Libraries Do Change Lives
I grew up in a household with few books. My parents enjoyed the play of language and my mother was a talented raconteur. My father told me about a local man called Peter Nut (P. Nut) who married a woman called Hazel. My mother received a proposal of marriage from a man called Mr Jump who subsequently married a woman called Mrs Stamp. In school holidays my brother and I would sit down at the dinner table and ask my mother to tell us about ‘the olden days’. She would spin a detail into an elaborate story – the uncle who hung the apple wallpaper upside down, the hole that was knocked into a wall so they could listen to the radio next door.
It was through borrowing books from libraries that my interest in literature and language grew – both local and school libraries. It is a statutory, legal right for every community in the UK to have access to a local library. But 773 public libraries, a fifth of the libraries once in service, have closed since 2010. Statistics in a report from the Chartered Institute of Public Finances and Accountancy (CIPFA) show that use of public libraries has fallen by 70% in the past 20 years.
It is well documented that children who read for pleasure make marked progress in Maths and English and benefit greatly from the opportunity to explore their imagination. Children with books at home are six times more likely to read above their expected reading age. But if a family can’t access a library and haven’t spare money to buy books where are they to find them? In their school library perhaps? Astoundingly it is not a statutory requirement for every school to have a library. But it is a statutory requirement for every prison to have a library. In the UK 50% of prisoners are illiterate. How many of those prisoners could have widened their opportunities and avoided incarceration if their literacy had been nurtured through reading at an early age?
One in eight schools across England, Wales and Northern Ireland does not have a library. The bleak irony is that children on free school meals are twice as likely to be attending a school which doesn’t have a library. The Great School Libraries Campaign (https://www.greatschoollibraries.org.uk) addresses these inequalities in its objectives which include encouraging Ofsted to recognize libraries and librarians in their school inspection framework, and securing funding for school libraries. This has been a long-standing issue and in 2014 a report from the Libraries All Party Parliamentary Group asserted that it was ‘vital’ that all schools ‘have a good library to ensure children … fulfil their potential’. But this has not resulted in statutory school libraries.
I was heartened to see that the current Children’s Laureate, Cressida Cowell, wrote an open letter in April to Boris Johnson calling for ring-fenced funding for school libraries to the tune of £100 million annually. (https://www.booktrust.org.uk/news-and-features/features/2021/april/libraries-change-lives-read-cressida-cowells-open-letter-to-prime-minister-boris-johnson/) ‘How is it fair,’ she writes, ‘that some children are being given this immeasurable advantage in life, but stark book poverty means many more are denied this same chance to change their future?’ She states that £28m would enable the one in eight primary schools without a library to develop space, stock and expertise; £75m per year would employ a part-time librarian; and £60m per year would allow a school to buy one new book a year for each child. Here’s to this government ensuring that a well-run, well-stocked library is provided for each and every child.
This is the contact information for Boris Johnson should you wish to email your thoughts: https://email.number10.gov.uk
Chrissie Gittins has had three of her five children’s poetry collections selected as Choices for the Children’s Poetry Bookshelf. Two were shortlisted for the CLiPPA Award. She won the Belmont Poetry prize and was a Manchester Children’s Literature Prize finalist. Her poems feature on Cbeebies and the Poetry Archive. She has judged the Caterpillar Poetry Prize and is a National Poetry Day Ambassador.