What Future for the School Librarian?

Edinburgh Council has found itself in the middle of a major spat over proposals to reduce librarians in schools.

The proposal is to rationalise library provision by moving secondary school library resources into public libraries, reduce the number of school librarians by 50% and subsume the school library service into the public library service.

The proposal has however led to substantial opposition – and not only from the affected librarians.

The capital first made such proposals in 2011 (and withdrew them under a barrage of public opposition) but it is not the first council to make such a proposal. North Lanarkshire made similar proposals last year.

Edinburgh however is not North Lanarkshire. It is presently a UNESCO City of Literature: rightly so. It has an unequalled record as a city of literary creativity, from Scott and Stevenson onwards it has educated, nurtured and encouraged countless writers.

Ali Bowden, the Director of the Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature Trust, has warned the Council of the consequences of its proposals. “Our City of Literature designation recognises our literary excellence, past, present and future and places an obligation on us to nurture our art-form and ensure that we remain a city steeped in literature, offering up learning and creative opportunities to all its residents whatever their age or background. To be a City of Literature and a reading nation we must engage children with the joys of reading at an early age and support them throughout their schooling, maintaining their enthusiasm and passion for books, words and ideas, and school librarians have a crucial role to play in that work.”

The UNESCO City of Literature Trust quotes the Scottish Government’s Literacy Action Plan to stress the point that school libraries are crucial in tackling the language and literary disadvantages of Edinburgh’s poorest children. “The social, educational and familial benefits of ‘reading-rich’ homes are well documented. But the enormous social and individual costs of low levels of literacy, compounded by no access to books, are equally well known.”

Mark Lambert of the Scottish Book Trust has also stepped into the fray. “Where possible each child at school ought to be automatically enrolled in their local library after an introductory visit. Teachers should encourage reading for pleasure beyond the immediate demands of the curriculum. Local Authorities should also recognise the invaluable support offered to young people by school librarians in choosing engaging books, in assisting them with critical and information literacy skills and in developing their reading strategies.”

Opposition to the Edinburgh proposal has also been voiced by the Society of Authors.

Teachers have also recognised that school librarians are becoming far more instrumental in the delivery of English and Literacy skills, especially in secondary schools. The development of Curriculum for Excellence, with its drive for open, learner-led learning and its emphasis on research skills, has made school libraries even more central to how secondary schools operate.

The City Council is caught between a rock and a hard place as it attempts to balance its budget and maintain its status as a world centre of literature and culture. The big cultural battalions are, however, lining up with the librarians. Will that be sufficient for the 2011 about-turn to be repeated?

About Alex Wood

Alex Wood has had a varied career in education. He started as an English teacher at Edinburgh’s Craigroyston High School in 1973 and completed his school-based work as Head Teacher at Wester Hailes Education Centre in 2011. In between he worked in community education, was a Learning Support teacher, headed a behaviour support unit, was Head of a special school and worked in Edinburgh’s Education headquarters. He is a member of the Education Committee of St George’s School. Alex is now an Associate at the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration (SCSSA) at Moray House and is Secretary of the Scottish Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society (SELMAS) as well as being a free-lance writer. His experience however ranges well beyond the worlds of schools and education. For seven years in the 1980s he was an elected member of Edinburgh District Council and he retains a keen interest in the political world. He has a long involvement in genealogy and family history, as a researcher, teacher and writer. He is a member of Edinburgh Common Purpose’s Advisory Group and of the committee of Linlithgow Book Festival. Although he has lived in Linlithgow for over 20 years, and in Edinburgh for the previous 18 years, he remains a loyal fan of his home town football club, Brechin City.
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