There is much talk in the world of libraries and information these days about the need to examine your library shelves to see if they are fit for purpose. Sadly, many of these conversations have been wrapped in the language of intolerance and have even been branded as “censorship”, but those of us who have been working with library collections for years know that this is far from the case.

One of the key factors behind any successful library collection is that it should be fit for purpose. Our collections must work for the communities in which they are housed, and this is particularly important for school libraries and classroom collections.

Most of us have very limited space, and that means that every item must potentially earn its keep. You notice the word “potentially” there. Not all of the items held in a school library will be borrowed all the time, but they will be there for a purpose nonetheless.

It is important to examine your school library or class shelves regularly to ensure your stock is broad and inclusive (and that it is not falling apart!) You might want to do this at the start of every term, using your class and school demographic as a starting point. Are there children that are unrepresented? Are there lifestyles and issues that should be represented? What is missing?

A key word being used about library and museum collections at the moment is “decolonisation”, and this is also relevant in school libraries and classroom collections. To put it simply, colonisation is the process of taking over someone’s land or country, and installing your own history and culture over the indigenous one thus dominating the narrative. Decolonisation is a process of removing that narrative dominance, and expanding the space to include representation for all. Simply put this is a process of turning up the volume on the historically silenced voices.

Schools have made great advances in expanding the curriculum to be more inclusive and diverse, but so often this light has failed to reach the bookshelves. Performing an annual stock analysis to ensure that your stock is fit for purpose, and there are a few things to bear in mind when doing this;

  • Is every area of the curriculum represented?
  • Is every child represented?
  • Can all of your pupils walk in here and say, “here’s a book for me!”
  • Is all of the information current and reliable?
  • Is there anything I need to remove because it can hurt or misinform?

There is one issue that every librarian must prepare for, and this is pushback from others. Sadly, this seems to be a familiar problem these days. You can mitigate against it by having a clear stock selection policy. Prepare your stock selection policy with the help of others in the school to avoid unconscious bias, and then make sure that both the head and the governors have signed off on it.

Try to include key statements in your stock selection policy that protect your right to choose books without significance interference or endless discussion. That’s not to say you won’t engage in discussion about certain stock areas, but it is destructive to pick over every single point every time. You might want to include statements such as;

  • The aim of the stock selection is to create a collection that is as wide ranging as possible covering all areas of the curriculum as well and the personal needs of the pupils.
  • The stock aims to promote new writing, as well as celebrating and reflecting past writing of merit and relevance.
  • The stock aims to represent the diversity, and linguistic and educational needs of this community
  • Material deemed to be outdated or misleading will be removed without discussion
  • When selecting stock, it is acknowledged that some material may be perceived to be of a more challenging nature, but this will always be appropriate to the pupils’ educational and/or emotional needs.
  • Stock selection and maintenance will be systematic and ongoing depending on the changing needs of the school and the pupils.
  • The school librarian will regularly discuss library stock with teachers to ensure it fits the changing needs of pupils and the curriculum.

Ultimately, the school library is a collection that must be tailored to fit the specific needs of the community it serves, and that focus is often educational, but it should also aim to inspire and excite. The wider benefits of reading for pleasure are well known and it is acknowledged that those who read for pleasure experience better mental health as well as a range of wider educational benefits. A good school library not only meets educational needs, but social and emotional ones too. We need to be giving young people the books they need, but also trying to anticipate the ones they didn’t know they needed. The books need to be those they actually want to read, as well as those they have to.

The school library is not a mausoleum or a place where books come to die, it should be a living and constantly adapting space that allows all young library users to grow and develop. The right book at the right time can change, or save a life and a good collection can help pupils to grow and learn with empathy and wider understanding of the world around them.

For more information about the wider benefits of reading for pleasure, please download of copy of the Reading Agency’s report here.

For support with diverse booklists and for choosing books for a more inclusive school library and classroom selection, you can find help via the themed booklists from BookTrust.

Youth Services Librarian and blogger, Matt Imrie, hosts a continuously evolving list of BAME authors and illustrators for children on his blog.

To support and develop Great School Libraries, follow the hashtag #GreatSchoolLibraries on social media and use the campaign website.