A Case for School Libraries – what we need to achieve in our school libraries

Now, if you’re a regular reader you will know that I do not hold with the current view that school libraries should be made statutory or that they should be a forced part of an inspection.

The first point I believe is a futile one to argue as there are so many reasons why it can’t happen. But importantly I think our effort should be put more into each of us showing our schools the reason why we should have a school library through the work and impact we have and our schools making a conscious decision. Not a decision forced upon them. Rather than putting the blame for a lack of success on other things and different circumstances we should instead be the masters of our own destiny.

The second point about inspecting a Library again I feel is counter intuitive. There is as much in recent Ofsted documentation that shows they do get it and understand the importance of a school library. Having been inspecting in this new literacy rich style inspection Ofsted are clued in and value reading. But importantly my argument and what Ofsted also realise is the impact a school library needs to have outside its physical space. If reading is only seen by going into the library then the library is not a success. Simple.

Now by no means do I think that a Library shouldn’t be visited by an inspector or the librarian or literacy advocate (literacy coordinator) be spoken to, in fact to gain an overall view of literacy across the school I think it’s vitally important that this conversation does go on. I just don’t necessarily agree that forcing Ofsted to visit the library is the way to gain success.

This post however is not about my views on this it is in fact an argument as to why school libraries are important. I have had the pleasure of visiting numerous school libraries across the country as a trainer and a consultant over the past 10 plus years and have run a number of successful libraries myself in some of the most deprived areas of the country.

The current school I am at, I feel, embodies everything I have learnt and am still learning (you can never be done in education and can still learn no matter how much experience you have!) about running a successful school library. This article then is an example of what can be achieved by a school library and a school librarian and the impact they can both have.

Now you can argue, and many have, on the purpose of a school library and what it should do within a school. My feelings are that a school library is a multi-faceted place that can and should be and do numerous things for numerous people but ultimately I would say the core things a school library should be and do are:

1. Provide resources to enhance the learning in and out of the classroom (books, websites other relevant resources which could include technology)
2. Provide knowledge to enhance teaching (information literacy skills for staff)
3. Provide knowledge to enhance learning (information literacy skills for students)
4. Teach the weakest readers to read and improve reading of all students
5. Engage the school into a love of reading (the whole community)

Now let’s take these one by one I and I will explain a little how about what we do and how we meet this criteria. It’s also worth knowing that I dislike things in school that are done because they look good. I firmly believe in joined up thinking and practice, about partnerships that are deeper than one offs and are about fundamentally making a difference not just a perceived one.

1. Providing resources is probably the staple of a school library. The types of resources you have help to define the service you offer. But, and this is where most people get it wrong, your resources should be dependent on the need of your customer. It shouldn’t be a case of you dictating to customers what you think they want but you responding to their needs. Resources can also in this sense mean physical resources such as the room or the librarian.

Part of what makes our library different is how we respond to our students in organising our stock. Now, many libraries organise stock in many different ways but all use similar principles and the same over-arching theory. This model is an off shoot of the public library method of organisation where you are putting together an organisation of physical resources that any one could access. However, this isn’t the best model in a school. In fact it is this type of system may just be the reason why there are those that don’t value or use school libraries.

Our system of organisation isn’t a tweak or a slight difference it is a wholesale change of metholodology and attitude. Having spoken to students and listened to what they and staff have told us we have completely changed our non-fiction organisation.

We use a system invented by ourselves but reflective of our customers. Non-fiction books are taken out of Dewey order and placed on shelves dependent of where they will be studied in the curriculum. So each bay is labelled with the subject, science, English, maths, history etc and then each shelf is a year group. These shelves are further sub divided down into the terms they are studied in so searching becomes ultra easy for students to find the correct book.

Now I know the first argument is going to be ‘but teaching students the Dewey systems prepares then for university’. Unfortunately I don’t believe this to be true. What we need to teach our young people is how to recognise that a room they have walked in has an ordering system, how to find out what that ordering system is and finally how to find what they want in that system. Dewey is just one example of this. If we teach though the process of searching and of organisation then this is the transferable skill that will set them right for their whole lives.

This ordering system isn’t just a one off though. It is linked inextricably to our process of information literacy, more on this later though!

The rest of the collection is then broken down further. Any fact book that can be read for pleasure is shelved in a ‘facts for fun’ section in the middle of the fiction books. This is to promote facts as being able to be read for pleasure and to encourage all types of readers to view themselves as such. We then take out books that we know departments are going to need to help teach the subject and place these in boxes ready to go out to departments at the very beginning of the term. This is similar to creating book boxes for staff however instead of waiting for them to be requested we provide them straight away. The books are therefore being used more and the students and teachers are the overall winners of this.

Finally, any other books are placed in a special collection that is much more specific, uses Dewey and is a lot smaller so the right books can be found easier.

As I said this organisation system is responding to the need of our students and staff and it also links strongly into our work on information literacy within the school. As mentioned earlier I don’t like things that don’t fit together and work in tandem. In thinking and working this way each small part makes a much bigger whole and this is where our work on information literacy comes in.

