School libraries move into the digital age

Librarians steer young minds towards art, media and cultural activities

Kathleen Moran, senior librarian for the Junior Certificate Schools Programme, checks out some books with  Dylan Whelan, Sarah Maguire, Alexander Dunne and Aoibhe Geraghty at Trinity Comprehensive School in Ballymun. Photograph: Damien Eagers

Kathleen Moran, senior librarian for the Junior Certificate Schools Programme, checks out some books with Dylan Whelan, Sarah Maguire, Alexander Dunne and Aoibhe Geraghty at Trinity Comprehensive School in Ballymun. Photograph: Damien Eagers

 

Trinity Comprehensive School in Ballymun has a striking design. Formed from the amalgamation of three post-primaries during the first phase of the stalled Ballymun regeneration project, the corridors at Trinity all wrap around an innovative school library.

At any time of the day, the library – staffed by a full-time professional librarian – is a hive of activity.

All students have at least one class timetabled in the library every week. Chess boards have grown into chess clubs. Poetry, creative writing, accelerated reading and events all happen there: the most recent event was the launch of the new book from RTÉ’s outgoing Washington correspondent, Brian O’Donovan, Four Years in the Cauldron.

The librarian is constantly engaged with the students to make sure they are accessing the books they want – whether fiction, non-fiction or graphic novels – and also works with teachers to promote cross-curricular links.

“A school library is transformational,” says Frances Neary, principal of Trinity Comprehensive. “It has given our students the opportunity to express themselves, to find words for their emotions without being judged, and simply to read for enjoyment rather than because they have to.

“It is a place of refuge, escape, creativity, imagination and learning. But the librarian is central: otherwise, it’s just a room full of books without anyone there to show the potential within these books, without anyone to encourage and engage the students.”

In 2005, a three-year pilot project to provide libraries to 10 disadvantaged schools issued its report. This led to a commitment to expand school libraries to 50 support school programmes with the highest level of disadvantage by 2010, with further expansion to be considered thereafter.

But the expansion went on hold during the recession and, more than a decade later, has never been realised.

Meaningful impact

“There are now 30 libraries in the programme, which leaves over 200 Deis/ Junior Cycle Support Programme (JCSP) schools that don’t have school library supports,” says Kathleen Moran, senior librarian with the JCSP Demonstration Library Project.

“It was disappointing to see there was nothing for school libraries in the recent budget. We’ve been knocking on the door for so long but it has never been back on the table.”

Budget 2022 saw the Department of Education commit €20 million as a once-off capital allocation to schools for the purchase of books, audio books and other equipment. But Moran and principals of schools say that these resources need a library and a librarian if they are to make a meaningful impact.

Brian O’Donovan, RTÉ Washington correspondent, launching his book, Four Years in the Cauldron, with Frank Christian Ajoc and Thembi Nkosi at Trinity Comprehensive School in Ballymun. Photograph: Damien Eagers
Brian O’Donovan, RTÉ Washington correspondent, launching his book, Four Years in the Cauldron, with Frank Christian Ajoc and Thembi Nkosi at Trinity Comprehensive School in Ballymun. Photograph: Damien Eagers

At St Paul’s CBS, North Brunswick Street, Dublin 7, school principal Patrick McCormack says that their library has improved student engagement and retention.

“I believe that every secondary school should have a library,” he says. “A fully resourced library is not just books on a shelf, but is a librarian working with the teaching staff and students in the school.

“We have interactive materials, games, educational software and recreational spaces. We lend chess sets, board games and, crucially, digital readers to students. Schools should not have to be begging for this: it should be a nailed-on, protected resource.”

The closure of the library during Covid, and subsequent restrictions and limitations on access, has brought this home for McCormack.

“A box of books is not the same as a librarian who is a friendly face for the students and a person they can get support from. Our librarian, Annie Brady, was chosen as Librarian of the Year for the whole of Ireland and the UK in 2015. She organises coffee morning for the parents, she links in with the local primary school so that when children come to our secondary, they’re already familiar with the library.

Storytelling classes

“She involves herself with the teachers, SNAs and students; she makes sure the student voice is heard; she supports professional development; she runs oral storytelling classes with professional seanchaís; she organises musicians and other speakers to come in.”

Moran oversees and supports all 30 of these libraries, but she has limited resources. The JCSP library project works with organisations like Poetry Ireland, Children’s Books Ireland, public libraries and third-level libraries.

One particularly interesting initiative involved a collaboration with the Museum of Literature Ireland (MoLI), UCD’s school of English and astrophysics researchers at the UCD school of physics involving creative writing workshops.

Students did online Zoom tutorials to write a poem on the theme of home, which has been etched onto the side of EirSat, Ireland’s first satellite (developed by UCD’s C-Space, the first Irish centre dedicated to collaborative space research and industry).

Having had four administrative support staff when the project started, Moran is essentially alone now. At the same time, the demand for their services increased dramatically during Covid.

“Our libraries were emptied of devices during Covid: we loaned them so young people could stay engaged,” says Moran.

Kathleen Moran: “It was disappointing to see there was nothing for school libraries in the recent budget. We’ve been knocking on the door for so long.” Photograph: Damien Eagers
Kathleen Moran: “It was disappointing to see there was nothing for school libraries in the recent budget. We’ve been knocking on the door for so long.” Photograph: Damien Eagers

“We do whatever needs to be done. We help close the achievement gap. The formal education system does not suit everyone and school libraries can come at learning from a different way, a way that suits every learner.

“I had hundreds of requests from non-Deis schools for access to our digital library service during Covid, as well as requests for access from over 100 Youthreach centres,” says Moran.

“I have quotations from suppliers to expand our digital library access to all 750 second-level schools and we could set it up very quickly if the funding and administrative supports were provided.

“The set-up cost would be minimal and the main cost would be the purchase of additional ebooks, e-audiobooks and digital magazines – all of which would then be available to students and staff in every school in the country.”

No school library? Visit your local

It’s a simple but radical idea in many ways: a dedicated building where people can get books, audiobooks, educational resources and use of computers – all for free.

In 2019, Ireland abolished library fines, another quietly radical move that has made this national resource more accessible to all.

“It was a barrier to accessing information,” says Stuart Hamilton, head of libraries development at the Local Government Management Association. “Someone might get a fine in the early part of their library use and it deters them from going back. So now we trust them, and because people have such a positive relationship with their library, there’s a feeling of mutual trust and a social responsibility.”

There are over seven million library visits per year, and the number of active members is growing.

Unstaffed hours

The “open library” initiative has seen more libraries stay open for a number of unstaffed hours so that they can be used by more people, and RB Digital – available to any library user – is a massive digital resource of free magazines including National Geographic, Rolling Stone, the Economist, the New Yorker and more.

Digital services have expanded to allow users to borrow audio books. The library’s Right to Read programme involves four different events for children throughout the year, all aimed at increasing literacy and developing a love of reading.

“The buildings had to close during Covid, but we made it easier for people to join online,” says Hamilton. “We ran book clubs, coding events and children’s story time through Zoom, and discovered new audiences. We did home delivery services for some users and worked with Age Action to get older people online. We worked hard to maintain our connection with our users and are so glad to be opening up again.”

See LibrariesIreland.ie for more information