Bring back school libraries to rescue kids from TikTok

Children in a school library
Children in a school library

The late Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman thought the haberdashery department of Peter Jones in Sloane Square an ideal place to see out Armageddon, as “nothing unpleasant could ever happen there”.

That excellent repository of knitting wool and embroidery silks is an infinitely soothing environment. But when the Last Trump sounds, my own preferred sanctuary would be a library.

I have measured out my life in library shelves, from childhood trips to the municipal library in Sittingbourne to the stacks of the London Library, but the libraries that formed my reading habits more than any other were at school.

At my primary school, the books were shelved in a cosy little room where regular attendance was rigorously enforced, and one’s choice of reading matter closely scrutinised.

At secondary school the library became a sanctuary where my early reading addiction offered an escape from the unattractive present to a different future. Those modest state school libraries made me into a lifelong reader, with an infallible remedy for everything from mild boredom to heartbreak.

But not all today’s children are so lucky: last year, the Great School Libraries survey found a lack of balance in school library resources.

There is no statutory provision for British schools to have a library (unlike prisons) and the Department for Education does not collect information on the numbers of school libraries.

In response, children’s writers including Philip Pullman and former Children’s Laureates Julia Donaldson and Sir Michael Morpurgo have called for legislation to ensure that all schools have libraries. “The library,” said Pullman, “is the most important room in the entire school because it contains – or used to contain, or should contain – books that are not required for examination purposes. Books that no one might expect to find. Books on every subject under the sun.”

Yet important though school libraries are in planting the seeds of literacy, they struggle against the mortal enemy of long-form reading, social media. TikTok, with its bite-sized chunks of content, has been described as the “junk food of media”.

The app is keen to present itself as a place in which to share enthusiasms – citing the success of #BookTok in “sparking a passion for reading among UK teens”. Even so, it is at least conducive to excessive consumption. 
By contrast, a reading habit, acquired early and regularly practised, is an addiction whose acquisition, uniquely, makes you more interesting, happier, and more economically useful.

School libraries, well managed by the sort of fiercely benevolent librarians who oversaw my own childhood reading, look like real intellectual nourishment – the antidote to social media junk food.

Birds of a feather

The RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch takes place this month. The survey offers an intriguing snapshot of our native bird life; goldfinches and great tits are doing well, while greenfinches and song thrush numbers have fallen.

In our own garden, there has been a noticeable change – fewer dunnocks, starlings and blackbirds. But not all change is decline: in the recent cold weather, flocks of long-tailed tits and a pair of nuthatches have been visiting the feeders near the kitchen window, turning the dreary chore of washing-up into a daily wildlife documentary.

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