In most school libraries the librarian will run some information literacy sessions for students. Normally this will be some sessions for year 7 maybe some for year 10 and then some for sixth formers. This is what you will see in most schools and not very often will you see anything better. It will just be the librarian and it will only be a very very small number of lessons. This then means that it can only ever have a small impact, only ever be more about surface understanding and because it only comes from one person it will more than likely be forgotton.

Instead, what we have done is realise and understand the power of the classroom. We know the power that the teacher has and that consistency is the key to produce anything successfully. What we have done then is put the onus in the classroom and make it so that any piece of work set utilises the skills and explicit teaching of information literacy to make it successful.

Whilst reviewing our homework policy we came up with a radical idea of flipping it so that students came to the lesson prepared. This change means that research becomes a lot more important and has a greater focus. Instead of students taking away work to compound their knowledge they have to research the information to bring to the next lesson. This means that students are coming to the lesson with an understanding of what they are going to learn and so the rest of the lesson can be compounding this knowledge.

With such a great idea you need to have a model in place to make sure the setting of the work is going to produce the best quality.This is again where the library comes in. By being a part of this initial decision we could put into place the consistent use of the information literacy PLUS model. This stands for purpose, location, use, self evaluation and fits perfect as a model for teaching in the classroom.

When a piece of work is set our teaching and learning policy states that it must be done so through the PLUS model. With training from us teachers know that they can spend a little time with the class clearly defining what it is they are looking for. Giving them a clear definition of the purpose of the work. This means each student walks away from the lesson knowing exactly what they are looking for. Teachers also use the location stage of the model to talk about where this information might be found. This then includes talking about keywords, internet searching and quality of resources, analysing websites etc and also skimming and scanning to find the information. Not only then do students know what they are looking for they also know where they are going to find this information.

To make this even more successful we gave time to departments to think about their prep pieces and to rewrite them with this in mind. This meant that they were of a much higher quality, explicitly taught research skills and were geared towards a better quality of end product from the student.

As we were changing things to have students being prepared for the lesson we also had departments create subject overviews so parents and students alike knew exactly what was going to be studied when and in which year group. On these subject overviews are also books and other resources students might like to use and trips/visits their parents might like to them on in the holidays etc.

This method, if you haven’t already guessed, is the one we copied for our restructure of our non-fiction collection. As previously mentioned I try to make things link together to add value to each other and this is a perfect example. Everything we do has a reason for it and links to something else, strengthening all parts and their impact.

This model therefore means that information literacy is fully embedded in each classroom with all teachers experts in teaching the skills of info lit and led by the library and supported with resources and training by the library. It is part of the important policies in school and bought into each lesson by the teachers where it impacts on the quality of the learning and teaching in the school.

No bad eh. This for me is the potential a school library has and what it can offer in terms of impacting on teaching and learning, the bread and butter of a school.

It goes beyond this too in the work we do on engaging readers, creating a community of readers and teaching our weakest how to read. We track all students in their reading, run numerous interventions and provide teachers with knowledge, expertise and strategies to help those weak readers in the classroom to do the best they can. Our work was given an outstanding by ofsted in our inspection last month with the lead inspector ‘blown away’. Our tracking model is second to none and actually provides us with evidence to show the impact a Library has on reading for pleasure. It’s not about numbers but individual students. It’s about understanding exactly where they are coming from what barriers exist, understating how they can be overcome and providing the knowledge and experience to make this happen.

This is what can be achieved in a school through the library and the librarian and it has come about not because we’ve made school libraries statutory, not because we’ve made them part of the inspection protocol but because we have shown our school through hard work and graft the impact we have and because of this our school values us and knows the importance we have as an integral part of the school.

This is what we should be trying to achieve. Not waiting for someone to do something that might make our roles a little easier but to take control ourselves and spend our time making a difference in our own school getting them to see our worth and value through this hard.

So this is the case I’m making for School Libraries. Don’t wait for someone else to do something for you that might or might not happen. Take your destiny into your own hands and show the value you have to your school. Because if you do have value then it will be seen and it will be celebrated.



  1. Hi Adam, great post! I have always been in the camp that we should encourage inspection as it would highlight our importance to the school teachers and the school themselves. This is because my service is not in the school the whole time and we rely on library assistants some of whom are not proactive. This is not always their own fault.

    I heard yesterday that one of our schools had an independent learning week and as we had not heard of it before yesterday I can only assume that the library wasn’t involved. I will have to check that today of course but it is frustrating. On a positive note this week has only occurred because of work we managed to do in the school last year but why then doesn’t the school recognise that with our support it can work better? I know that you said that you like the teachers to do the information literacy but where does the librarian fit into this? Maybe I have it all wrong and am expecting too much in the wrong way.


  2. Hi Adam
    i agree with all you have said, well almost all but this is only possible with a well staffed library. Us lone workers can never achieve all this in teh limited time we have especially those who have been saddled with ‘other’ reading initiatives.

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