I will shortly be coming up to my 15th year as a primary school librarian. It’s a job I very much created and developed ex nihilo, and I think it would be interesting to reflect on how it has changed in that period of time.
When we began, with £400 worth of books from the PTA, open for half an hour at lunchtime three days a week, it was an amateurish operation and very much a “nice to have.” On the whole our children are already fairly well supplied with books in their homes, and their parents have the resources to take them to book shops and libraries. Libraries were much better resourced than they are now, although our Labour city council has protected them from some of the more drastic cuts seen elsewhere. We still have a branch library, professionally staffed and regularly open, a few minutes’ walk away from school. Sadly, our superb local children’s bookshop closed a few years ago, unable to compete with soaring overheads on the high street of our trendy city suburb.
Our principal source of funding for books and running costs other than my salary is the PTA, who usually give us £1,000 a year. This is very generous and many schools couldn’t possibly afford it. Their aim in so doing is that they want pupils to have as wide a selection of attractive books as possible, encouraging them to explore and read above and beyond the National Curriculum, to learn that reading is the gateway to knowledge and creativity. My mission, primarily, is to make that happen.
Two factors have recently begun to put increasing pressure on the use of that money, and I think they are symptomatic, in their own small but sinister way, of the increasing inequality in educational chances for all children. One is that class teachers have begun to approach me more frequently for help with resourcing topic work. National Curriculum topics are changing more frequently than they used to, and each change brings the need to buy in books and other resources. School budgets for these resources are under ever-increasing pressure.
On principle, I regard meeting these needs as one of the most important and enjoyable aspects of my work. But there is a subtle change between a library stocking extension material to encourage children’s independent intellectual and imaginative exploration of a subject, and a library supplying the basics for classroom learning. Most teachers in my school try not to cross this line, but the temptation is always there. If I had £5,000 a year this would be no problem. But I haven’t. A complete series of the Alex Rider books, complete with protective covers, plus duplicates for the first couple in the series to meet demand and the inevitable missing copies, can easily consume 5% of my annual budget. And every textbook on the ancient Romans I purchase means one less Caroline Lawrence mystery to inspire the children.
Pressure from the other direction is also noticeable. A parent recently came to me to say that her 11 year old had developed a three book a week habit. He was devouring Antony Horowitz’s entire output and on average a £6.99 paperback was lasting him two days. Desperate to know what happened next, he’d gone to the local library to find that there were 14 copies of the next in the series to serve the entire population of Manchester. His chance of finding out what happened next within the next six months were remote.
So I bought the series. He will recommend it to his friends, and that’s great. And then they will ask what to read next, and series after series will follow, hopefully. That’s my job. It’s what I love to do. But it’s increasingly expensive.
Children’s literature is going through a golden age, but increasingly it’s about brands and series. A child discovers a series, not just one book. It may be one you can pick up for £14.99 from The Book People, but there are plenty of parents who couldn’t justify even that expense, and that’s where libraries should come in. And if I am noticing these pressures building up even in my relatively affluent little neck of the woods, I can’t help wondering how kids are managing elsewhere. I hope they have lots of thrilling books to discover, because certainly those books are out there for those who can pay for them. But I do wonder.