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Why School Libraries Matter (Hint: It’s Not Just About the Books)

On the day of the mass lobby of parliament for school libraries, author and commentator Jeff Norton reflects on the important role school libraries play in nurturing future talent and economic prosperity.

School is a tough place. The social hierarchy of any schoolyard is complex, unforgiving, and ever changing. Kids need a safe space to explore who they are, be themselves, and discover that they’re not alone.  School libraries are the safe harbour in the storm of adolescence.

It’s too easy to suggest that school libraries are a relic of the analogue world.  Books are a small, but important part of the value that school libraries offer. But the safe space that libraries create, a place of study, reflection, and exploration, is the true gift of school libraries.

To think about school libraries only as repository of books is to think of churches as storage units for stained glass.  The school library is the one place on school property where anyone can seek refuge. It’s a welcoming, comforting place to escape the bullying (physical, but more often emotional), daily social upheaval, and cliques of the school years.

The school library is a type of demilitarized zone in the war for daily schoolyard survival. It’s the one place where students who are serious about intellectual exploration can feel accepted and unashamed about wanting to excel. It’s the one place where loners, geeks, and misfits can escape to through fiction or fuel their interests with non-fiction.

Why do we need to protect these people? Look at the world’s most valuable companies and take note of who’s in charge. It’s the kids who took shelter in the library, the geeks and nerds, who are re-programming our future.  The books are important, of course. They are the ultimate tools in self-guided learning, but they are only part of the mix that makes school libraries an essential place to shelter and protect our most promising youth.

School libraries are not just a bunch of rooms filled with books; they are a national network of incubators for future economic potential. The geeks, nerds, and keeners (those were the words in my school days, insert your own here) in high school are our future entrepreneurs, coders, and leaders. Perhaps their budget should come not from the Department of Education, but from Trade & Industry.  These are the places where future world-changers ground themselves, recharging their intellectual curiosity and emotional fortitude to survive another day in the relentless melee of the schoolyard.

Let’s re-frame the discussion on school libraries and treat them for what they are, the very, very, very early start-up incubators for Great Britain’s imagination and initiative –  we only need to take one look at our recent economic performance to accept that we need these incubators more than ever.

Jeff Norton is a London based writer-director and the author of the METAWARS saga from Orchard Books.

Image from The Geek the Library project: a community public awareness campaign aimed at spreading the word about the vital and growing role of libraries, and to raise awareness about the critical funding issues many U.S. public libraries face.


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