When we think of schools, we picture classrooms and teachers, maybe a staffroom, a gym and a sports instructor, an office and a principal, a library and a librarian. Most schools have most of these, but none can be taken for granted. In particular, there is no mandate requiring a school to have a library of any kind.
Most do, but some don’t. Which is a disappointment to many, not least Jan Tinetti, the Minister of Education and former principal of the now library-free Merivale School in Tauranga.
“I am gutted that a number of schools have got rid of libraries,” says Tinetti, “because libraries are vitally important to a love of learning, a love of literature, a love of words, full stop.”
About three years ago, Merivale School decided its library space was needed for other purposes. Its books were packed into boxes, where they remain in storage. A mobile library visits once a fortnight. Students can borrow books, but they can’t take them home.
By any definition, it’s a meagre version of library best practice, which has been shown to improve educational outcomes in ways that would please the most doctrinaire back-to-basics, reading and writing evangelist.
The research shows schools that have libraries with librarians have higher reading test scores, academic achievement and positive attitudes towards learning. Schools that have libraries tend to have better results than schools that don’t.
Jennifer Fraser, the Ministry of Education’s general manager, schools policy, says four key outcomes of “great” school libraries have been identified: improved reading, writing and digital literacy; development of research skills; development of non-academic skills such as leadership and a sense of wellbeing and belonging among students.
A study by the US Library Research Service found good results occur with school libraries regardless of factors such as poverty levels or changes in student-teacher ratios in the classroom.
New Zealand has 2434 state and state-integrated schools. The School Library Association of New Zealand Aotearoa estimates 900 of them do not have a library by any useful definition of the word. That seems remarkably high and exact figures aren’t available, but the ministry provided figures that would seem to support this gloomy assessment.
According to the ministry, just 59 schools have a full-time librarian. A further 728 have employed at least one part-time librarian. So, more than half have no librarian at all.
School size is obviously a factor. As the ministry says, “Schools with more than about 200 pupils, and schools where students face fewer socio-economic barriers, are more likely to have a librarian.”
This state of affairs exists because schools are autonomous in all sorts of areas, such as how their classrooms are structured, the size of their classes, how they conduct their syllabus and whether they have a library, which can mean anything from several thousand well-curated books and comfy reading nooks with bean bags to a rack of titles in a corner that is refreshed occasionally.
To have libraries mandated, which the association has been campaigning for, would involve bedrock structural changes in the way schools are run. Miriam Tuohy, senior specialist, school library development at the National Library of New Zealand, is not even sure it is necessary. “If everyone from the board of trustees down has a good understanding of the ways the library can support them to achieve what we all are trying to achieve, that would have more of an impact than mandating it,” says Tuohy.
For many schools, sacrificing a library has been a tough choice they made because student numbers have grown faster than classrooms can be built to accommodate them. In theory, “borrowing” the library space is temporary, but temporary can be a long time. And there have been other factors at work lately.
“After Covid, kids had to be spaced during exams,” says Sharon King, library manager at Howick College in Auckland (see “A new chapter”, opposite page). “The people in charge decided the library would be a really convenient space to have exams. But that has continued to happen and it takes the library out of action for a large chunk of time. Kids lose the ability to come in and study when they need to, or to be in there between exams. Now, I fight every year, saying, ‘Why can’t they go into the gym?’ We are a school with two gymnasiums.”
Sasha Eastwood, president of the School Library Association and library and resources manager at Manchester Street School in Feilding, says: “I can see that it’s a logical space for the leadership teams to turn to. But it’s always a quick fix that becomes a long-term fix, because the wheels turn slowly. It’s really hard to get your library back when you’ve given it away to a classroom.” She considers herself lucky to have 100sq m of space to hold more than 8500 books.
Equal in importance to the library space is the library person, the association argues. As more information becomes more accessible in more ways, more guidance is needed to help students find and navigate the library system. From the Dewey decimal system to the post-digital learning environment, the work of the librarian has evolved.
“Librarians have always responded to changes,” says Tuohy, “so they just keep on responding. CDs came and went. [Digital encyclopaedia] Encarta came and went. Now, students are getting information from TikTok, so school librarians need to keep up with that. And yet, the fundamentals have not changed: helping kids learn to read, to find information, to understand news. They are just having to adapt to other formats.”
Tom Augustine is librarian, special projects at St Cuthbert’s College in Auckland, the only private school spoken to for this story. With 15,000 books in its senior library, it’s one well-resourced extreme of what a school library can be.
“The library here offers a range of digital avenues for learning,” says Augustine. “We have e-book platforms and e-readers. We have access to journals and MasterClass, which is video lessons from famous people. There is a blog that runs in conjunction with Margin, the school magazine.”
