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Why we need great school libraries and librarians!

Why we need great school libraries and librarians!

My piece for Great School Libraries. Do look at their website if you don’t already know it!

The last time I was in an actual school library was before our first covid lockdown in March 2020. Since then, I have talked with hundreds of young readers ‘online’, most of them sitting in their own classrooms while I sit at my desk at home. I still marvel at the technology that allows me to travel ‘virtually’ anywhere to meet readers, wherever they are.

Yet I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you that my favourite place for talking with young people has always been in a school library… surrounded by books, cared for by a great school librarian. When I think back to the schools that I’ve visited over the years as an author, the images that jostle in my head are almost all in school libraries. Some of these have been large and well stocked, thanks to generous funding. Others have been small and nurtured with much smaller budgets. What they’ve shared in common has been a dedicated librarian, committed to encouraging young people on journeys of discovery.

From personal experience, I know how books can open doors and windows of the mind. I know the excitement of finding myself travelling to somewhere I’ve never been before and suddenly seeing life through someone else’s eyes. Having been brought up under apartheid with its physical and mental enclosures – where in my ‘whites-only’ convent school the library was also always shut – I was fortunate in my late teens to have experiences that began to open my mind. Among these experiences were books, including some that had been banned. Es’kia Mphahlele’s Down Second Avenue, for instance, not just opened but blew my mind.

With South Africa’s censorship, it was only after coming to exile in England in the mid-1960s that I had free access to the growing Heinemann African Writers’ series. I was surely not alone in having my imagination set alight and my understanding transformed by such fine writers as Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Bessie Head, to name just three.

Of course, writers can’t change the world, but they can help expand our vision. Fiction writers might not set out to educate but they can be part of a deeply educative process. When a reader steps virtually into a character’s shoes, they immediately cross an invisible boundary beyond their own life. The power of fiction is to take a reader inside someone else’s head and heart. The image coined in 1990 by Professor Rudine Sims Bishop, from her studies in African American children’s literature, has never been bettered: that all children need books that are “mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors”. These are books that not only offer entry into imagined worlds but also books that act as mirrors in which readers see themselves and reflections of their own experience.

We live in a society and world riven with deeply unhealthy divisions and massive inequalities. However, covid’s message has been loud and clear. Our world is interconnected, and no one is an island. Education, from its Latin origin, means to lead outwards.  If we want schools that offer ‘education’, rather than narrow ‘schooling’, then libraries and librarians need to be at their heart… and properly funded. Their responsibility is huge: to provide oxygen to classrooms, teachers and children through books and resources that offer the “mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors” that can help equip our future generation face the pressing challenges of our planet.