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Opinion: Author SF Said - ‘Axing children’s librarians is like sacking pilots’

PUBLISHED: 12:03 22 September 2017 | UPDATED: 12:08 22 September 2017

Save Hari campaigners outside Wood Green library calling on the public to support their campaign to protect the role of children's librarian. Picture: Jon King

Save Hari campaigners outside Wood Green library calling on the public to support their campaign to protect the role of children's librarian. Picture: Jon King

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This week Varjak Paw author SF Said shares his views on the importance of dedicated children’s librarians.

ARTS AND BOOKS. by line picture.
S.F.SaidARTS AND BOOKS. by line picture. S.F.Said

Imagine you’re on an aeroplane. As it takes off, there’s an announcement: the airline has deleted all its pilots’ positions.

The pilots are now general customer service staff, so they’ll be serving food and drinks, processing baggage, and so on. But there’s no need to worry, because they still have all their expertise and will fly the plane whenever possible. And though they’re not qualified pilots, the cabin crew will pitch in and fly the plane too!

This scenario might feel familiar to users of Haringey children’s library service. Haringey Council deleted their specialist children’s librarians positions in a staff restructure last year. There were 5 dedicated children’s librarians across the borough, and they built up a service that was second to none. Now there are none.

The Council haven’t sacked the staff; they say this restructure is just a change of terminology. But they are requiring specialist children’s librarians to take on work that doesn’t relate to their specialism, and doesn’t allow them to be dedicated children’s librarians. Instead, they’re now part of the general customer service team. And so librarians who are among the UK’s leading authorities on children’s literature are now spending their time processing parking tickets. And staff with no background in children’s literature are being asked to do their jobs.

Why is it important to have dedicated children’s librarians? There’s a wealth of research showing how vital it is to get children reading. It has the biggest single impact of any activity on life chances and educational attainment, and huge impacts on mental health and well-being. This means we need to make sure all children find the books that will make them lifelong readers.

That is what children’s librarians do. As a children’s author, I’ve seen their unique work first-hand. It’s highly specialised work, not general customer service. Children’s literature is not even a sub-section of adult literature: it is its own world. You have to dedicate yourself to keeping up with it, because over 15,000 new children’s titles are published every year in the UK. There is no one right book for every child. So you need a specialist to help you find the right books for your kids.

As well as curating stock and matching readers with books, children’s librarians promote literacy through author visits, reading challenges, reading groups such as Chatterbooks and Dads’ drop-ins, and so on. Again, these require expertise, and children’s librarians put a lot of time and training into developing their expertise. While Haringey’s children’s librarians still have jobs, the new structure does not allow them to dedicate themselves to developing their expertise further, and will not allow anyone else to develop that expertise in the future.

These activities have dropped off sharply since the restructure; there hasn’t been an outreach reader development programme with children’s authors and illustrators borough-wide for a year. The effects are being felt. A local school librarian told us: “It has already had a short-term impact on children’s opportunities in Haringey, and I firmly believe the long-term impact will be dire. Without specialist knowledge and input, public libraries will not be able to serve and enthuse children and young people in the same way.”

These changes aren’t just about terminology. They inflict real damage on the children’s library service, and on the education of Haringey’s children – the council’s stated top priority. That’s why local children’s authors and illustrators are calling on the council to reconsider its decision, and allow our children’s librarians to go back to doing what they do best. Please join us, and help save Haringey’s children’s library service before it’s gone forever.

Visit the Save Hari website for more details.

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