Do we need library lessons?

By Barbara Band

Barbara Band looks at the many benefits of regular library lessons, and speculates what would be lost without them.

A school library is (or should be) a whole-school facility, enabling the learning needs of all students, supporting staff to deliver the curriculum, and providing resources for reading and information within a unique space. That’s the theory. The reality, however, is likely to be library staff constantly juggling between the diverse needs of various groups, library lessons full of hands-on activities, busy research lessons using a multitude of resources, quiet periods of study, and times of silent personal reading. All this usually in one room during one day! It is said that you can’t be all things to all people and yet that is exactly what a school librarian tries to do.

Most of the time this works, although it does depend on what sort of space you have — an area that lends itself to being ‘zoned’ will be more accommodating to differing needs than a large square room — and it also requires tolerance, recognition of diverse needs, and flexibility. It is no surprise, though, that sometimes the needs of one group override another’s. This is not usually a problem if it’s short-term, such as during the intense exam period when students may need a quiet place to revise, but when the school library is permanently designated for a specific use, it means the rest of the school population lose out.

There have been a couple of trends I’ve noticed recently in schools: one is to use the library as a dedicated space for years 12 and 13 students, making it a silent study area often with library staff supervising students (a waste of their skills and expertise) and preventing other groups from accessing resources and services. The other is to stop regular library lessons altogether, with the often-heard comment that ‘students don’t need to read in the library because they read in English class’ and the general consensus that the library is open at breaks for them to visit.

Does this matter? Do students need regular library lessons? What do they lose when these don’t happen?

Library induction sessions

Library induction delivered in one or two sessions does not work. The beginning of a school year is a busy time, even more so for new students who have to cope with finding their way around a huge site and integrating with their peers while remembering what to bring each day, where to go for each lesson and what their teacher’s name is. So it’s no surprise that the Dewey Decimal System is lower on their list of priorities. How to use the library needs to be reinforced via several lessons, not delivered in a quick session fitted in between other subjects.

Illustration by Chris Riddell about libraries

Illustration by Chris Riddell. Used with permission.

A safe space

Regular library lessons mean that students become comfortable with both the space and their library staff. They soon recognise that the library is somewhere ‘different’ in the school; it’s not a classroom — and although the library staff are not necessarily teachers, they have the authority of being members of the school staff. Students also learn that while certain behaviours are expected of them during lessons, the library can be, and often is, a much altered room at break times. Most school librarians will tell you that their library is a safe haven for the vulnerable, for those students who have not found their niche in the school, and for those who are not at ease with the masses. This pastoral role is much undervalued yet so important, as the library provides a unique space for such students within the school.

Exposure to books

Library lessons mean exposure to books! Even if a library is accessible at breaks, those visiting it are likely to already be readers. The students that you want to lure into the library — the reluctant and non-readers — are unlikely to be anywhere near the library. Contact with books on a regular basis sends an important message: that the school values reading and considers it important.

Creating readers

Regular library lessons enable the library staff to develop relationships with each student, to find out what type of reader they are, what sort of texts (if any) they like to read, and what their interests are. They allow us to guide each student in selecting books, something even the more able readers need at times. They expose students to a wide range of genres, media and authors and, essentially, give students ‘permission’ to read. In an environment where reading is often seen as ‘uncool’, regular library lessons that incorporate reading time enable those who enjoy books to do so knowing that they won’t be disparaged. Without library lessons, you are unlikely to turn non-readers into lifelong readers.

Promotion of library programs

A lack of regular library lessons makes it difficult to organise and promote many of the activities that encourage reading and boost literacy levels, such as competitions, book talks, author visits and participation in both local and national initiatives. Communication via tutors and promotional posters has a limited reach.

Lifelong learning

In addition to library skills, many school libraries deliver an information skills program teaching basic competencies that are essential for both further education and the workplace, and that create independent learners with the capabilities to cope with further and higher education. These skills are sometimes taught via the curriculum, albeit in a piecemeal fashion, but the librarian is able to incorporate all of them into a cross-curricular program using research lessons designed in collaboration with teaching staff. Restricting use of the library limits the delivery of such a program.

Schools need regular library lessons

Basically, reduced access to books — which is what happens when the library is used exclusively for one group of students or when library lessons are not part of the timetable — means a reduction in reading. This impacts on reading for pleasure, which needs choice and access, and discourages students from using the library for their information needs. A school that allows this to happen is not using its library staff or library efficiently or effectively, and is providing a much diminished service to its students.

Barbara Band

Barbara Band

School library, reading and literacy consultant

Features editor, The School Librarian