School + Library = linguistic progress + reading skills

School libraries became the subject of some intense discussions during the autumn of 2005. In an article on this topical issue the Swedish Federation of Teachers insisted that “every school library should be staffed”. The four liberal and conservative opposition party alliances declared in a mutual private member’s bill that “a school library has great potential as a space for learning. The learning milieus from primary school to upper secondary school are decisive apropos a schoolchild’s linguistic development. A librarian is therefore an excellent resource”. The Left Party stated in their private member’s bill “hat the role and assignment of the school library needs to be clarified and reinforced”. And the Minister for Schools and Adult Education, Ibrahim Baylan of the Social Democratic Government pointed out “for all schoolchildren, irregardless of background and gender, in order to receive access to a rich and varied language and insight into our literary treasure, special measures need to be taken. /…/ This is the context in which a library’s educational role is of great importance.”

The school library has long been the subject of heated debate, especially among librarians. The attention this issue has been given over the past six months might be an indication that something new, perhaps even a breakthrough for the school library’s role in the educational system is in the pipeline. Yet, a survey authorized by the Swedish Library Association made apparent that few municipal commissioners are prepared to invest any further in staffing school libraries, due perhaps to previous bad experiences, desperate financial situation or simply lacking any understanding as to the importance of a library. Or it might just be that the municipal commissioners feel that the issue dealt with on a different level, such as with the headmasters who are formally responsible for their school’s library.

The issue of the school library is on the whole a very complex one. In Sweden no other type of library has so often been the subject of inquiries, yet it is the least widespread of them all. Initially the school library was a question of accessibility. Schools needed books. Therefore it made sense to have them readily available at the school itself.

Further down the road various methods have been elaborated upon whereby the library acquired a special role and were seen as an integral part to a school’s educational methods and a pupils learning ability. The curricula introduced in 1994 for comprehensive and upper secondary schools have been important to such a development.

Schools went from observance of stated regulations to becoming goal oriented. Yet, fully functional school libraries remain a rare occurrence, especially among comprehensive schools. Recent school library statistics indicate that even if levels were lowered to such a degree, requiring school library staff to be on duty six hours per week, alternatively have access to an integrated public and school library, it would still only apply to approximately half the number of students in the comprehensive school system. Access to libraries at independent schools is especially bad.

There are numerous explanations as to why this is the case. The fact that whether school libraries exist or not is wholly the responsibility of the school board might be a reason.

As an example, a situation arises whereby one municipality might well have functioning school libraries with suitably trained staff alongside schools whose libraries literally consist of a few book shelves. If general explanations are needed I would like to suggest two. Firstly, it has always been unclear as to where the matter of school libraries actually belongs. Is it an issue for the school boards or the libraries? Secondly, there is an uncertainty as to how a collaborative undertaking between public libraries and school libraries should manifest themselves.

This obscure organisation can be exemplified in numerous ways. It is not uncommon among local authorities to assign formal responsibility over school libraries to the public libraries. Its range can span from offering a specific service to the schools to employing and caring for staff. There are circumstances where such an approach might well prove successful, but more often than not it nearly always leads to a confusing state of affairs regarding the functions of a school library. For headmasters it means that part of the school’s staff is not actually employed by the school. The responsibility for staff and a library’s development strategies lay elsewhere. This invariably makes the library’s integration with the school an arduous process. Instead of being a learning resource it merely becomes another service facility. In Sweden, studying library and information science will eventually award the student with a licentiate degree. Yet, there are no specific courses that relate directly school librarianship, discounting the few supplementary courses offered qualified librarians and teachers. This applies to the entire sphere of librarianship as a whole. Nor does a librarian’s degree specifically qualify a librarian as either a public librarian or a research librarian. There are a number of good reasons for such a general education, in which an academic approach is preferred to a pragmatic one. Nevertheless, an uncertainty will become apparent when a school needs to employ suitable library staff.

When viewing the level of authority, the assignment given the National Council for Cultural Affairs to gather school library statistics was the only one of its kind on a national level. The National Council for Cultural Affairs is to an extent obliged to oversee national coordination among public libraries but with regard to school libraries the gathering of statistics remains its sole task. The Swedish National Agency for Education is responsible to gather all qualitative and quantitative data concerning all school matters, excepting those of school libraries. The past couple of years have however seen a change take place. As a result of an official survey presented in 1999 by the National Council for Cultural Affairs on Swedish school libraries, the Swedish National Agency for Education and later the Swedish National Agency for School Improvement were assigned specific government commissions to partly initiate creative reading and writing milieus and partly to develop the school library’s teaching role. The assignments were brought together under the project heading: ‘SprÃ¥krum’, and took place from 2000 to 2003. Over a number of years local authorities have received government funding to reinforce staff in comprehensive and primary schools. It has always been made clear that the Government wish to see local authorities applying part of these subsidies to employ more librarians. The effect has been marginal.

As from 2006 the Swedish National Agency for School Improvement received a further assignment intended to support the efforts of schools in developing linguistic capabilities, mainly in linguistically and culturally segregated areas of multiple ethnicity. It is expected that particular attention be given to school libraries. On the whole, this shows an increased lucidity as to the ambitions of Government and Parliament with regards to school library development.