Augustine says the aim of his job is still to get people to use the library. “There’s a range of different things we’re trying in order to reach out to people, especially through the platforms that kids know, which is the internet that they’ve grown up with. And we haven’t got to this yet, but we’ve talked about ways to incorporate things like TikTok and podcasts.”
There’s plenty of real-life activity, too, such as reading bingo, which is a bingo card with reading goals instead of numbers – for example, classics, poems, bestsellers and short stories. There are regular reading challenges and online reading lists. “And then we also do big displays through the library for different genres and themes –we’ve got a Pride Month display up at the moment.”
So many creative learning opportunities aren’t going to organise themselves. Which raises the question: can something be called a library if it doesn’t have an actual librarian in it?
Richard George, principal of Auckland’s Parnell District School, is an enthusiast for living, breathing librarians. When he joined the school, it had a library that had been the product of much community planning, which had resulted in features such as underfloor heating, because research showed kids liked to read while lolling around on the floor. Ironically, his school is between librarians at the moment, but he still believes in the importance of specialist library staff.
“Our teacher librarian, who was in the role up until the end of last year, knew the kids, knew the kind of books they wanted, and made sure she introduced them and exposed them to a whole lot of new stuff she knew would be exciting for them. I don’t think in the busy life of a classroom teacher that they necessarily have the time or scale to [do that].”
Sasha Eastwood’s vision of the librarian’s job is even more expansive: “I’m the curator of all the resources in our library. It takes time to make sure you are buying a collection that is reflective of the community’s needs. It takes specialist skills to be able to do that, let alone catalogue them and make sure they are promoted to students. There’s no point in putting them on the shelf and then waiting for students to find them. Sometimes, we need to be the intermediate person.
“I also run information literacy skills classes. I discuss with classes of all ages what makes a good book for them.”
She outlines some things kids can learn in a library only if there is someone there to teach them: “How to choose a good book. And that you don’t have to finish a book. You can put a book down if you’re not interested in it and grab another one. There’s [more] books in the collection. I’m not going to make you read it.
“I help the teachers with curriculum resources. One way I do this is ordering loan requests from the National Library’s Services to Schools. They will tell me what topics they are covering in class and I send the request away to the National Library team, who send them to me, and I distribute those resources to the classrooms.
“We are support staff. We are supporting our teachers, making sure they’ve got the right resources for the teaching, and in curriculum-based learning, and then we are supporting our students and making sure they have the exact book they want to read. I’m weeding the collection all the time. I’m making sure the books that need looking after are being looked after. And I’m making sure our collection is healthy and relevant.”
School libraries can also fill a gap in kids’ experience, says Richard George. “We have quite a diverse school community. Some of our children have reasonably narrow experiences of the world. The idea that our families would take their children to a local council-run library is probably pretty inconsistent through our community.”
Schools can provide “the pure experience of being in a library. Understanding how the books are organised and knowing how to find information in libraries are really important research skills that our kids will need as they go through high school and into university.”
The National Library’s Services to Schools, which includes a lending collection, an online catalogue and many other sections, is a crucial part of the school library ecosystem.
“I can’t speak highly enough of the service,” says Howick’s Sharon King. “We regularly borrow resources to add to our collection, particularly for social sciences, history topics, and so on. We might not have books or they might not be available any more. So we will request those from the National Library.”
Says Tuohy: “We have expert library staff who are building this massive collection, which is 547,000 items. We also have expert librarians who are fulfilling these loan requests. But far and away, what schools mainly do is say, ‘For this curriculum area, which might be a science focus, we’re looking for books about homeostasis’, or whatever it might be. And our library staff will select what we think will be the right books from our collection to help with that.”
As well as texts, the National Library service also supports reading-for-pleasure choices, which is about to become even more of a priority. Reading for pleasure, which has long been identified as key to high literacy standards, is part of the refreshed New Zealand curriculum announced late last year.
“That’s really exciting from a school library perspective, because it’s our soul,” says Eastwood.
It is also something librarians are particularly well placed to encourage and support. They know the books in their collection better than anyone, and when they know their students well, it becomes a point of pride that they can match kids with books they will love.
“It’s all very well to teach students to read,” says Eastwood, “but if they don’t have access to great books that have been purchased specifically for their needs, then how are we going to address literacy levels? If schools can find money for an amazing sports turf, then why aren’t we finding the money to have an amazing collection of books? Our school has both.”
There is nothing about her job that gives her more satisfaction than seeing this at work.
“When a student comes to me and says, ‘Whaea Sasha, I’ve read this book, I know it’s a series, can we buy the next one?’ – it just fills my heart. So, I bring them into my workroom, and if I don’t have the second one, they watch me order it. And I make sure their name goes on it first when it comes in.”
