The Big Issue : Edition 582
THEBIGISSUE.ORG.AU 8–21 MAR 2019 15 PHOTOSBYGETTY AS A YOUNG girl growing up on the outskirts of Brisbane, children’s book author Jackie French didn’t have a lot of luck when it came to libraries. Her first school burned down, taking with it the one shelf of books that constituted its entire collection. Her new school fared a little better. At least it had a library, but French soon read everything and ran out of books to borrow. So she headed to her local library, only to be told she wasn’t allowed to borrow the books she wanted because she was too young. Testament to her tenacity, she eventually found a way in. “One very nice librarian pretended not to see me so I could actually sit in the aisles and read the things I wanted to read,” French says on the phone from her home in Araluen, NSW. This small gesture – a librarian clearing the way for a young child to satisfy her thirst for books – proved decisive for French. Today, she is the author of more than 200 books (including the much-loved Diary of a Wombat and Pete the Sheep), and a tireless advocate for children’s literacy. But along with many other authors and advocates, the one-time Children’s Laureate is alarmed by the demise of the school library and with it, the beloved teacher-librarian. “There is an epidemic of library closures and it is hidden,” says French, “often because the principals don’t acknowledge it themselves that they have destroyed the library by getting rid of the qualified staff or by locking the door.” Across Australia, the number of teacher-librarians – a qualified teacher who also holds a librarianship qualification – in primary schools has dropped significantly. Regular surveys conducted by the Australian Council for Educational Research across government, independent and Catholic schools have found while there were 5600 librarians teaching in primary schools in 2010, by 2013 there were just 1300. Comparatively, the decrease in music teachers (another specialist area) has been less pronounced, from 5200 teachers in 2010 to 4000 in 2013. Talk to the parent of a school-aged child and you’ll discover that teacher- librarians in public schools are a rarity. School libraries are being downsized, or are under-resourced, or are run by unqualified staff. And this is fast becoming a problem. It’s long been established that a healthy school library directly contributes to higher literacy rates among children. For many, the library is their only gateway to a digital world. For others, it’s a refuge from the schoolyard bullies, a welcoming safe space. A library provides much more than merely books and a quiet space to read them in. According to teacher-librarian and Students Need School Libraries campaign coordinator Holly Godfree, library professionals in schools have recognised for many years that their numbers are declining and are increasingly alarmed about what this means for students. Their campaign’s aim is simple: for all children to have access to quality school libraries run by qualified librarians. “When I read about how Australia’s PISA results are in decline; about the future workforce and what skills will be required; misinformation in the news and how that affects democracy; teacher workload and current debates in education about the need to improve how we assess learning and the need to individualise student learning – all of these things are deeply embedded in school library services. So, the fact that they’ve generally been in decline around the country is cause for alarm,” says Godfree. Those PISA results, from the Programme for International Student Assessment, will be released later this year; they are from a worldwide study conducted by the OECD every three years to evaluate 15-year-old school students’ aptitude in maths, science and reading. And all eyes are on Australia’s ranking. Since PISA’s inaugural survey in 2000, we’ve been scoring progressively worse when it comes to our children’s reading performance – from fourth in 2000 to 16th in 2015. Countries currently outranking Australia include Canada, Libraries empower and educate our kids, so why are our school libraries in crisis? Anastasia Safioleas investigates. — LIBRARIES AROUND THE WORLD, CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: STATE LIBRARY OF SOUTH AUSTRALIA, ADELAIDE; COPENHAGEN UNIVERSITY HUMANITIES LIBRARY; CONNEMARA LIBRARY, CHENNAI, INDIA; TAMA ART UNIVERSITY LIBRARY, TOKYO, JAPAN; NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY; JOSE MARTI LIBRARY, SANTA CLARA, CUBA; NATIONAL LIBRARY OF CHINA, BEIJING – THE LARGEST LIBRARY IN ASIA.