Philip Pullman tells head her comprehensive will be a 'byword for ignorance' if closure goes ahead
Guardian, UK: 2008 November 23
Philip Pullman, the bestselling author, has warned a school that it will become a 'byword for philistinism and ignorance' if it goes ahead with the closure of its library.
The comprehensive in Chesterfield has become the focus of an authors' campaign since it announced that its librarian will be surplus to requirements after Christmas, when the school is to become a 'virtual learning environment'. Pupils will be encouraged to read at break times and at after-school clubs, but its traditional library will go.
'The idea that fiction is not worth looking after properly and does not need a qualified librarian runs contrary to every experience I have ever had,' Pullman wrote in a letter to Lynn Asquith, headteacher of the 759-pupil Meadows Community School. 'Are you going to relegate the whole activity of reading fiction to the status of a trivial and innocuous activity, like stamp collecting or playing with a Frisbee?'
'A library with a dedicated and professional staff should be at the very heart of any institution dedicated to learning,' he continued. 'I am deeply dismayed to hear of the decision, which cannot be in the best interests of the students. Nothing can replace a proper library, with its resources centrally available and with the expertise of a qualified librarian to guide the students in the best and most productive ways of research.'
The author has joined Michael Rosen, the Children's Laureate, and children's writer Alan Gibbons in a campaign to save school libraries, which they say are being eroded up and down the country. 'This school is the tip of the iceberg,' said Gibbons, who argued that without a librarian there could be no library. 'Forget the blather about virtual and interactive learning. This is cost-cutting, pure and simple.
'There's one secondary school, which shall be nameless, where the headteacher was going to throw all the non-fiction books into a skip to make way for computers,' he said. 'We're witnessing a new wave of virtual philistinism.'
Rosen says he highlighted the cuts in library provision when he met Children's Secretary Ed Balls and Schools Minister Jim Knight last week. 'The [Meadows] school is a local problem, but it is a national tragedy,' he says. 'Cuts are going on everywhere. I met Ed Balls and Jim Knight and they were saying that they were committed to supporting reading for pleasure. But on the ground there isn't the staff, the time or the money to support it.'
Public library spending on books fell by 1 per cent to £76.8m in the year to March 2008, or just 8.7% of overall library expenditure. Spending on audio-visual materials such as DVDs rose 4.2% over the same period. There were 38 public library closures last year, up from 35 the previous year.
The campaign to save the library at Meadows Community School was started by its pupils, who began a petition when they heard that their librarian, Clare Broadbelt, had been told that her post was no longer required because of 'a move towards the relocation and redistribution of non-fiction and fiction resources in the light of the new developments in a virtual-learning environment and interactive learning'.
A string of famous authors have joined the battle since then. Broadbelt was told that the library was not being removed, but would be operated in a different way, with curriculum leaders managing the resources from the internet. Fiction material would be maintained in a new reading centre for use in break times and at after-school clubs, but it would not need a librarian.
Asquith said little work had been done to improve the library since it opened in 1991. 'It is not big enough to accommodate the number of pupils who want to use it during peak time and some areas are not accessible for all pupils,' she said. The school's governors had approved a £90,000 redevelopment programme, she explained. 'This is a great opportunity to develop a new learning resource centre for the benefit of all pupils.'
Gibbons, who visits 150 schools a year, says that 25 local authorities in England spend less than 1 per cent of their library budgets on books for children. 'No amount of googling and copying and pasting can replace the intellectual flexibility developed by reading whole books,' he said.