By Loh Chin Ee For The Straits Times

School libraries levelling playing field

For children from lower socio-economic backgrounds whose parents may not have the time to take them to public libraries (above), it is especially important to have well-resourced libraries in schools. Having teacher-librarians in all schools would al
For children from lower socio-economic backgrounds whose parents may not have the time to take them to public libraries (above), it is especially important to have well-resourced libraries in schools. Having teacher-librarians in all schools would also be helpful. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

While various ways of levelling the playing field for students from different backgrounds are being explored, the role of school libraries seems to have been overlooked.

All schools in Singapore have libraries within the school premises. However, different use of funding allocated by the Ministry of Education (MOE) means that libraries are designed and managed differently in each school. Some libraries are well designed, well resourced and well used. Others are less inviting.

Some libraries are located on the top floors of school buildings or in hard-to-find corners. Others look more like classrooms than pleasant spaces for reading. They may also lack book displays inviting students to take a closer look at what is on offer. Such situations send negative signals about reading, even though we may be unaware of it.

Research tells us that reading is correlated to academic achievement, and future work opportunities.

Reading For Change, a document reporting on the Programme for International Student Assessment 2000 results, suggests that improving reading proficiency could have a strong impact on future life opportunities and thus become an effective way to effect social change.

Schools try to build reading cultures by instituting reading programmes, having reading periods, and working with bodies such as the National Library Board (NLB) to generate interest in reading. However, they may not recognise that having a good library in school and customised reading programmes to appeal to different students contributes much more towards encouraging students to want to read.

We have an excellent library system in Singapore, with 26 well-designed and well-resourced public libraries. The NLB also provides online access to books, and has strong outreach arms working with communities and schools.

Locating well-resourced libraries within schools, however, is especially important for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. They may not have the economic resources to purchase books for themselves, and their parents may not have the time to read to them or take them to public libraries.

However, even when taken to a library, students may use the library differently depending on their upbringing. United States researchers Susan Neuman and Donna Celano documented the problem in their book published in 2012 entitled Giving Our Children A Fighting Chance: Poverty, Literacy, And The Development Of Information Capital. They observed that children visiting two libraries, one located in a middle- class suburb and another in an urban setting serving a low-income community, learnt to use the library in vastly different ways.

In the suburban library, adults spent an average of 47 minutes reading to their children, whereas in the urban library, children were left to wander about on their own.

The result was a "flip and leave" approach to reading versus the sustained reading observed among those who attended the library in the middle-class suburb. Children were thus socialised into ways of reading or ways of managing knowledge through the mentorship and example of significant others.

Neuman and Celano argue that the kind of environment and support that parents give their children is critical.

They note that in the middle- class families studied, mothers had the luxury of part-time employment or employed nannies, thus allowing them to have "quality" reading time with their children. In low-income families, on the other hand, parents struggled with low pay and shift work and therefore had less time.

They argue that the work of libraries is thus not just to provide books, but also to provide adults who can mentor and help low-income children learn better ways of managing knowledge.

In many libraries in other parts of the world, such as Australia or Canada, school libraries are often managed by trained teacher-librarians.

As teachers, teacher-librarians understand the work of schools. As librarians, they are trained to manage and support the use of knowledge within the school. This combined training ensures that they are able to work within specific school contexts to customise reading and media literacy programmes that actually support student learning.

How we design, resource and use our libraries says a lot about our attitude towards reading and of the library's place as a centre of learning.

While schools are given the freedom to manage their funding, I would like to suggest that the MOE pay more attention to this issue by providing schools with expert advice and dedicated funding.

The MOE should also equip every school with a teacher-librarian.

Investing in world-class school libraries and teacher-librarians might be one way to rethink how we can make schooling more equitable, and every school a good school.

The writer is assistant professor at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University.

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