A school library is an equaliser

This morning, it was revealed that North Yorkshire County Council would be closing its Schools Library Service (SLS) in March 2015.

Sadly, this is the latest in a long list of similar announcements. I worked as a school librarian in the Midlands for five years and saw the closure of Solihull and Birmingham SLSs in that time. School libraries, librarians and library services are at the front line when it comes to saving money for local councils as they remain unprotected by any legal requirements. As the fight begins for prisoners to be allowed books sent from outside, it’s worth remembering that they do at least by law have to have access to a library and the same cannot be said of our school children. School libraries are entirely at the mercy of their schools, just as SLSs rely on the funding and support of their local council.  

School libraries with enthusiastic, experienced staff change lives. They provide a means and a physical space for children, regardless of their homes and families, to have free access to books, information and often technology, as well as crucially, the expertise to help children and young people find and use it. They open children’s eyes to the magic of fiction, help with homework and give space, advice and joy to any child that wants it.

In my school library I worked with so many different teenagers; Year 11 girls who had never read for pleasure before finding books that represented their school experience, with one particular convert refusing to let her friend watch "Made in Chelsea" until after an impromptu book club.

I worked with groups of struggling Year 7 students who were re-engaged with books by having Wonder read aloud to them. There were the Year 10 girls who joined in with the sixth form Man Booker prize shadowing club, the Carnegie shadowing group and the queues of students lining up to get books signed by Patrick Ness or Henry Winkler. There was a never-ending stream of students who found solace and comfort in the library, not to mention somewhere to play Dungeons & Dragons.

They also have small budgets and are often reliant on SLSs to maintain collections that can support their schools. SLSs are an invaluable resource, organizing training and advocacy, as well as resources. They are an irreplaceable loss, especially for primary schools where budgets are even smaller, or non-existent, and frequently without a dedicated librarian. The closure of SLSs limits the number of children that can be helped and inspired by libraries.

SLSs are dependent on funding from their council, and councils are currently being forced to make unrealistic financial cuts to their arts and culture provisions by the government. A government that refuses to make school libraries statutory and repeatedly demonstrates the lack of value it places on the arts.

School libraries open minds, eyes and hearts but they need the support of their schools, councils and fundamentally the government. When school libraries are gone, due to ‘unavoidable’ cuts, we will realise what we have lost. Without a school library, and librarian, where will children go to explore, question, learn and wonder?

Libraries are an equaliser and I believe a child who has had access to a properly staffed and equipped school library is less likely to need access to a prison library.

Anna James is The Bookseller's books and media editor