School libraries in Victoria suffer from lack of resources, qualifications
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When Merri-Bek Primary School principal Maria Giordano first hosted parent tours, she wondered why her Coburg school had space for language lessons but no library.
The school community agreed and spent months fundraising and donating books. Last year, the library opened, featuring gorgeous murals of children’s book characters the Cat in the Hat, the Wonky Donkey and Zog the dragon.
Merri-bek Primary School library resource manager Helen Brown with student leaders Sonquette (left) and Shaurya.Credit: Eddie Jim
Giordano had identified a growing problem – school libraries with no qualified librarians and few books, and worrying national literacy rates as fewer children read for pleasure.
“I love to be at the school gate every morning and hearing the kids holding their library bags and saying, ‘I can’t wait, I’ve got library today’,” Giordano said.
“And we all know that libraries contribute to improving literacy, vocabulary and comprehension.”
The percentage of children aged five to 14 who read in their spare time has fallen by six percentage points in just four years, from 78.5 per cent to 72.4 per cent, recent Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show.
Last year’s NAPLAN data showed 13.5 per cent of year 9 students did not reach the national minimum standard for reading, compared to fewer than 8.5 per cent in 2008.
More than one quarter of Australia’s school libraries cut their budgets and staff numbers during COVID, according to a 2021 survey of school library staff. Just 55 per cent said their school library budget was adequate, while 47 per cent said it was adequately staffed.
Australia is considered a global leader in school libraries, but these cuts and a lack of qualified staff have hurt quality, particularly at poorer schools, said Dr Susan La Marca, executive officer with the School Library Association of Victoria.
“A lot of countries look to us as leaders in the field, but if you’re here on the ground, it doesn’t feel that way,” La Marca said. “We have fewer trained people, we have fewer libraries with high-quality staff.”
She said the general teacher shortage had exacerbated problems. “I can’t tell you how many people who have been taken out of the library because there aren’t enough teachers,” La Marca said.
“We continue to hear sad stories about libraries not operating because they’ve no longer got staff, or there’s not enough money to purchase a really good collection.”
The variation in quality among libraries was “quite amazing”, she said.
Fully resourced libraries with qualified teacher librarians “make a significant contribution to learning outcomes in primary and secondary schools”, a 2011 parliamentary inquiry found.
But the inquiry also found a vicious cycle had resulted from under-resourcing school libraries and having insufficient numbers of appropriately qualified staff. This led to a poorer quality service, which reduced the demand for teacher librarians as well as the attractiveness of the profession to prospective students.
Twelve years on, both teacher librarianship and librarianship degrees are no longer offered in Victoria. And unlike NSW, Victoria does not require schools to employ teacher librarians, the best qualified library staff. Principals decide how to staff a library, if at all.
Becoming a library and information professional
- Teacher librarians – Postgraduate university course (prospective students must be qualified teachers to enrol).
- Librarians and information specialists – Undergraduate or postgraduate university course.
- Library technicians – TAFE diploma course.
- Library assistants – No formal qualification required; however, many TAFEs and private vocational education providers offer certificates III and IV in library and information services.
Source: Australian Library and Information Association
Dr Kay Oddone, the course director of Australia’s only teacher librarian qualification at Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga, said most schools still had a library, but they were staffed more cheaply with library technicians, a part-time teacher or education support staff.
“Principals don’t always understand what teacher librarians can offer because they think they just manage the books, and look after borrowing, and keep resources on the shelf tidy,” Oddone said.
Teacher librarians are responsible for curating information and resources to support the curriculum, and provide regular timetabled library lessons and teaching.Libraries also help schools deal with the emergence of artificial intelligence chatbots and promote wellbeing, La Marca said.
“Not many people have twigged how important it is to have that wonderful library space and welcoming staff and a place you can come when you need to get away,” she said.
Grattan Institute education program director Jordana Hunter said all schools needed a good quality library, particularly those with disadvantaged students.
“Reading high quality fiction and non-fiction books, with sophisticated vocabulary, is important to build background knowledge and reading comprehension,” she said.
“Disadvantaged students are likely to rely more heavily on schools for these opportunities.”
The Education Department was contacted for comment.
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