School librarians have been immensely resourceful since the UK went into lockdown in March 2020–whether establishing weekly book clubs online, setting up student newspapers and reading competitions, or delivering library books to homes. At least, those who weren’t furloughed have been: the School Library Association (SLA) reports a piecemeal employment picture for its members over the past 18 months, ranging from full furlough, through part-furlough, to continued full-time work, albeit remotely.
“There’s been such a broad range,” says SLA chief executive Alison Tarrant. “Some were [furloghed and] told they couldn’t work any more, to the point where they were prevented from accessing their emails, so they not only lost that sense of being able to help their community and support the pupils, but also a lot of their networking connections. Then some were put on partial furlough, and then there were some schools where they said, ‘We’re going to need you more than ever, so let’s invest in digital resources and get the school library online’.”
The efforts of those librarians allowed to continue working “have just been phenomenal”, according to Tarrant, with people driving books to pupils’ homes, establishing digital resources and lifting lending limits to ensure children have access to as many titles as possible. But there have also been schools that decided their library, and its librarians, were expendable. The SLA is in the middle of conducting detailed research but it knows that there has been a range of ways in which school libraries have been hit.
“I think [library closures] will be by stealth,” says Tarrant. “No school is coming out and saying that having not had a library for two years, they’re going to do without it. But people are being made redundant, schools are reducing the size of libraries and saying, ‘Right, this bit can remain as a classroom, you don’t need all of this.’ We’ve had librarians who have been told, ‘The library’s closed, you’re not a librarian anymore, you’re a full-time Covid tester. And when you’re not testing people, you’re calling to see how they’re doing.’”
The SLA acknowledges the challenges that schools have faced over the past year and a half but Tarrant is clear about the importance of a library to pupils. “No one in schools has had an easy time of it. To be a headteacher and to have overseen a school environment over the past two years has been an incredible feat and I have nothing but respect for them. But at the same time, it’s such a shame when these things happen because the school library isn’t just the room. A librarian is able to support pupils and build relationships, and reading helps wellbeing too.”
She points to studies which have shown how, over lockdown, books have supported children’s wellbeing, with young people reporting that reading helped them relax (40%) and made them feel happy (35%).
“I feel like there is a bit of a block where people are looking for solutions but not seeing the things that are right in front of their eyes,” Tarrant says. “There are so many librarians who are saying, ‘I want to go in and deliver lessons, I want to do online stuff’, and so not utilising that additional resource seems a little bit crazy for me.”
Challenges had changed for school libraries by the summer term as bubbles and restrictions reduced footfall and Covid rules prevented browsing as usual. And while overdue titles are always a problem for school libraries, the two lockdowns means they have become a “nightmare”, in the words of one librarian.
More than physical
Looking ahead, librarians are worrying about a lack of funding as they prepare to rebuild and refresh their book stock. They also need to rebuild those relationships, with both colleagues and pupils, which have suffered over the pandemic period. One librarian told the SLA about how masks, screens and distancing have “hamstrung” their ability to support reading and literacy for students: “Some students I have never seen without masks and the relationship I need to build with them over seven years has been severely damaged.”
Morale overall is “pretty low”, admits Tarrant. “Schools have had to invest a lot in extra cleaning and extra cover so lots of budgets have been frozen.
“And there is also almost a sense of having to rebuild from scratch, in terms of collaboration with staff. You’ve got to go back in, rebuild the library as a physical space.”
Most of all, though, school librarians want to get back to being able to do their jobs. “Nearly everyone who works in a school does it for the children, that is their main driver for being there,” says Tarrant. “Working in a school isn’t well paid, the hours are long, it’s pretty intense most of the time. The moments that remind you why you’re doing it have been reduced over the past couple of years in a situation which is tougher than ever. So that kind of emotional hit has really been felt by members too.”