School Librarians Revealed: Part 2 – Keepers of Books

This is part two of School Librarians Revealed, a report on the joint SCBWI-BI Central East Region/Ipswich Children’s Book Group meeting with two Suffolk school librarians: Jayne Gould and Alison Baker.

The Book Keepers: The Role of Librarians

“The only way you can learn to make choices is by making choices,” says Jayne Gould, “and part of that process is making the wrong choice”. Despite the temptation to interfere in children’s reading choices, most librarians felt that only in exceptional circumstances do they step in. They support a pupil’s right to make choice and try a book.

Librarians are keen to encourage pupils to read and to keep them borrowing books. Part of the process is helping pupils find something appropriate, by both content and reading age, and, at the same time, challenging. They also have a role to play in helping developing readers.

Problems do occur, for example, in Broke Hall School, Year Four boys started going for the longest books they could find so they could be seen reading “great thick books”. But many of these books came back the next day because they were too challenging a read. So Jayne Gould worked very closely with teachers to establish reading scheme: specially chosen books were placed in five colour types and the students had to read one book from each of the coloured tubs in order to get a gold certificate.

In the older school, the problem can be the opposite. Year Nine students still take out Horrid Henry when they should be challenging themselves, although with a mix of reading abilities, some students still need something more appropriate to their reading age, like quick reads.

Stoke High School has had a lot of success with a paired reading scheme. Pupils who read at below chronological age, but not low enough for corrective reading, are paired with stronger, older readers. They meet twice a week for 20 minutes to practice reading out loud. The scheme not only makes dramatic improvements to reading ability (and enjoyment) over six months but also creates some strong friendships. It is not unusual for pupils to improve their reading age by two years during the scheme. It also helps the students to learn to pick appropriate books and get satisfaction from being able to get into and to the end of the story.

And it’s not just pupils that need supporting. Teachers need librarians to be an informed resource and to support the curriculum as well as foster wider reading. The librarians need to read voraciously and share their reading experiences/suggestions with pupils and staff. Children who like reading are always in the library talking about what they’ve read. Most children are very happy talking to the school librarians and they feel enthusiastic children can be ambassadors for reading, helping encourage other students to pick up the reading bug.

A forgotten role of school librarians is teaching children to make decisions about books. All the schools hold sessions on how to choose a book, helping children to make a decision on what to read (although despite this most students still make their decision entirely on the cover!).

Age banding

The move by many UK publishers to start “age-banding” books is hot topic of the moment. Unsurprising to anyone listening to the debates, staff in schools are almost universal opposition to age banding because it would stop a lot of children picking up books.

Obviously, there is an issue of suitability and making sure books are age-appropriate so the kids are not exposed unduly to swearing, violence and, in the case of some celebrity biographies, inappropriate pictures. However, librarians felt on the whole that children should be allowed to read anything they choose and be trusted to self censor, if they don’t like it.

Students are largely self censoring. They often don’t want to read something that is not suitable for them and they will bring them back. An 11-year-old girl in one library borrowed a book that had been put into the library by a previous librarian and returned it for being too explicit. Most readers will stop if they are uncomfortable with the book.

Even in the high school library, most of the students do not look at the adult book section. Alison Baker jokes that they’ve trained them all well! However, Year 10 and 11 students do read Agatha Christie, Mills and Boon and “good adventure stories”.

During her days as a bookseller, Jayne had a customer who wanted to buy the classic Black Beauty (by Anna Sewell) for a 5 year old without realising that might be inappropriate for the youngster.

The difficult comes with people who don’t work closely with children or know the children’s books market. How do they make choices to buy books for children? It would be helpful to the “grandparents” buying books, but at the heavy price of stigmatising children and excluding many from the pleasures of reading.

For more information on the age banding debate visit:

Coming soon – Part 3: The Books Librarians Want Written – watch this blog!