature. I think we can view this phenomenon of kids reading kids’ books as the practice that will allow them to compete successfully at reading and understanding the real thing. Just as a runner doesn’t run the full length of the race in the days running up to the event, so it makes sense for teenage readers to work to the edge of their limits in their own reading time and then be pushed just ever so slightly beyond this in the real thing i.e. the lesson.
Which, in a roundabout way, brings me back to the importance of having a great library that is curated by a great librarian. I use the word “curated” very deliberately here.
Just like a great museum curator, the great librarian has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the texts in his library and is constantly on the hunt for ways to make this accessible to the students, whether through displays, book boxes or personal recommendation. He needs to know students by name and interest, and preferably staff too. He is the very heart of the school and its reading habits and ethos.
And if all this can be linked in successfully, then our students will be more successful than those in schools where these things aren’t valued.
Celebrate the libraries and their curators, I say!