School libraries: miracles and madness

By Jackie French

Jackie French writes about the need for qualified, experienced and compassionate teacher librarians in schools.

Young boy reading a book among the library shelves

The first school I went to burnt down. This was not my fault. The library didn’t burn down, because there wasn’t one — just a classroom with a shelf of books. I won third place in the lottery to read one of the two or three new books donated each year: The Magic Pudding. Three weeks later, it was mine for a week. (And it changed my life.)

My second school was Brisbane’s most expensive for girls. Its library was a glass-fronted bookcase. If the teacher remembered to unlock it, we could read a book at lunchtime — none published later than possibly 1789. My third, a selective high school, had a library. It even had books, possibly bought by the metre as ‘suitable for children’. I don’t think any student bothered to read them.

But I did have books. In those days, English teachers played the role of teacher librarian — an unheard-of concept back then in our region. My teacher brought me in an armful every Monday. Years later, I discovered she even spent days hunting out and buying the books she knew I needed. That teacher possibly saved my life. She certainly played an enormous part in making me the person, and writer, I am now.

That is the magic of a teacher librarian (and in that case my English teacher). They know the right book, the one you didn’t know you needed, the one that changes a child’s life.

Jackie French

Photo credit: Kelly Sturgiss

In these days, when a low student-to-teacher ratio is deemed one of the most important signs of a ‘good school’, the role of teachers is often prioritised over that of library staff. This may lead to the decision to make the library role part time and to hire someone who does not have teacher librarianship qualifications, or even to rely on volunteers. I have been in schools where so much was spent on the library building that there was no budget for books — or for a person who knew them and the students who might read them.

Give me five minutes at a school, and I will tell you if there is a teacher librarian. Literally. Each time I go to a school now I bet every kid who thinks books are boring that their teacher librarian, their teacher, or I (as a last resort) can find them a book they love so much they can’t stop reading it — and that they will immediately want another book. Somewhere, past the small mob of boys at the front, the teacher librarian is grinning. Because, like me, they know they can make sure I will never, ever lose the bet.

I’ve never had a kid from a school with a teacher librarian email me for book recommendations. The teacher librarian does the work. And no, I’ve never had to pay out either, as when I don’t know what book to recommend, whether on soccer or on zombies, I put out a Twitter or Facebook post and dozens of teacher librarians answer, with glorious lists of books. Problem solved.

That’s anecdotal, but there are studies too: where there are teacher librarians, kids read and achieve more. There are many studies available, but they are conveniently ignored when the time comes to scrimp a few dollars that might be used elsewhere. It is unqualified madness to let a full-time teacher librarian position go.

Sell the oval. Get rid of the swimming pool. They can be borrowed. But a teacher librarian can’t be — one who is the heart of the school and knows every kid. Once an experienced teacher librarian sees what a student chooses to read, they know who that young person has become, often before their parents. They will also know what books that student needs, or what literacy help is essential if an obviously intelligent child chooses books way below their level. They will see a previously gregarious child turn hollow-eyed and know when to offer escapism or even, literally, escape.

Earlier this year, a girl contacted me: her best friend was going to email me, and asked if I could email back ‘because a lot of bad things are happening to her’. The teacher librarian had suggested the best friend ask me what my next book would be.

The best friend emailed. I sent her library a copy of the next book, on the condition she be the first borrower. No problem, as she was already a library monitor and was able to choose which new books to read. She not only helped in the library at lunchtime, but from 8 am each morning, where the teacher librarian brought in breakfast for them to share, and after school, with afternoon tea. A few months later (we continued emailing), the school had arranged for this student to help at a local library each weekend. Here, she had joy, books and refuge the whole week.

That’s the beginning of her story. I have gradually learned much more of it, and her life is now far happier. In her first email, she wrote this: ‘When I grow up I am going to be a teacher librarian, so I can give everyone in the world the books they need, and save their lives and make them laugh and think and stuff like that’.

It is exactly because of ‘stuff like that’ that the one inescapable essential in a school is a qualified, experienced, deeply compassionate teacher librarian.

The job being what it is, I don’t think teacher librarians come in any other flavour.

Jackie French

Jackie French

Author, historian, honorary wombat (part time)