Are schools killing off the library?

I'm a member of that blessed generation who benefited from the unparalleled social mobility of the 1960s.

The distance from my present address to the block of flats in which I was born is three or four miles by road, several light years by socioeconomic indicators. I didn't have to work that hard to get where I am. I didn't study by candlelight in a garret after a 12-hour shift in the bottle blacking plant. The road was long but it was well signposted, brightly lit, and if it ever did go uphill, there was usually someone there to cheer me on. Now when I visit the schools in the area where I grew up, I find myself wondering whether anyone will ever walk that road again.

I'm a children's writer. I won the Carnegie Medal in 2005. The part of the job I love most is visiting schools reading to children. I've done this all over the country and up and down the social scale. I've been extremely impressed by the work the government has done in raising literacy levels. You've poured willpower, money and creativity into making children competent readers. Statistically it's all paid off. And yet we're all worried.

The thing is, competence in reading is not enough. There needs to be pleasure too. The UNESCO report 'Gender, Context and Reading' (Scientific Studies of Reading, Volume 10 if you're interested) pointed out the crucial importance of reading for pleasure in social mobility and educational success. I don't want to detain you with a discussion of why the pleasure is important. But I know that when my Dad took me down the park he didn't say, 'Right, son, I'm going to teach you some basic ball skills, work on general fitness and spatial awareness and if you're really good, then in a few years' time, we'll have a game of footy.' No, he played with me till I liked it enough to want to build those skills. Who knows? The point is that it's as important to communicate the pleasure as it is to pass on the skills.

Whenever I address parents, I tell them that I know they want the best for their kids. I know that they're prepared to move house, go private and hire tutors to do their best for them. But none of those things, not all of them added together, will be as effective as simply reading to them, reading with them, reading what they read and letting them see you read.

I'm sure you're going to tell me that schools have all kinds of initiatives to pass on the pleasure. I know that. Whenever I make an author visit, I am one of those initiatives. I'm proud to be so.

But when I visit many schools, I see a big, fat, glaring, expensive anti-reading for pleasure signal. It stands where the library used to stand and it's called 'The Learning Resource Centre'. 'Learning Resource' is a lovely phrase if you want to describe a paperclip perhaps, a stapler, a photocopier, or Google Earth.

A book, however, should be something a bit more special than that. The distilled essence of a human soul, perhaps. Or a box of fun.

You may think I'm quibbling about words here. But we are talking about reading. So words are important. Also, we're not just talking about words. To turn your library into a learning resource centre, you generally have to chuck out a bunch of valuable, durable assets - books - and replace them with sub-prime computers which will quickly date. Now I have nothing against computers. I'm typing this on a Mac Air for which I harbour feelings little short of erotic. But, as my own daughter pointed out when this happened in her school - every single kid in the school, almost without exception, has access to computers (better computers) at home. Almost none of the other children in her school has access to books in any meaningful way at home.

I have heard teachers talk about how books can't compete with computers, how libraries have to be sexed up to keep children's attention. I answer that by going back to the pleasure principle. A book on a shelf may not be that sexy, but a book that's being read, discussed, brought to life by teachers or parents is frankly unbeatable.

More importantly, the words, 'Learning Resource Centre' and the presence of those functional, no-fun computers disconnect reading from the world of pleasure, from the world at all. The library in my school was called 'The Library', just like the Central Library in the city centre where I saw my first students, my first politicos, where I went to watch girls. I had the confidence to go there, and breathe all that promising new world, because I already knew what a library was and how it worked. There was a library in my school, just as there was a library in Alexandria, in London, wherever I would go. It wasn't about competence, it was about pleasure, and the challenges that pleasure brings. 'Learning Resource Centre' is a euphemism from the same chilly lexicon as 'downsizing' and 'collateral damage'. It means, 'We've given up. We are not a school now, we're a crèche.'

The year I won the Carnegie, my MP was among the first to congratulate me. Part of the prize was a bequest to a library of my choosing. I was thinking about my local library. She said no. She told me that Waterloo - the Liverpool suburb - was twinned with Waterloo in Sierra Leone - a small African town devastated by the civil war. She had just met the local mayor and had asked him what she could do for him, thinking he would ask for a health centre, a school or cash. He said, 'What we'd really like is a library.' So often when people ask for help, they ask for the worst of us. They ask for weapons or dodgy large-scale engineering projects. This man asked for the best of us. And where is the best of us? It's in the library.

Except if you live in a school which has changed its library to an LRC - in that case, the best of us is ... in the skip.

Frank Cottrell Boyce

This article was originally published in Teaching English Online, Spring (1) 2009, Term 3 content/newsletters/newsletter_ jan09.asp#1
Reprinted with permission.