A shift has taken place from seeing school libraries as mere complements to public libraries with the purpose of disseminating fiction literature, to an outlook whereby school libraries are seen as a complimentary resource to the school’s efforts in linguistic developmental strategies. There should be a long term effect to this.

In 2004 I was offered an assignment by the Stockholm City Council to investigate the obstacles and opportunities inherent in collaborative engagements between public libraries and schools. Once again the assignment’s background was to focus on linguistic developments among children and young people and to coordinate city resources in the field. Conducting dialogues with key persons and different interest groups, a picture emerged as to how collaboration within schools and libraries respectively are seen. Even though the results reflect that of Stockholm I consider them on the whole to be indicative of the situation nationwide. Linguistic development and reading skills were defined as focal points with schools and libraries. Nevertheless, there were no coordinated efforts between them. There was no structured dialogue as to how this was to come about or what the mutual goal itself was to consist of.

Children’s librarians were often dependant upon the school for practical reasons, as the aim was to reach all children. There were a number of complaints that collaborative efforts were seldom advanced or developed, whilst others clearly stated a dislike to be involved in a school’s curricula and strategies. A certain amount of criticism was also directed at children’s librarians as a whole for behaving as if reading skills and proficiency was the sole property of public libraries. By sanctioning such attitudes one discounts the fact, as a number of headmasters and teachers point out that these particular issues make up the main core of all school activity. On the other hand, children’s librarians noted the teaching staff ‘s inadequate knowledge about current children’s books and feeble interest from headmasters in improving school libraries.

A consequence of such attitudes will very likely see public libraries assume a compensatory role in relation to the schools. Much of the agenda is motivated with  the school is failing to do what it is supposed to do . There is an obvious lack of reciprocity in the cooperative setting. At its worst, schools will passively stand by and accept whatever public libraries do and fail to notice structural improvements to their own libraries. Public libraries will, on the other hand, spend time and effort in covering what they feel should be taken care of by the school authorities, instead of focusing on their own identity and profile.

As a result of the assignment regarding Stockholm, the Cultural Administration and Stockholm Public Library were assigned to collaborate with the Educational Administration and the separate district councils to present a definition of aims clarifying in an overall manner as to how a collaborative venture between schools and libraries should develop. This is expected to take place during the spring of 2006. Such a document will be essential in defining the areas that need coordinated efforts and at which levels such coordination should take place. For instance, it is decisive that there is a functioning collaboration on all decision making levels.

The image of developments in the school library sector in Sweden and the collaboration between libraries and schools, is a grim one. But I wish to point out a number of positive trends. One of which, as mentioned above, is an increased awareness and involvement from government and local authority levels concerning the special potential inherent in school libraries enabling a difference in pupils learning abilities. Another is the innovative and progressive work regarding the development of children’s library activities.

There are a number of interesting projects in this field being monitored by county and regional libraries.

This should lead to a more prolific and relevant children’s library activity, complementing rather than compensating a school. A third tendency is the research being done on school libraries and which to an extent bear direct relevance to the practical issues involved. The research report Textflytt och sökslump is a result of the project ‘SprÃ¥krum’ initiated by the Swedish National Agency for School Improvement. It supplies a number of important contributions to the development of the school library functions, and I would also like to state that indirectly it can influence improvements to collaborative efforts between schools and libraries.

The authors, Louise Limberg and Mikael Alexandersson, show through empirical studies that schoolchildren looking for information often lack direction and the means to contextualise. Instead they focus on fact finding rather than attempting an overall understanding. Both teachers and librarians have a tendency to overrate schoolchildren’s familiarity with computers and confuse the handling of a computer with the ability to find information in a relevant manner. The information competence of pupils appears, according to Alexandersson and Limberg, statistically. In other words, the differences are small as to how schoolchildren from various age groups and educational levels look for and use information.

In order for school work involving problem solving and information retrieval to become meaningful to a pupil, it requires that knowledge content stays in focus and that there is a dialogue going on between pupil, teacher and libraries. The answers gained must need to be discussed in a critical manner. It is only when applying a dialogue that the pupil will have learnt something on a fundamental level about subject matter and search strategies. Alexandersson and Limberg emphasize the importance of teachers and librarians sharing a mutual professional objective; a consensus of opinion as to which direction the work is aiming.With a clearly defined professional objective there are prerequisites how to develop a support system for each pupil’s work and actively intervene when the pupil needs guidance and feedback. The definition of a mutually held professional objective should enable the development of the collaboration between school and library. An intensified and expanded collaboration requires both parties to be actively involved and to have clearly stated goals.

As I have touched upon previously, there is a strong consensus at all levels – teachers, librarians, local authorities and politicians – of the importance in strengthening the work involving developing linguistic skills: “if you fail to command the act of reading you will as a consequence experience difficulties in other subject matters. For example, it is difficult to solve a mathematical problem if you fail to comprehend the text explaining the task”, says Ibrahim Baylan reminding us of the fact that several national and international surveys indicate that Swedish schoolchildren are having problems when reading.

Linguistic development is an expansive concept. It entails reading skills and ability, alongside the ability to locate, evaluate and analyse information in meaningful contexts. To undertake a task such as linguistic development requires an interest in the child’s entire linguistic situation, all those places and persons important to a child and a willingness to collaborate with them in different ways. That is why linguistic development can be seen as society’s assignment to schools and libraries and the core of a mutual professional objective.

Translated by Jonathan Pearman

Library consultant.