Fifteen-year-old Gemma remembers the first book she read. “It was in first year. Our school librarian, Mrs McCabe, gave me a book called Blood And Chocolate. I started reading it in my bedroom and it was light outside. The next time I looked up it was pitch dark and I thought, ‘I quite like this.’”
Since then, Gemma has been a frequent visitor to the library at Edinburgh’s Holy Rood High School, where, with the expert help of librarian Rachel McCabe, she has continued to develop her reading – and her future prospects. According to ongoing research, even in this digital age, reading books remains a key indicator of educational success.
It can also help children to leap some of the barriers of social exclusion. A child from a deprived background who is a keen reader has a greater chance of educational success than a child of professional parents who is uninterested in reading. Reading also appears to develop thinking skills in ways that are hard to replicate.
Yet dedicated school librarians – people who, as McCabe puts it, are “searching for the book that will turn each child into a reader” – fear their service will be in the front line when it comes to cuts. Seven librarians in Glasgow secondaries are leaving in a wave of early retirements: rather than replacing them, the council is looking to the public library service to take over. In Dumfries and Galloway, meanwhile, not all secondaries now have dedicated librarians, and in other councils there is a move towards term-time-only employment or the use of library assistants.
Carol Moug is the librarian at St Paul’s Academy in Dundee and is also a member of the School Library Association Scotland, the profession’s advocacy body. For her, cutting services is a retrograde step. “A library without a librarian is just a collection of books,” she says. “The children come in and they haven’t got a clue. You have to be able to pick a book off the shelf and say, ‘This is a good one for you. You’ll enjoy this.’ You have to be enthusiastic about what they are reading, or they won’t be.”
New technology has brought new demands for librarians, too: teaching children how to critically evaluate what they read on the web, for instance, and not just copy and paste big chunks of Wikipedia. “Computers have their place,” says Moug. “But it is hard to get children reading, especially the boys. If you give them a choice between a book and a computer, they will choose the computer every time.”
Children who are readers have a huge advantage at exam time, she says, because they tend to have a depth of understanding other children lack. “A lot of children don’t really understand the questions. If you tell them to explain something, they don’t really understand how that differs from describing it. But the readers do.”
Term-time-only employment – currently under discussion for Fife school libraries – would cut out opportunities for professional development and planning, Moug says. She adds: “Teachers understand the importance of the school librarian, and so do heads. But we are concerned some local authorities are reducing the service. We think it will have a damaging effect.”
Visiting Holy Rood one ordinary lunchtime, the library is packed. The school has a weekly book club with 40 members, and McCabe is always keen to find books that talk to the children on their level. Another tactic for turning them into readers is to make the library a fun place to be, and to this end she has incorporated a project by the design department to build a life-size model of the Tardis which screeches and flashes when the doors are opened. “It is very difficult making readers of kids who don’t like reading,” she says. “But being in the library, sometimes by a process of osmosis they will pick up a book and find they like it.” With a book budget of just £1.50 per child per year, however, McCabe struggles to keep the shelves filled with things everyone will enjoy.
At another Edinburgh school, St Mary’s Primary, parents have taken over the library. The parent council will raise £1000 a year to buy books, and a volunteer librarian, Lisa Haniff, comes in every day. “There were a lot of really old books in here before,” she says. “Some of them even had prices on the back in shillings.” Now parents can choose for themselves how to source the books, buying them from wholesalers or through the internet.
For Haniff, the school library is more important than ever in today’s world. The battle now, for her and for her fellow librarians across the country, is to bring local authorities round to their point of view.