Saturday 30 May 2020

School Librarians After Lockdown - how can we build on an interest in reading?

According to a recent survey by The Reading Agency, nearly 1 in 3 people are reading more than before during lockdown. This rises to almost one in two people (45%) in the 18 – 25 year age group. Reasons given for this increase in reading include “a form of release, escapism or distraction” and many people said “having more time was a key driver”. I suspect if you looked at the statistics for younger people you would find similar increases. Many school librarians are working from home, supporting students remotely, and they have reported an increase in engagement with reading, often from students who have previously shown no interest or who have rarely visited the school library to borrow a book. Students are signing up to e-book platforms, accessing e-books from both their school and public libraries, requesting recommendations (and making them to their peers). The things that have always distracted students – such as social media, video games, TV, etc. – are still there. So why this increased interest in reading? More time may be a factor but I think that many of them have simply discovered the benefits of reading for pleasure.

The impact of reading for pleasure has been well documented. The National Literacy Trust has undertaken several studies into this, as has BookTrust, if you’d like to read further but in addition to improving vocabulary, writing skills, concentration and memory, reading for pleasure also helps to reduce stress, aids sleep and foster wellbeing. The work of school librarians during lockdown highlights this importance aspect of their role - it seems obvious to me that if we want children to read then they need access to a wide and diverse range of books, and the best person to help them find what they need is a school librarian. It should also be said that “reading for pleasure” does not simply constitute reading fiction; any sort of reading counts – fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels, comics, wordless picture books, manuals, journals. I am currently browsing through books on acrylic painting techniques in an attempt to improve my skills - I’m actually “reading for information” but am still enjoying it and find it relaxing. So we can’t assume that just because somebody is reading for information they’re not also reading for pleasure; the two are not mutually exclusive. IFLA School Library Guidelines consider that school librarians should “support the individual preferences of readers, and acknowledge their individual rights to choose what they want to read”.

So how can school librarians build on this renewed interest when students finally go back to school and the library is reopened? Many students will want to go back to physical books. Some who have discovered the delights of reading via e-books may be encouraged to try out a physical book, particularly one by an author they’ve enjoyed or in a genre they’ve connected with. But I suspect that, sadly, several may just put books and reading aside.

·         If a school library hasn’t really offered e-books before then this is certainly something that should be considered. Not to replace physical books but to offer them as an alternative format alongside audio books – and this may well have budget implications so if schools want their students to continue reading they need to fund their libraries adequately. 

·         School librarians have been able to provide a more one-to-one service with support and recommendations, promoting books, and related websites and activities. I suspect this is because they’ve been able to concentrate on putting together resources without the innumerable ad-hoc interruptions that occur during a normal day in the library. These tend to result in ideas and initiatives being pushed down the list and, eventually, forgotten or half-started and abandoned. So staffing is another factor – if schools want their librarians to continue providing these services then provision needs to be made so they have uninterrupted time in which to create them.

·         Outreach during the past few weeks has, by necessity, been online. Several schools don’t allow their school librarians to connect via social media platforms but have had to relax the rules a bit. It would be great if these connections could continue. Many students won’t go near the library during the school day as it’s not considered a “cool” place to be seen in so this online presence allows them to continue to explore reading in an anonymous way.

·         For the majority of students a period of transition will be needed. Some will have experienced bereavement; others will have experienced abuse; those who do not consider school a safe space will probably experience high levels of anxiety; and most students are likely to feel some sort of stress about returning to school. Student wellbeing needs to be a priority and the library – and reading – has a huge role to play here in supporting students and staff so try to ensure you are included in any wellbeing initiatives, and continue to engage with the students that have connected with you during lockdown.

·         I think the largest factor at play is going to be time. Students are going to be back into the usual busy routine of lessons, activities, homework, etc. plus there will be the added pressure of everyone trying to assess how much they need to do to “catch up”. When planning all of this, it would be fantastic if some time could be given to “reading for pleasure” – time to explore and talk about books, to find out what students have been reading and why, and to build on this unexpected legacy from lockdown.