The Ministry of Education doesn’t seem entirely convinced by all this. “Not all schools need [a library] on site,” says the ministry’s Jennifer Fraser. “Co-location, sharing, and using online and physical libraries are all ways that schools and kura can enable access to libraries. For example, for some small schools, taking ākonga [students] to a larger community library regularly, and keeping a rolling collection in classrooms, could be a better option than having a separate room and staff member. Some schools have a community library on site or right next door.”
Eastwood: “It’s all very well saying, ‘Oh, they’ve got a public library.’ But public libraries require parents to take the kids into them, unless you’re old enough to be out after school and go in on the way home. School libraries have direct access to every student in the country. We are an integral part of building our nation’s relationship with books and reading.”
Prospects for a mandate or the reconversion of classrooms to libraries look bleak, with Newsroom reporting that libraries and gyms are being cut from school development plans in the face of rising building costs.
In the meantime, although it understands a change is unlikely, the school library association is continuing to seek support for these facilities to be mandated, with a petition at schoollibrariestransform.org.nz.
A new chapter
Sharon King was not a trained librarian when she was asked to take on a school library in 1984, her first year of teaching, but “I’m an English teacher, I love books, I love reading, like talking about that with students. So, it suited me perfectly.”
She has been at Howick College, which has just over 2000 students, as teacher librarian since 1996. “That was the beginning of access to information through the internet. We had a computer, which we plugged into the telephone line, and we could access some online encyclopaedias.”
International students brought in money that helped fund her position. “You don’t have many teacher librarians in schools these days because the position is no longer funded or protected by the ministry. Schools either appoint people like me out of their own resources, or they don’t have someone.”
Howick is a big school and can afford a librarian and an assistant as well as King. It has 14,255 books in about 470sq m of library space.
“We’re now on our third principal. He’s particularly supportive, and we’re starting a new renovation of the library.”
At the moment, the library serves as a de facto senior common room, so establishing a proper common room will just be returning to the library some of the space it has lost. “We didn’t have comfortable seating for students [in the library itself] and it was accommodating up to 200 at a time. We’re looking at making it more attractive for them to stay a while and read.”
Howick’s demographic is a diverse mix of European, Māori, Pasifika, Asian, “and quite a few South African students, and some of them come in with Afrikaans as their first language”.
As well as building up its te reo Māori collection, “we’ve tended to provide simplified reading material for kids who are learning to read in English. We provide books that are dyslexia-friendly. As literacy levels decline, it’s really important to be able to provide stuff that’s simple enough for them to read, but of an interest level that’s appropriate for teenagers.”
The library is fully digitally equipped, but recently King has noticed a shift back to print. “Students are reluctant to read e-books. There’s been research done among local schools, and we’re all finding the same thing – kids tend to prefer print, particularly if they are regular readers.”
There’s another anti-tech shift happening, too. “I actually think – and a lot of other library staff are saying – that kids are over being on a device. It’s no longer a novelty. They are required to use them every period in class, so it’s no longer the big deal it once was.”
There are around 130 on the roll at Opononi Area School, which has pupils from Year 1-13. A decile-one institution under the old regime, it is in the Te Tai Tokerau region, which has received a large increase in financial support under the new equity index system.
Despite challenges, for several years its pupils have had access to a comfortable, spacious and an unusually well-stocked library, thanks most recently to the energy and devotion of Roma Scott, who also uses the 216 sq m of space to give one-to-one tuition to readers who need help.
As well as serving the school in which it is housed, the library of about 11,300 books is run as a community facility, which means other Hokianga residents can use it. “Sometimes, we have people who are doing a paper at university,” says Scott. “Some are just using it for relaxation. I’ve had about 10 different people using the library regularly other than the children.”
The books come from a variety of sources. “Some are donated by parents. We’ve got a range, really.”
That includes a small area for preschool books. “Sometimes, parents come in for an interview or a meeting and they leave the little ones in here. So we have books for them, too.”
Scott also makes good use of the National Library service: “At the moment our Year 12 and 13 have just got a new pack of books for the term, and when they are returned I can order another set. Our middle school or top primary school might be doing projects on countries, or native birds. If I haven’t got enough books on those, I can request some from the National Library, which is so easy. And then, for the younger ones, we have the Duffy Books – we are pretty well covered.”
Which is probably just as well, since there is little cash to spend on books.
“My budget is $1500 a year at the moment for the whole school. If I buy something for the junior side, then later in the year I may buy some for Years 5 and 6. And then, the following year, it will be mostly senior school, new fiction or nonfiction.
“If the odd book comes up and they really, really want it, I’ll have a look at my budget, and sometimes I buy books myself because I think some of our students will enjoy reading that one.”