Nurturing good readers

Ingrid Hopson
Opinion - Libraries Thursday, 2nd September 2010

Ingrid Hopson, SLA School Librarian of the Year 2007 and a member of the judging panel for this year's award, explains why schools need librarians and what the judges were looking for when they selected this year's Honour List () You ask: what do school librarians do? I answer: we help our pupils become better learners. Libraries exist not as collections of resources but as places that foster creativity and independent thought. We cannot know what the world will be like for our pupils when they reach adulthood, but we can prepare them for their future.


So if this is our goal, how do we achieve it? We provide high quality information to inspire our pupils; we design attractive physical and virtual spaces that excite their imaginations, and we model academic research behaviour to illustrate to our pupils what good learners do.
School librarians view their libraries from the teachers' and pupils' perspective. We are concerned with what pupils are questioning, thinking, and creating; not books, shelving and computers.
School librarians need to be flexible and multi-skilled, as each is:
  • A manager of a space and collection
  • A marketing expert
  • An information specialist and navigator
  • A technology specialist who embraces new tools
  • A children's literature specialist and promoter
  • A teacher focusing on skills and processes
  • A learner too

The pupils need to know how to learn. Teachers are concerned with content, while for librarians the process is of key importance. We model a plethora of skills to our pupils, changing them from transporters of text to transformers of information into their own ideas and thoughts.
As children's literature specialists, librarians read avidly. But promoting and providing the stock is not the end of our involvement with fiction. Pupils need to be shown what it is that good readers do. Reading is a personal event as we live through others' lives. Librarians model how to read like a reader. First, we help our students to understand what types of book might appeal to them. Just because they like playing football does not mean that they will enjoy books about football. It might be that they want a fast paced, action-packed story with a bit of intrigue or a twist in the tale. Appeal is about the reading experience, and this is where our marketing skills and our knowledge of current fiction come to the fore.
Secondly, we model for pupils what it is that good readers do when they read. Through lessons, book clubs and book talks, we show pupils how to listen to their own internal reading conversation: to ask questions, make predictions and connections, express emotions, draw inferences and make judgements about the book as a whole.
School librarians have of necessity become comfortable with online media, from locating information to using Web 2.0 tools to promote their book stock and services. They alert teachers about websites and tools that might enhance lessons, and they show students how to use online tools to produce bibliographies and move beyond Wikipedia and Google.
Our diverse role means that one minute we are shelving stock and the next organising a whole school book week with visiting authors. Each school is a unique community, and each librarian will develop her or his own unique take on the role. The emphasis on the different aspects of their position will depend on the school and the post holder's own expertise, abilities and tendencies.
When judging the School Librarian of the Year Award we were looking for a librarian who could demonstrate the impact the library had within the school. Someone who had assessed the needs of their stakeholders, and then developed ideas and services that would meet them. Someone who has inspired a reading ethic within the school. Someone who has assisted the pupils to learn and to learn how to learn. I am pleased to say that this year we visited some truly inspirational librarians who have developed libraries that are highly valued by staff and pupils.
What would our school libraries be like without librarians? Henning Mankell at the recent International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions conference said that:
'If you only focus on one of those things (libraries or librarians) the libraries risk standing on one leg and you cannot do that forever, in the end you will fall.'
As we have witnessed on our visits, it is the librarian that transforms the library into a collaborative learning environment. It is the librarian who encourages pupils to investigate, explore and ask questions. It is the librarian who promotes a spirit of inquiry and understanding so that all pupils can become lifelong learners.
Ingrid Hopson works at George Abbot School, Guildford
Each week until the announcement of the winner on 4 October the School Library Association will be profiling a different librarian from this year's Honour List: see www.sla.org.uk/slya.php
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