“Misguided principals are either allowing [the closure of their own school libraries], or themselves getting rid of the libraries, and thinking that because of the digital age we don’t need books,” Hobbs tells EducationHQ.
“I think it’s very serious … the problem seems to be that whether there is a (well resourced) library or a librarian in the individual school really depends on the finances of the school, and as I understand it, the principal basically decides where the money goes.”
Hobbs believes there’s a glaring duality at play: as policymakers and politicians increasingly tout the crucial need to boost our students’ literacy levels, a large swathe of school libraries and qualified teacher-librarians are facing a cull.
“At the same time, (primary) teachers are overloaded,” Hobbs says.
“Literacy is the big buzz word, it seems, in education at the moment, and librarians are well placed to assist with the individual student’s literacy needs within a school.
“Not only that, to assist teachers as well because the library isn’t just dusty books on a shelf,” he argues.
The figures suggest Hobbs might have cause for concern, especially at the primary level: ACER’s latest Staff in Australia's Schools survey found that between 2010 and 2013, the number of teacher-librarians in primary schools dipped from 5600 to 1300.
The decline was more likely to affect schools in lower socio-economic areas.
Queensland’s Sandy Amoore, president of the Australian School Library Association and teacher-librarian at Alligator Creek State School, says when faced with financial pressures, principals new to the role are often quick to squash library funds.
These leaders don’t know the value a well-resourced school library with qualified staff can bring to the learning and social culture of their schools, Amoore says.
“I think there’s new principals coming up that think everything is free and everything is on the internet, which is not true.
“I also think it’s a case of you don’t know what you’ve got 'til it’s gone; I don’t think they realise what’s going to happen.”
Amoore notes that in the digital age it is more important than ever to have teacher-librarians on deck to help children navigate the plethora of information at their disposal.
“My thoughts are that probably schools don’t realise what teacher-librarians bring to the table.
"First of all we bring literacy skills, enabling students to put together an assignment, but also to research.
"The case of the digital native is actually a myth from our point of view.
“We are finding that teenagers are very good at posting to Facebook and Instagram and Twitter but they are not very good at using the internet as a research tool when it comes to doing that, and therefore they need [a] teacher.
“We are finding they are poorly prepared for the world of work and tertiary studies.”
Lessons on cyber safety, digital footprints and plagiarism are also the domain of teacher-librarians.
And without regular access to such expertise, Amoore fears school children are missing out on critical information that might be otherwise lost in the curriculum.
“We provide curriculum resources for staff even, we are all over the curriculum, and we are also the hideout for kids at lunch who just can’t handle it outside…”
The great contradiction is that while many school libraries are being pared-back, another fleet are investing heavily in upgrading their facilities and/or transforming their library spaces into impressive open learning and community hubs.
Take for example St Joseph’s Nudgee College in Queensland, whose new library topped the schools category of the Library Design Awards 2017.
Intended to recognise the best in contemporary library designs in Australia, and run by the Australian Library and Information Association, the jury praised the school’s “monumental and welcoming” facility executed by m3 architecture in 2015.
The school’s budget was $10.2 million. The four other finalists in the running were private schools.
In response to ACER’s online wrap-up of the awards, one reader commented:
“It’s interesting and sad to note that the schools showcased are NOT government schools. Once again this article highlights the appalling disparity in facilities/resources between government and non-government schools…”
Funding debates and flashy interiors aside, Ron Gorman, Australian Children’s Literature Alliance Chair and Deputy Director of the
Association of Independent Schools of Western Australia, says there is no doubt that school libraries stocked with “high quality literature” and “knowledgeable” staff are “worth their weight in gold”.
“…access to quality literature changes lives; it lets young people see things differently and it covers issues that sometimes young people don’t necessarily experience, those being good things and bad things as well, so that’s very, very important,” Gorman shares.
Teacher-librarians should feel valued and appreciated for their “significant” work in schools, he says.
“The thing that they know most is the young people that come into the library - they’ll be sourcing books that are right for the individual.
“So it could be ‘Liam, I heard you are into gore at the moment, here’s a pretty disgusting story, go and read that one.’”