Are books still relevant?

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School libraries offer students tactile experiences, varied resources and a safe space to learn.
BY Janine Mace

To keen readers, the idea of a world without books is horrifying. But, as dedicated school libraries disappear to be replaced by online resources, the concept may be closer than we think.

“As an avid book lover, I absolutely believe books are relevant. Children need access to a broad range of experiences, not just digital resources,” says AEU federal president Correna Haythorpe.

“We are seeing an increasing trend for school libraries to disappear and to be replaced by IT or other centres. Learning resources are not just about digital tools, there is also an

important role for print-based literature.”

It’s a view endorsed by Holly Godfree, teacher librarian at Lake Tuggeranong College in the ACT, AEU ACT member and coordinator of the Students Need School Libraries campaign. “Books are definitely still relevant, especially in the early years, as young children are more tactile and like to hold things,” she says.

Paper and digital have their place

Godfree is a firm believer in school resource collections featuring a mix of formats. “When people say ‘book’, they are often referring to literature, but there are also non-fiction books. A book is just a format for delivering a story or facts, and whether it is physical or not is a separate question.”

Different formats suit different students and tasks, says Hajnalka Molloy, president of the School Library Association of South Australia and a teacher librarian at Aberfoyle Park Primary School Campus.

“Research shows printed books are preferred by most children – especially non-fiction texts – but some prefer ebooks or audiobooks. With younger students, information is often easier for them to understand if it is printed, or in a print-like format,” she says. Deakin University researcher Dr Leonie Rutherford found digital devices were not popular with teens as they often lacked the digital literacy to find suitable ebooks.

This is unsurprising to Godfree. “There is a misconception that young people are natural digital experts.”

The continuing popularity of physical books – particularly for personal reading – is important, as research indicates regular recreational readers tend to do better at school. going, going, gone?

School libraries have a crucial role to play in encouraging reading.

“You want students to access a broad curriculum. Libraries and printed literature have an important role to play in that,” Haythorpe says.

Replacing physical books with digital resources is not the answer. “Often what is online is written for adults and is inappropriate for young people.”

The cost argument is also a misconception.

“It is usually a lot cheaper to have a physical book. With most ebooks, after they are borrowed a few times the licence requires them to be repurchased,” Molloy says. Doing away with school libraries often means resources are lost or difficult to find.

“This leads to students and teachers wasting time looking for material. It’s a teacher librarian’s job to curate and choose resources to save them time,” Godfree says.

Refuges and a quiet place

Libraries also play a vital role as a safe space and refuge.

“It’s not only the worlds that are opened up to children through the books, libraries also allow children to take themselves out of the hurdy-gurdy of the playground environment,” Haythorpe says.

Godfree believes this is significant given the increasing concerns about mental health. “Students gravitate to the school library as a ‘third space’, where there is some supervision and they are welcome and known.”

In Molloy’s school, the library is used for a variety of purposes including a chess venue and a computer-aided design (CAD) space.

Teacher librarians: on the way out?

Although Godfree understands the budgetary constraints, she is a staunch advocate for school libraries. “The reason they are disappearing is that there are not qualified teacher librarians running them,” she says.

Molloy agrees: “Where this has been done, you often see unnecessary duplication of resources, as the schools don’t know what they have, or even if there are gaps in their collection.”

In response, the School Library Coalition has launched an Australia-wide advocacy campaign, Students Need School Libraries, to promote the importance of school library services.

For more information, check out studentsneedschoollibraries.org.au