School libraries a must!

There was much celebration when requirements for school libraries for all children and young people were incorporated into the Swedish Education Act in the summer of 2011. All pupils were now entitled to a school library directly connected’ to their own school.

The act was to apply to all schools regardless of whether they were municipal or private, special schools or Sami schools. This was a clear political statement regarding the importance of libraries as a teaching resource and every child’s equal right to have one. But, in contravention of the act, over 200,000 pupils still do not have access to a school library.

The organisation with responsibility for monitoring the activities and content of the Swedish school system is the Swedish Schools Inspectorate. Its aim is to carry on its activities within a framework of inspections, quality checks and processing of licence applications. The inspectorate can call attention to infringements and decide on penalties if the infringements are not rectified in a satisfactory manner.When the requirement for school libraries was incorporated into the Education Act, monitoring of this also became part of the inspectorate’s remit.

Statistics from the National Library of Sweden show that as many as 210,000 pupils in compulsory school and upper secondary schools have access to a school library. During the Swedish Schools Inspectorate’s regular monitoring in the first half of 2012, 33 out of 470 compulsory schools inspected were criticised for not providing pupils with access to a school library as stipulated in the Swedish Education Act. This equals 7 percent of all compulsory schools inspected. The situation with upper secondary schools was much worse. A total of 30 out of 114 upper secondary schools, so 26 percent, were criticised.

Virtually all the upper secondary schools criticised, 29 out of 30, were independent. The bleak picture painted in the National Library of Sweden’s statistics is thus intensified further. But what does the monitoring actually say about the activities? The school library is placed under the overall inspection title of scope, content and resource access and focus is on “pupils having access to a school library which is used in the school’s teaching activities with the purpose of supporting the pupils’ learning”. Exactly what this means is largely ignored by the Swedish Schools Inspectorate.

Differing level of ambitions

A large part of the problem is the vague wording of the act which creates uncertainty as to what can actually be regarded as a good quality school library. For example, much criticism has been directed at the fact that the text of the act is entirely lacking in information regarding staffing. Ultimately, it is up to the individual principal to decide how many people shall work with the library as a teaching resource. No extra funds have been assigned for special measures, rather the work shall be carried out within the framework of the standard budget.

Some principals lack ambition and prefer to rely on the lowest level accepted by the Swedish School Inspectorate. It is too expensive and they see no benefit. Lika the headmaster who mailed the National Library of Sweden: “what we have done is to collect together in one room all the literature in the school. The library staff have been here and sorted out what’s not wanted. They have also contributed with blocks depicting letters.We ourselves have sorted all the books.We now have a library.”

Other principals have high ambitions and want to invest. The school library of the year is  selected every year by the National School Library Group, a network of Swedish organisations with an interest in preserving, strengthening and developing the concept of the school library. The intention is for the distinction to act an as inspiring example.

The most recent winner, Nacka Upper Secondary School, is described as “a dynamic teaching institution where the school librarians operate a goal-oriented system to work to develop the information know-how and invest aggressively in promoting the pupil’s reading. This work is carried out together with the school’s teachers and pupils and with the school management’s active support.”

In other words, the differences are extensive.

Can a public library be a school library?

Many of the schools inspected admit to accepting help from a neighbouring public library in order to satisfy the pupils’ access to information. In many cases, however, the inspection believed there was nothing to show that the public library acted as such a resource. No agreement had been signed, and the so-called collaboration was composed  more of, at best, sporadic, unannounced visits from teachers and pupils.

Stockholm’s City Library is one of the public libraries which have formulated a concrete agreement which they can enter into with schools in need of school library services. The agreement includes, amongst other things, stipulations that the school pays for media and at least a part-time service. None have hitherto accepted the agreement.

Many employees in public libraries express unease regarding how to be able to meet the new requirements from the school.Most will willingly help and this is deeply rooted in the democratic, adult education tradition. You have to put up with turning away borrowers even though it sometimes feels strange when a whole subject area is emptied by visiting school classes.

The question is a complicated one. On the one hand, the public library is there for all citizens, including school pupils. On the other hand, the school library is a completely different type of activity than that which most public libraries can offer and requires knowledge of such things as teaching, reading didactics and teaching plans. In addition, you are always in that area shared by culture, leisure and education.

Sometimes the library is geared more towards one area and sometimes towards another. Some librarians are expected to have a planning meeting with teaching staff and have a  headmaster as the immediate supervisor, others are lumped in the same staff group as caretakers and their immediate supervisor is the administrative manager.

The issue must be dealt with by the right authority. It is the school which is the teaching institution. It is probably difficult therefore for a public library to reach a solution on its own. Nor it is likely to be especially effective to place school librarians outside the teaching environment. To be successful, the solution must be designed by concerted and professional collaboration with the same objectives in sight, namely the best possible conditions for all pupils.

The solution?

There is no complete answer to what a well-functioning school library actually is. Nor is there any sense in formulating check lists of the number of running metres, staff hours or specific content which should apply to all. Each school must decide completely on its own just what its pupils and teachers need. Schools are extremely heterogeneous and range from everything from small village schools many miles from the nearest public library to large state schools with many hundreds of pupils and the school library on its own premises. The solutions cannot be the same everywhere.

At the time of writing, some political proposals have been put forward for a tightening up of the act’s text so that staffing requirements are also included. Many of those involved such as the Swedish Library Association and the academic professional association DIK are running campaigns with the same aim.

Regardless of whether the requirement goes through or not, you can’t get away from the fact that the school principal will have overall responsibility. A responsibility which includes operating a school library is obviously a part of teaching work and which operates with the same aim as the rest of the school, the best possible conditions for teaching for each individual pupil.

Executive officer Coordination and Development Department