Students Need School Libraries (and teacher librarians)

By Cherie Bell

Updates on a campaign championing the crucial role of school libraries in student development, advocating for their role in education.

Students Need School Libraries is a volunteer-run campaign with the purpose of enabling and enthusing relevant stakeholders to advocate for higher quality, well-staffed school libraries in their communities. The committee – which is small in number but mighty in experience – is dedicated to educating parents, principals and other decisionmakers about the enormous academic, social and emotional benefits a properly run school library will bring to students.

School libraries are essential for the academic success of students and offer them skills and opportunities to continue learning beyond the classroom. When students are very young, libraries allow them to marvel at the mysteries and secrets that books can reveal. They might be engrossed in the wonders of the natural world in the non-fiction section, or they might explore imagined worlds through the works of clever picture-book creators. As children learn to read, they need a wide range of books to choose from as they rapidly graduate through reading levels and search more broadly for information and stories that interest them.

The more autonomy children have over their reading materials, the more they are motivated to continue reading; browsing time supported by the assistance of knowledgeable library staff is vital in promoting this autonomy. In secondary school, students are expected to start developing research and referencing skills, and it is the school library that leads this development. School library staff collaborate with classroom teachers to give students access to resources that are relevant to their studies and to the age and stage of each student’s development.

Supporting classroom learning is a key responsibility of school libraries and their staff. However, academic needs are not the only information needs students have. School libraries are also a place for students to access accurate, relevant information for other areas of their lives, such as puberty and their bodies, financial literacy, career options, social justice issues, family challenges and other important life skills. Young people are used to unrestricted access to information from the internet – in fact, they are wading through a virtual tsunami of information, misinformation, disinformation and straight out lies. They lack developed skills to refine, critique, distil and interpret all of this. In their school library they can be shown how to swim against the swell of information, or they can access information that has already been curated for their age and abilities.

A school library that is well resourced and staffed by library professionals is a central hub for a school that contributes to students’ overall wellbeing. It is a safe, welcoming space open outside of class times, often providing a haven from the raucous jungle of the playground. Over the course of their time at school, most students will experience disconnect from their peers as friendships wax and wane. The library is a place to find solace or solidarity with other students in the same boat. School librarians know all this, and they provide activities and clubs for students, ranging from something as simple as chess or mindful colouring-in, through to more elaborate and deliberate activities such as makerspaces, robotics and 3D printing.

Given all the benefits of school libraries, it is a sad fact that too many students in Australia do not have access to one. They might have a room in the school that has a collection of books, and they may even be able to borrow those books, but without professional library staff to continually curate that collection and advise students on how to find the books and resources they need, the opportunity for enrichment is wasted. It would be like going to a restaurant that has all the ingredients for your meal, but no chef to prepare it.

Much as they would like to, the Students Need School Libraries (SNSL) campaign cannot visit every school in Australia to check in on the status of each library. What it can continue to do is advise stakeholders about how they can become advocates for change within their own communities. Using their years of experience, they can answer questions, offer advice and suggest solutions. They also work behind the scenes with other industry bodies such as the Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA) and the Australian School Library Association (ASLA) to collaborate. The abundant resources on their website (, designed for both parents and school staff, offer suggestions about how to take action that will lead to change. The website has links to resources for download or purchase that can be used to educate and inform stakeholders about the benefits of school libraries.

The SNSL committee members feel reinvigorated in their mission, having undergone a recent change in leadership. After establishing the campaign and spending many years at the helm, Holly Godfree (teacher librarian, writer and presenter) has stepped down as the campaign leader. Stepping into the role is Melbourne-based Raffaela Grasso, also a teacher librarian, who has a keen interest in e-learning and digital literacy. As well as spreading the good word of school libraries, the campaign will continue to promote and celebrate Australian School Libraries Day (ASLD), which helps school communities recognise the good work done in libraries by staff and students. The campaign also wants to be more visible to principals and parents, as well as those making decisions about where money is being spent.

I recently visited a public primary school in Melbourne’s leafy eastern suburbs. A deputy principal spoke to me about their library, which was a large space with many shelves of resources. I was told that recently the full-time teacher librarian was replaced by a part-time staff member. As such, the library was now only available to the 600-odd students 3 days per week. This is not enough time for each student to have scheduled library time every week. According to ALIA, this school library would now be considered drastically understaffed. For a school of this size, it is recommended there be two FTE teacher librarians and over 52 hours of support staff every week (Recommended Minimum Information Services Staffing Levels Table 6 revised, ALIA, 2020). The deputy principal told me the decision was a financial one, that there wasn’t the money to provide that service to the students. Perhaps I'm being overly simplistic, but I would say the money is there, it’s just being assigned elsewhere. Failing to prioritise the school library is to the detriment of student reading enjoyment and ability, student wellbeing and student social skills.

Unfortunately, in Australia, schooling has become competitive. As schools struggle to gain market share and be seen as desirable, they want to offer the newest and greatest variety of programs to parents. This makes schools very busy – and it stretches financial resources. They offer width at the expense of depth. Investing in the school library and its staff would prevent many of the problems schools are trying to fix. Ensuring students have time to read recreationally will boost their grammar, vocabulary and writing skills. Reading fiction is also shown to boost empathy, as it gives readers the opportunity to see other people’s lives and have a wider perspective of the world. Teaching students how to navigate the online scrum of information empowers them to behave appropriately online. Developing students’ research skills allows them to critically evaluate resources and prepares them for greater success at tertiary level studies and life in general.

Yes, students need school libraries that are staffed by teacher librarians and other qualified library staff. For this to happen, students need decision-makers to look far down the road and ensure access to a school library is available now.

Cherie Bell

Cherie Bell

Freelance Writer and and Educator

Students Need School Libraries Campaign

Cherie Bell is a recently qualified librarian working as a library technician at Siena College, Camberwell, and a reviewer for CBCA Reading Time and Magpies magazine.