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What school librarians wish parents knew

School libraries are a sanctuary and safe place for many children. Here Sarah Forster, co-creator of the amazing children’s literature website The Sapling, lists the things all parents should know about school librarians.

I spent a LOT of time in school libraries as a kid. Remember the index cards in those fit-for-purpose filing cabinets? Remember the satisfying thwack of the date stamp (if you were allowed to use it)? Remember picking out that one book that felt like home? Or that one book that you had to share with your friends?

My first school was a small rural school, and the school library was our hall: we sang in it, rehearsed in it, and huddled away from the rain in it. I went there when I was feeling vulnerable. It was a sanctuary.

Last week on the news it was highlighted that there are over 170 schools in New Zealand that don’t have school libraries because they needed the space for classrooms. My son’s school is one of them. They do have a library, a tiny library, in a borrowed resource area attached to a language school on the campus. The librarian does her best. Their state of the art library was opened less than 10 years ago; it was last year demolished to create two classrooms. We have plenty of books at home (a luxury afforded by my jobs): it is the sanctuary that will be missed. My son is a quiet kid, has had moments of anxiety since at school. These are the kids the libraries help.

The reason I note this is that for the past six months, Jane Arthur and I have been labouring to create The Sapling, a site celebrating children’s literature – because books grow humans. One of our monthly features is an interview with a school librarian from somewhere in New Zealand. Our first two are Desna Wallace from Fendalton Open Air School in Christchurch and Kimberley Atkinson from Robertson Road School in Mangere.

Christchurch school librarian Desna Wallace

My healthy respect for school librarians has turned into awe. Here are a few things I’ve learned about school librarians, that all parents should know.

They are passionate about literature.

“My philosophy around children’s literature is based on passion, pure and simple,” says Christchurch librarian Desna. “Passion for the written word, passion for the art of illustrations and passion for the belief that children’s literature is one of the most powerful tools to engage, inspire, entertain, excite, confront or challenge, and move readers into making connections between themselves and the characters they believe in.”

They know that reading is a family activity.

“I organise and run the Reading Together programme for whanau,” says Kimberley, the South Auckland librarian. “This is a nationwide reading programme which helps show families the importance of reading to and with family members. It is a 4 week programme with families attending weekly sessions at school. We open the library up for membership and families are able to borrow an unlimited amount of resources. It is really lovely watching the progress and even the relationships within families changing from the simple act of reading to and with their children.”

They don’t just issue books. They do whatever is needed all for ‘support staff’ pay.

“There is no typical day in the school library,” says Kimberley. “You may plan for something (ie research skills) and the class does not turn up. There may be multiple relievers and if the class is young, they will require all the help they can get. I may be sent urgent photocopying.  I may get an urgent request for books on random topics, journal articles, be interrupted while reading to a class for extra journal copies. I can have a class researching in the library; the library class may turn up and then another group of students. Students may turn up for shoes…”.

The library at Fendalton Open Air School in Christchurch

They can see what is needed to extend a reader.

“For my Year Six book club I take a group of dedicated students who read reasonably well but don’t challenge themselves,” says Desna. “I supply each student with a key ring and a notebook. There is no obligation to write in the notebook but I do encourage them to write at least the name of the book and author and perhaps a quote or two from the book where the words jumped out at them. We start with the same book so I can gauge their reading comprehension, emotional attitude and reactions. From there they have a wide selection to choose from. Many choose to read the same book. As they read each book, depending on the genre, they collect tags (simple laminated card) which they attach to the key ring. They love the little tags and feel special belonging to the club.”

They fill a deep need for books in communities, and can see where the gaps are.

“I believe children need to be drowned in real paper books,” says Kimberley. “Piles of them. Particularly in this community where children have little access to books and few visit the community libraries, we need to fill this gap at school. They need a wide variety to choose from and with as much diversity as possible. Having their cultures recognised within reading material is extremely important. There is an urgent need for more Pasifika-based material (I cannot under-estimate the huge, huge need from schools with Pasifika students for this material) – whether in print or on-line.”

They are sanctuaries.

“Libraries as a physical place offer a safe haven for many students,” says Desna. “It is a place for students to blob out and escape the noise and demands of classrooms. It is a place to curl up with a book, or chat with friends. It is a sanctuary for students who don’t do sport, or students who struggle socially to fit in or perhaps because they are new to the school and feeling a bit lost. Students who might feel bullied come to the library because it is safe, warm and they can be themselves. After the earthquakes, I had many students who would come and share their experiences and fears.  Some just wanted to talk or snuggle up somewhere safe with a free hug thrown in.”

At The Sapling, we’re going to look at children’s literature seriously. We’ve already started to do so. We’re going to talk to writers and illustrators, thought leaders, librarians and publishers. We’re going to investigate and celebrate our children’s books. We have people submitting the most fantastic ideas for articles on a daily basis. It is clear that we have tapped into a rich stream of children’s book-lovers. Come and join us!

Sarah Forster has been working in books for over a decade, and fell in love with children’s books while running education programmes at the NZ Book Council. She is a founding editor of The Sapling, a new website all about children’s books. She has two young sons, who have very different tastes in books.

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