Yesterday I had less than 10 minutes to deal with a class of 7 year old children. Some of them hadn’t got into the library for a while (because I work over multiple schools I’m not there every day) and were confused about whether they had returned their books. To compound the problem, the library is in an open reception area where, despite the presence of an expensive piece of furniture marked BOOK RETURNS, they sneak their overdue books back on to shelves rather than face the imagined wrath of the librarian – unwittingly doing precisely what infuriates me.
So it was that we had a keen reader visibly upset because he was “accused” of not bringing back a book. In fact he had, but it took me 15 minutes to figure that out and by then he was back in class, miserable, disappointed and probably not really very focussed on the work he’d been rushed away to get on with. It happens a lot, and the underlying reason is the constant pressure teachers feel under, and their lack of control over the curriculum and the structure of the day. So my issue is with the system, not the teachers who are like me, struggling to do a challenging job with limited resources.
But I don’t think teachers always realise how anxious children can feel in a library. How sensitive and vulnerable they can feel in case they appear “thick” or “babyish” in front of their peers. The perception that libraries are only for really clever people, ie, not them. I often get children wanting to change their book multiple times within one session, as they grab a 400 page Jacqueline Wilson, then read the first two pages and panic. Teachers, thinking they will make my life easier and probably also mindful of the time-consuming task of chasing overdue books (which many children either deny borrowing, don’t remember borrowing, or lie about having returned), often impose rather draconian rules. Only one book at a time, zero tolerance of overdue loans, threats to send a letter home and demand payment (do they stop and think about how this might affect a child with a chaotic home life or even a violent parent?) Probably not, because most teachers don’t have nearly enough time to stop and think these days; even the best of them become systems-driven under stress.
Finding a book that is appropriate to a child’s age and reading ability is one of the most challenging jobs for a librarian, and we sometimes go into it with scant information about the child involved. Children put up numerous defensive strategies when they feel anxious. They lie, they bluff, they pretend they don’t care by saying books are babyish and boring, when in fact they simply feel out of control in an unfamiliar environment. And many of these problems intensify as they move through primary school if they aren’t nipped in the bud by a librarian or a teacher who knows them well.
So my plea to teachers is, please try to give your children time. I know how hard this can be. Consider sending them to the library in smaller groups, rather than worrying about tying up a TA because thirty of them are coming in at the same time. Work with your librarian, if you are fortunate enough to have them, on systems to make the process of returning overdue loans clear and straightforward. It is amazing how much difference it makes to how a library session goes if you don’t have to spend the first ten minutes of it sorting out who has brought books back and arguing about it. Collect the children’s returned books in a clearly labelled box on the morning of library day, and get it to the librarian in advance. Then library time will be an enjoyable and confidence-building experience for the children, rather than a frustrating exercise in either queuing up or running riot while the librarian works through a series of “did-I-bring-my-book-back-Miss?” exchanges.
Ultimately we’re on the same side, so let’s help one another. And if you’re in Y5 and you want to borrow a picture book, good on you. You don’t even have to tell me it’s for your little brother.