School librarians have a critical role in nurturing children's reading - they often to know the children as well as they know the books.
Yet we don't hear from them very often - we are more used to hearing about the decline in numbers of school librarians.
In the first of a new series where we ask school librarians about the books that most inspired them and their thoughts on the future of libraries in schools - and what's great and what's challenging about their job.
We talked to Barbara Hickford from OLA school in Abingdon during her annual Festival of Reading she organises for the school.
What was your favourite children's book as a child?
It has to be an Enid Blyton. The Faraway Tree series with those amazing characters Moon-Face, Silky, the Saucepan Man, Dame Washalot, Mr. Watzisname and the Angry Pixie. Later the Famous Five took me into an exciting world of adventure. At primary school library time was on a Friday afternoon, and I remember starting to read the book at school, continuing at home, and finishing it in bed, if my parents forgot to tell me to turn off the light!
Barbara at a school event with author Michelle Paver (centre) and bookseller Mark from Mostly Books
What is your favourite children's book as an adult?
Ooh, this is difficult! Reading can be like music; your response can depend on your mood at the time. And there are so many children's authors writing excellent books, this on top of all the classics. I've admired Michael Morpurgo for a long time. His writing can reach adults as well as children. I recently re-read 'Private Peaceful', and found it as moving as when I first read it 10 years ago. As we are commemorating 100 years since the start of World War One, I'd say this is a book worthy of a place on everyone's bookshelf.
What do you think makes children's books so inspirational?
Since I've worked in schools I've met several children's authors and I know they spend a great deal of time crafting their work, researching, drafting and re-writing their books.
The elements of a successful book for children are the same as for adults:
- a good plot: you have to want to turn the page
- characters that you care about: you want to know what happens to them, usually the goodies, but sometimes the baddies
- well written, so the story will flow
- a feeling of satisfaction at the end, sometimes because you've had a fictional experience of something you will never encounter in real life.
Why did you become a librarian?
I know I have an innate curiosity, always wanting to find out, and this characteristic was apparent when I was a student and using the library to find extended material to prepare a dissertation. I enjoyed the research and finding out (more than the writing up) and realised this could be an interesting avenue to pursue. Up until then I thought I would go into administration, but running a library is also about organisation.
I spent the year after I graduated at the Bodleian Library on a special scheme which gave me a taste of different aspects of library work, which included helping readers in the Reading Room (enjoyable), cataloguing books in the back room (too quiet for me) and working with some of their special collections (a privilege).
Not many people know that professional library work is a graduate career. I spent another year at University College London studying for a Diploma and MA in Library and Information Studies.
What I found I enjoyed most was reference work, that's helping people find out, and my first job was at the BBC as an Enquiry Assistant. After a few years I moved on, to run the library for a publishing company. I came to school libraries after a career break and have thoroughly enjoyed helping students and supporting teachers in their learning and teaching as well as encouraging a love of reading.
What is the best thing about the job? And the worst?
The most satisfying part of my job centres around helping people. When I’ve helped someone find what they’re looking for – whether I’ve pointed them in the right direction or given precise help to find information, or suggested a good read which comes back with a request for another recommendation.
I also enjoy organising author visits and have a week-long Festival of Reading each year. And unpacking new books and having to look at them!
Some people, who haven’t experienced a good library, may think my job is simply about stamping a book or sitting in a quiet room, so may be slightly dismissive. But that’s a challenge for me and I just look for an opportunity where I can help them and change their opinion.
What is your vision of what a children’s/school library will look like in 10 years’ time?
I have no doubt that words on paper will still be at the core of reading in a school library.
The colourful world of children’s books is continuing to produce stories by great artists and writers. First books need to be read and re-read, and the pleasure of handling a board book and learning to turn the pages is essential to cultivate the joy of reading for pleasure through childhood and beyond.
I’m sure that there will also be a place for colourful information books too. After all, many children enjoy non-fiction for pleasure too.
Changes are happening, e-books, e-journals, databases of information to interrogate. Of course the library will need to continue to respond to the technical advances of the digital age and the expectations of tech-savvy users.
So there will be resources in all formats, including newspapers and journals, and a variety of ICT equipment, whatever is current. As learning and teaching are the core activities of a school, so a school library is more than just about the resources in it.
The school library also needs to continue to be a comfortable and welcoming place for students to browse, to read for pleasure and to discover. It’s essential it remains a hub of the school.
There will still be a need for someone - a librarian - to manage the resources and organise them, know what’s in the collection and what’s needed to be purchased, someone who will give recommendations, who can run reading clubs and organise visits by writers, help students develop their skills to find their way around the information overload and support teachers through a range of initiatives.
There will always be concerns over funding of school libraries but their value is highlighted in many national and international studies which give evidence of links between student attainment and good school libraries.
A recent report (July 2014) on school libraries by the All Party Parliamentary Group is entitled ‘The Beating Heart of the School’, the title itself eliciting the group's positive view of school libraries and librarians. The future looks positive.
I have many posters in my school library but I particularly like the one quoting President Obama who calls a school library ‘a magic threshold’. Long may it be so!