Libraries as safe havens

As school librarians call on the education minister to widen access to libraries and secure employment for librarians, Sally Flint, ex-head of libraries at Bangkok Patana School, says libraries are essential for students who may be struggling pastorally

It is easy to think that libraries are primarily storehouses for books. Nothing is further from the truth. Mick Smith, secondary principal at Bangkok Patana School passionately believes that: “Librarians should not be seen as simply checkout operators in glorified book supermarkets. Rather they are knowledgeable and friendly hosts, eager to share their treasure trove of invention and information in libraries where guests feel welcome, safe and able to follow their imagination.”

Libraries are organic, living entities, constantly changing and adapting to meet their users’ needs. Libraries are a Pandora’s box of knowledge and information. Librarians offer ideas and expertise, and their welcome is warm and sincere.

Librarians have ‘many strings to their bow’ and are capable of meeting their users’ many and varied wants. These, of course, include offering traditional book-based services such as assisting students to choose age-appropriate, exciting and enticing books to read, or teaching students how to complete effective research, but the service reaches far beyond this. Librarians can and should be used to enhance student wellbeing.

What makes a good librarian?

A good librarian will be equipped with the skills and the knowledge of safeguarding procedures and school pastoral systems to be able to inform relevant welfare officers and teachers of pastoral concerns.

Good librarians will form positive, insightful relationships with their users, noting the frequency and purpose of customers’ usage. Librarians will know who is visiting because they have a genuine love of reading and who may be using the library as a ‘safe place’. A student may feel fragile for countless reasons; perhaps they are avoiding a group of so-called ‘friends’; they may feel upset by a family bereavement and be too fragile to face the ‘rough and tumble’ of lunch with friends; or they may be frantically completing last minute home-learning because their home environment is not conducive to studying.

Librarians can and should be used to enhance student wellbeing

Good librarians will subtly have their eye out for unusual users/unusual behaviours and especially for unusual repeated behaviours. A student may be acting out, an indication of something wrong, or they may be quiet and withdrawn. They may look overtired or a little neglected in their appearance. Librarians make excellent informers for teachers and counsellors, though it is important to not blow their cover. Students should not feel spied on or they won’t return.

How libraries can be used by pupils

To relax: Traditionally, libraries are quiet places to study and read by oneself.

This perception of them being somewhere that it is OK to be alone means that more isolated students can use them without standing out like a sore thumb. Students can go by themselves and relax with a book or magazine or take part in an activity. There is no need to be seen to be popular in a library and being part of a large group is surplus to requirements.

To form relationships with staff: Using ‘book chat’ about a student’s reading interests, perhaps when they are returning items or perusing the shelves, is a great hook to enable students to open up. It isn’t just librarians who can invite conversation, but teachers, counsellors and parents can all be proactive in chatting to library users.

To find answers: Student pastoral issues are wide and varied – LGTB concerns, bullying, bereavement, divorce, to name but a few. A good library will have widely advertised fiction and non-fiction (both print and the more private online) resources that children can use to learn more about these issues.

To make connections: The idea that during breaks and lunches libraries are silent reading and study zones is outdated and unhelpful. Jigsaws, typing mat competitions, board games, mindfulness colouring zones, Meccano and Lego are all useful and fun activities for children. The great thing about these activities is that they are not dependent on having a buddy to turn up with.

To attend book clubs and reading shadowing schemes: Organised reading groups are great communities in which children can chat and make connections. Good librarians can be instrumental in doing just a little bit of ‘match-making’ here in enabling both face-to-face and online book chat.

To own the space: Employing student librarians or library monitors to help create pertinent and interactive displays (ideally relevant to wellbeing) and complete other library duties are a great way of encouraging shy students to get involved, feel valued and belong to a school community.

Ultimately, we want our students to be socially integrated, to have friends, to join clubs, to belong and feel confident within the whole school community.

We don’t want children aimlessly walking the corridors and playground, not knowing where to be or what to do, avoiding catching the duty teacher’s eye because as one student I spoke to stated, “A teacher’s pity is worse than anything else imaginable.” Realistically we are not all footballers finding our place on the sports field; we are not all debaters, actively participating in lunchtime clubs; we are not all musicians and drama students in rehearsals; and we are not all extrovert socialites always invited to the parties.

Whilst then, we don’t want our children hiding out in libraries, day after day, week after week, or even year after year, we do want our children to feel safe, to have somewhere they enjoy being and somewhere they feel they belong. Make your library a safe haven.

You might also like: Barrow Hills library refurbished to ignite ‘lifelong passion’ for reading

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