Why School Libraries (Still) Matter

In an education system full of challenges, school libraries are the great equalizers
Midsection of young female librarian holding books with students sitting in library
© Can Stock Photo / Leaf

Albert Einstein is famously quoted as saying, “The only thing that you absolutely have to know, is the location of the library.” This piece of advice remains as pertinent today as it did 100 years ago despite the arrival of the Internet, e-books, and apps that make us feel like we never have to leave home in order to learn!  

No more the antiquated vision of a stodgy, patrician hall with cross librarians relentlessly “shushing” passing patrons, in the past few years there has been increased spending on public libraries in municipalities across North America. Halifax, Nova Scotia, spent $57.6 million in 2014 on a new, much-heralded, central library and in November 2018 the spectacular new central library in Calgary, Alberta, opened to the tune of $245 million. When the eco-friendly library in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, opened in 2013, like so many others it quickly became the dynamic cultural centre of the city.

Clearly society values what libraries bring to our communities and culture. While no one expects school libraries to be funded to the same level as public ones, it’s time for a renewed commitment and investment in our school libraries from those who hold the purse strings. Research about educational trends and pedagogical models shows the significant difference effective school libraries and library staff make on student literacy and learning outcomes. Indeed, school libraries enhance student achievement, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. Take a closer look and the picture is much richer.

“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” Albert Einstein 

The library: The heart of the school 

If it has survived the years of fiscal belt-tightening and staff cuts, the school library is often to be found—metaphorically and sometimes physically—at the heart of a school. It combines three key elements—resources, library staff, and space—to effectively support and enrich not only the work of the rest of the academic environment, but the personal, social, and cultural development of every individual who accesses it. How does it manage this? 

Inclusive refuge 

The physical space of a library plays an important but underappreciated role. School can be noisy, stressful, and chaotic, and, for some children, quiet time in the library can be a game-changer. A school library is a safe and inclusive space that can be an escape for those students needing to recharge their mental batteries and build resiliency.  

A leveled playing field 

School libraries are a great social equalizer. Not every parent has the time to read their child a bedtime story and not every home has shelves filled with age-appropriate books. For children who might be lacking access to books or other resources at home, the school library is a deep well of knowledge that quenches the thirst for and provides access to the stories, information, and technology they want and need.  

The heart of the library: the books

More creative and inclusive thinking may be required to keep school libraries relevant, but physical books will always be an integral part of a library. According to a January 2019 report from Booknet, print book readers still make up 90% of all readers with 67% of these saying they read print books at least once a week and 20% said they read print books daily. In the Kids and Family Reading Report, a staggering 80% of kids say they’ll always prefer to read printed books even if offered e-books!

And while we remain enamoured with the physical feel of a book in our hands, research suggests that reading paper books is also better for memory retention and focus. Researchers in Norway gave readers a short story to read on either an e-reader or in a paperback book. When they were quizzed later, those who read the paperback were more likely to remember plot points in the right order. According to lead researcher, Anne Mangen, "When you read on paper you can sense with your fingers a pile of pages on the left growing, and shrinking on the right." 

Mentorship and relationship

More than a repository of books, the library is the place where inquiry and critical thinking takes place and where multiple literacies and life skills are supported. For this, there needs to be a library professional to assist children with information needs and to develop their research skills, and, increasingly, teach technology skills and digital literacy. No less important, they play a pivotal role in helping to create a school culture that supports and encourages reading for pleasure. Staff are on hand to recommend books based on what a student enjoys, find that obscure non-fiction resource, or order in new books to fill specific gaps. This person is also a neutral staff member in a position to make a world of difference in a student’s life when other relationships, such as with parents, teachers, or classmates, may be more fraught.

Despite these virtues, the number of certified school librarians or library techs per student has seen a steady decline. According to a 2016 analysis of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), only 62% of library/media centres in elementary schools in the US are staffed by at least one full-time librarian/specialist. And in many parts of Canada, it is not unusual for one library staff member to work at two or three (or more!) different schools in the course of a week.

“Having the freedom to read and the freedom to choose is one of the best gifts my parents ever gave me.” Judy Blume

Diverse choice and relevant resources

The book collection, curated by library staff for their unique school community, often includes local content and authors that reflect the school’s place in the world. It needs to be kept up-to-date and relevant because reading helps children navigate their world at an age-appropriate level. Almost three-quarters of kids in the 2019 Kids and Family Reading Report said that that reading about current events makes it easier to talk about or understand them.

What’s more, they have the opportunity to self-select their books. This is a big deal. According to the report, student choice is a huge part of reading motivation. In Canada, 94% of kids aged 6–17 and 89% in the US agree that their favourite books are the ones they have picked themselves. No surprise to teachers or parents wheedling their kids to get their reading assignments done daily, many children don’t enjoy levelled classroom readers—they’d rather pore over a dinosaur encyclopedia or a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! from the reference section in the school library. Choice is key, which is why classroom libraries cannot take the place of school libraries.

Positive and enduring learning environment

Numerous international studies have demonstrated a link between student achievement and the presence of professionally staffed school libraries. Studies have also shown that reading enjoyment is a significant factor in improving student performance not only in literacy, but in science and mathematics as well. Schools with libraries have improved reading test scores, higher academic achievement, and more positive attitudes towards learning. One Canadian research paper reports that the presence of a teacher-librarian was the single strongest predictor of reading enjoyment and achievement for grades 3 and 6 and schools with teacher-librarians could be expected to have reading enjoyment scores 8% higher than average. This stays with students for the rest of their education and throughout their lives regardless of the level of higher education achieved, income, or socio-economic status.

It’s clear from the research that school libraries make a difference. We need policies in place so that regardless of the size of the schools they attend or their geographic location, all students can find their way to a well-stocked and professionally staffed library. To quote children’s author and illustrator Chris Riddell, “There is a risk of librarians becoming an endangered species, and that would be a tragedy for our children.” In light of the evidence that these spaces do nothing but enhance the potential, the daily existence, and the very lives—current and future—of children, we have an obligation to support, use and encourage others to use, and to object to the closure of libraries.