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Why No Students are Using your School Library

If the books are left unloved, maybe it’s time to create a sanctuary at the heart of school life...

  • Why No Students are Using your School Library

Congratulations! You’re one of the lucky schools that actually has a dedicated library space. But wait a minute… no one’s using it? Or, at least, no one is making the best use of it. Then it’s time to consider making your library not just user-friendly but, well, friendly.

It’s a shocking fact that while prisons, for example, must have a library, this is not a mandatory requirement in UK schools.

According to the School Library Association no one actually knows how many school libraries exist, whether or not they are staffed, or how they are funded. Considering schools are places of learning, it seems an incredible situation.

So, if you have the rare luxury of a library, but it is left unloved – what can you do about it?

Value what you have

I recall one school ‘library’ that was really just an unused space. It had old books in dead-insect-filled cubbies, and a ceiling crawling with damp and mould. Unsurprisingly, no one used it.

Why would they? Would you go to such a neglected area just because it had some old books?

No one looked after it, cleaned it, made it look inviting or even hygienic. It felt like it existed purely so the school could say it had a library; an empty gesture, nothing more.

Then, one year, the school had the walls painted with wonderful murals. The mould and insects were removed and they installed a sweet little reading area with cushions. It was ready and waiting for a surge in enthusiastic little borrowers.

Unfortunately, the library is still as empty and unloved as before because, despite all the superficial adjustments, nothing changed in the way the school treated the space.

There was never any library time allocated to classes and there was no adult on hand to make it work. And if a school doesn’t value its library, why should the children?

Thankfully, this situation is unimaginable in my school.

When I first arrived over four years ago, I inherited a gorgeous library with bookcases lining the walls, plenty of books to shelve, and attractive floor cushions for the children to sit on – as well as a beautiful outdoor courtyard for summer reading.

In what can be seen as a rare move nowadays, the headteacher at the time decided that, with the advent of portable laptops and iPads, it was more important to have a lovely room dedicated to books than a space devoted to computers.

And it has paid off massively. Woe betide any teacher who skips their class’s weekly library lesson – the children are up in arms!

Make it more than a library

Granted, this sounds peculiar, but I can’t stress enough how essential it is for libraries to be more than a stereotypical collection of dusty books and a librarian invoking silence.

To make the space work best for staff and children, you need to move beyond the mantra of ‘reading is good for you’.

So are bran flakes and cabbage, yet you don’t see people queuing up to devour them. There has to be some interest, excitement and perhaps a touch of magic to lure even the most dedicated reader through your doors.

Think about what’s above or around your bookcases. At school, I’m also known as the Ladder Lady because I’m always struggling to staple swathes of paper onto display boards.

While it may not be my favourite part of the job, the end result is usually worth it – colour and a few cheap fairy lights can make even the dullest room come to life.

For example, I’ve just finished prepping a display dedicated to the fiftieth anniversary of the lunar landings. The children helped me by drawing little astronauts based on themselves, which are now ‘walking’ on the moon.

Not only do we have a topical display in the library, linked to science and history, we also have something colourful to look at that the children helped create. If you involve them, children will own the library space and give you plenty of materials to Blu-tack to the wall.

Keep it topical

Book-related arts and crafts sessions are very popular with the children. Not only does this stimulate their artistic skills, it helps them to explore, understand and enjoy books on a deeper level.

Every summer term I also run a school-wide competition based on books. For example, we’ve had superhero and supervillain fruit and veg based on Sue Hendra’s and Paul Linnet’s Supertato series; and ‘Cakespeare’ – a baking or decorating challenge to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.

The children look forward to this and start nagging me in May for the year’s theme.

I make sure that I keep up to date with literacy-based challenges for children, such as the 500 Words writing competition and the Betjeman Poetry Prize.

We celebrate those children who have the determination and creativity to even enter a story, plus we display their work in special books in the library for others to enjoy.

Create a sanctuary

Our headteacher often refers to the library as a ‘safe haven’ and I could not be more proud of this description.

I want children to love reading within a safe, creative and welcoming atmosphere and to feel there is always somewhere they can go when the playground feels too much, or when they feel overwhelmed and need some quiet time.

I love how children in Year 2 feel happy talking to pupils in Year 6; the closeness and respect this fosters is central to our school values. Sometimes even the adults come in for a chat, or for five minutes’ peace!

As well as all the books there are cuddly toys for the children to hold (or read aloud to – a wonderful incentive for reluctant readers) and literacy games for the children to play: mixed-up fairy tales and storytelling cubes are both favourites.

If you make a place welcoming, comfortable and attractive, people will want to spend time there – for the tranquillity, the creative inspiration and, of course, the books.

Now, where’s that ladder?

Is your library up to scratch?

Five questions to ask yourself…

  1. Is it a place where you would like to spend time reading and relaxing?
  2. Do the materials support the curriculum?
  3. Are the opening hours long enough – eg before / after school or at lunchtimes?
  4. How can I keep on improving what the library offers pupils, parents and staff?

  6. How can we fully integrate what the library is and what it does into the day-to-day life of the school?

  7. Sam Pope is a writer, editor and part-time school librarian.

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