Morris Gleitzman on the uniquely contributive role of school libraries

Australian Children's Laureate Morris Gleitzman discusses the uniquely contributive role of school libraries, and how parents and supporters can work together to ensure students have access to strong school library services. 

During my time as Australian Children’s Laureate, I have continued to visit many schools — something I have been doing for about 30 years. I speak to lots of school library staff, because of my long-held interest in the health of school libraries. Over the last 18 months, this has been particularly so because my predecessor, Leigh Hobbs, made the health of school libraries a specific focus of his laureateship.

I was keen to see how it was all going, and quickly realised that Leigh had been very right to focus in that area — because these are difficult times in which some of the irreplaceable values of a good school library and teacher librarian are not as widely understood or prioritised as they have been in the past. My own initial focus as laureate was on the power of story, but I have also committed to doing everything I can to help redress this tragic loss of understanding, and focus on how vital and uniquely contributive a healthy and properly resourced library is — as I think future laureates will as well.

The title of Australian Children’s Laureate gives its holder the advantage of a few more open doors, and conversation is possible at the level of policy and political decision-making. However, the more I think about it, the more I believe parents have the greatest power to change things. Parents are very often busy and distracted, and take solace from thinking that education is one area of their lives that they don’t actively need to get involved in. One of the tasks that I’ll try to undertake over the next year is to put to as many parents as I can that a relatively small amount of input from them can make a huge difference to their kids’ education.

While there are a number of factors combining to damage school libraries, a significant one is the number of principals who, in their genuine and commendable desire to do the best for their students, are switching resources from libraries to other areas of the school. I think that, in many cases, these principals are working within an environment that may not have focused on the unique value of literature and the reading culture in a school, beyond meeting national benchmarks. But every good principal has to be responsive to the concerns of parents, which could be expressed as: ‘I am concerned that an irreplaceable and valuable component of my child’s education seems to be either diminished or missing in this school’. If enough parents did express this, most principals would not be able to ignore it.

The curriculum is important and it’s part of the structured aspect of education that helps large numbers of young people achieve important stages on the road to becoming functioning, contributive, and hopefully happy and fulfilled individuals. However, there is another dimension to education that, if pushed, I would say is more important. There’s a certain amount of overlap because the curriculum identifies and aspires to some of the elements in this dimension. These relate to the development of becoming as fully human an individual as possible — discovering the particular aspects of yourself that may not be like those of everyone in your class or your school year, but which will become crucial aspects of who you are, and of how you see yourself and your place in the world. This includes a whole set of attributes, beliefs and aspirations that will underpin what you are capable of doing — not only for yourself as you move into your adult life, but for those around you in familial, communal and global contexts. The aspirations of the curriculum are undermined when students lack a rich and potent process at the heart of their education that will develop these attributes and skills — which are a key part of becoming a well-rounded person.

A childhood of rich and varied reading is vital to these key developmental areas. Going on a story journey with young protagonists facing big problems, and going on that journey hundreds or thousands of times, helps young people to develop empathy, insight into themselves and other people, interpersonal communication skills, and a capacity not only to develop creative problem-solving strategies, but to recognise that their problems are as alive, organic and ever-changing as we are, and can only be defeated with bravery and resilience. All this relates to what has always been called life skills. We hope our young people come out of their school years in possession both of these and skills related to the more formal structured areas and modes of learning.

A good library supports every area of learning within the school, making the practical application of the more curriculum-based areas of learning so much more potent.

I think that supporting people to become fully functioning is far and away the most important dimension of education. The library and its dedicated and skilled staff make vital contributions to that. A good library supports every area of learning within the school, making the practical application of the more curriculum-based areas of learning so much more potent.

Schools need wonderful teacher librarians and qualified library professionals who can help support and stimulate young people’s imaginations and help connect each of them with that one book that will let them experience, for the first time, everything that reading can offer. Even if your library has only a limited number of books, most kids will find one that will do it for them. But once that connection is made, their thirst for more magic books will only increase as they explore their school and public libraries. Dedicated library professionals need to be available to support these students. How tragic if any young person should miss out on having that thirst quenched because their library staff were off having to do, say, supplementary sport supervision half the time.

I have visited superbly resourced school libraries. In some, there is an X factor on top of the superb physical resourcing that gives the feeling, as soon as you walk in, that the people who manage the school and hold its purse strings value it and have done everything they can to make it the best it can be. And sometimes you see that they are also lucky enough to have a teacher librarian and qualified library support staff who have used all its components in a really creative way to make an even more welcoming, stimulating and special-feeling space.

But I’ve also been to libraries that are very poorly funded, where you sense that the teacher librarian or librarian has to be a resistance fighter, a partisan who is making the best of very scarce resources. You walk into that kind of library and it takes your breath away because you see that they have achieved something against all odds. There may not be many books, there may not be purpose-designed furniture, or other fine physical attributes, but in the feel of the place there is a really strong statement that says: ‘This place matters and so does what we do here’. Sometimes it’s done in a heart-wrenchingly ragged and somewhat rumpled way, but it reminds me that the dedicated and skilled library staff are the single most vital component of a school library.

Image credit

Photo used with permission of Morris Gleitzman

This article has been compiled from lightly edited interview excerpts.

Morris Gleitzman

Author

Australian Children's Laureate 2018–2019