My Children’s Library by Right

Most of the time, being a teacher, a librarian, and a children’s literature scholar, is an absolute joy. My various professions overlap in the most interesting ways, and frequently something that I read for one area will inform the others. But there is one aspect of being a member of more than one public profession that can become downright depressing, and that is the issue of cuts.

As a member of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), I am currently getting regular emails about their ‘My Library by Right’ campaign. This campaign is protesting against the cuts to public library services, and detailing the damage that is being done. I also recently received communications from the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) on the worrying state of libraries in schools, many of which have seen library budgets slashed by 40%, or have gotten rid of their libraries altogether.
This worrying news doesn’t even communicate the whole picture. In my previous capacity as school library manager for two primary schools, and as a supply teacher in a wide range of primary schools around Cambridgeshire, I can attest to the fact that in the primary sector, even out of those schools with a school library, many are unfit for purpose. I have found technology sections populated entirely with books from the 1980s, science sections containing GCSE and A Level textbooks which the vast majority of primary school children cannot access, and on one memorable occasion, a social history of the telephone box in Britain, complete with academic references and obscure terminology. Fiction sections house books falling apart, covered in scribbles, and frequently full of mould. Very few primary schools employ a librarian, so an already over-worked teacher is often pressed into the role, and expected to work miracles with no librarianship training, no time, and no budget.

Why does this matter? Dr Mary Bousted, the head of the ATL, has given the headlines: “This is particularly worrying because reading for pleasure develops children’s literacy, educational attainment and ultimately their chances in life.

Getting rid of school libraries also risks increasing inequalities and further disadvantaging the most deprived children who are less likely to have access to books or computers at home and will have less access to public libraries since so many are closing.” Loss of access to libraries can be seen as jeopardising the future of our children.

But what about how libraries affect our children now? There can be a tendency in public discourse to consider children only in terms of the future; as Qvortrup memorably put it, as ‘human becomings’ rather than ‘human beings’ (Qvortrup, 1991). Libraries are at the forefront of pushing against this viewpoint.

Many libraries, both school and public, have a policy of including children’s views when it comes to key issues such as changing services and collection development. They seek out and value children’s opinions, and actively encourage them to take control of their own services. For the public children’s library services in Cambridgeshire, empowering children is one of the key aims and priorities of the service. This is vital work, since research by the Nuffield Foundation has shown that today’s children have far less freedom and choice today than in previous generations, (despite often having greater numbers of options). Even though the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) states that children should have a say in matters which affect them, children’s views and opinions are frequently ignored by adults. Libraries are working hard to give children their voices back.

Moreover, libraries are one of the key sites for the creation of children’s culture. Whilst the vast majority of commercial children’s cultural products, including literature, are created by adults, studies of children’s culture have shown that children do not passively absorb the messages adults may have intended. Reading is an inherently creative act, and when children read, they don’t just co-create the story they are reading. They act out scenes, they roleplay different scenarios with the characters, they create their own endings, their own artworks, their own fanfiction. Writing children’s fiction may be ‘impossible’, but when children read fiction, what they create out of it very much belongs to them, and not to adults. Whilst children produce creative responses to any fiction that they read, libraries are a particularly special space, as children generally have far more agency over what they read in libraries than at home or in classrooms, where decisions are often made by adults. In libraries, children often choose which books are added to the collection, and many make their selections without adult supervision. The chance to explore in a library is far greater than in a book store, where shop assistants often discourage browsing, and parents often have the last say about what they spend their money on. Libraries therefore not only empower children’s voices, they support the creation of children’s culture.

And that is what stands to be lost. With the cuts to both public and school libraries, we are not only robbing children of educational opportunities that will benefit them in the future. We are also restricting their ability to participate in society now. Libraries allow children to be heard, to be valued, to contribute, and to create.

If you would like to protest against the cuts to library services, please consider undertaking the following actions as recommended by CILIP:

  • 2 mins:Sign the petition to call on the Government to fulfil their statutory responsibilities to taxpayers
  • 10 mins:Write to your MP and ask them to pledge their support for libraries

This week’s post is from Jen Aggleton, a first-year PhD student who is going to kick lots of butt during her upgrade. 

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