What do Croydon’s children think about libraries?

By - Wednesday 8th June, 2016

Sean Creighton sat down with a small group of small people, and they had big ideas for Croydon’s libraries

Croydon Council’s consultation on the future of libraries ended on 16th May. Largely based on involvement of the public via the internet, the exercise did not involve any specific method to find out the views of children.

The future of libraries partly depends on developing a sense of their value among children so they continue to use them as teenagers and adults. Then, as parents, they will encourage their own children of the value. Children are the potential future users.

Schools have a key role to play in developing that sense of value. It is therefore important for any local authority reviewing the future of its library service and consulting the public to find out the views of children, and consider how the linkages between its library service and schools is managed.

“It is more comfortable to read from a book”

As a member of the governing body of Norbury Manor Primary School I thought that it would be worthwhile to seek the views of the 10-11 year old children who, from September, will be in secondary school.

I therefore led sessions with them involving an introduction, group discussion and a survey for each child to complete.

Three quotations stand out:

  • “Without the books there is no point building libraries”
  • “When you search on the internet it doesn’t always come up right, so when you go to the library you will find the correct answers to your questions”
  • “Because I love to read and I love learning new things, even though I can read on the internet it is more comfortable to read from a book”

The most interesting finding is that the children regard books as more important than computers. Other findings are as follows.

Opening hours can be too restrictive. The look and facilities in library buildings are important aspects of why children like or dislike a library. These include how colourful the decorations are, the external look of the building, and the age and quantity of furniture.

The helpfulness and attitude of staff towards children is important and there need to be enough to help everyone. More imagination is needed in what children’s areas in libraries provide.

The particular emphasis on knowledge for jobs is worrying in children

It is important to have a wide range of books, including age-appropriate titles for older children, and a continual supply of new books. A wide range of activities could be offered, including language clubs and reading competitions during term time.

The children took a wider view of libraries and access, particularly for the benefit of the elderly and disabled physical access into and inside buildings. They indicated that this could be improved and that bus stops should be located close to libraries.

They consider that they need knowledge to help them in the future to get a job, to find out things, to communicate, to develop their brains, to make the world a better place, to know how to spend money properly, to be able to write structured letters, and to manage their own lives. The particular emphasis on knowledge for jobs is worrying in children – for them, the need to get into jobs is years ahead.

Several children are critical of the range of books on offer

They consider that the purpose of libraries is to help them to find out information and develop their knowledge, improve their vocabulary, learn about the world and expand their reading skills. They value being able to borrow books and CDs, and being able to use computers for free.

The children had many ideas for improving the libraries that they use. It is clear that some responses were specifically related to libraries other than Norbury elsewhere in the borough, as well as in Lambeth and Merton. This is because the school is near the borough boundary. All of the suggestions made illustrate the issues that children think about in considering the quality of the service in any library.

Several children are critical of the range of books on offer, pointing out the age of stock and the lack of books for older children. This does raise questions about the way in which new stock is chosen for children’s library areas, and whether the library service management should set up a way of testing books to be purchased with children.

Many considered books a more reliable source of information than the internet

Although the children appreciate that internet access can help them obtain information, computers do not appear to be seen as of the same importance as books. Many considered books a more reliable source of information than the internet. The attraction of playing games on computers in a library is not seen as being as important as reading and borrowing books.

A few children indicated that they do not have computers with internet access at home. This means that they cannot regularly find information on the internet unless they regularly go to the library. Given that library attendance is not frequent (most not more than once a month), this adds to the learning disadvantage.

Most children visit a library once per month, some more frequently. Most of the children go with a parent so frequency of visits may be largely determined by parents’ availability. It may also reflect parental reluctance about letting their children out without supervision. Schools may need to consider encouraging parents to visit more often.

Fewer children take part in the activities on offer at libraries, apart from the summer reading challenges

Quite a few children indicated that they take part in the summer reading challenges, but fewer in the other activities on offer at libraries. This raises questions as to whether libraries supply activity programme booklets or leaflets to schools to hand to the children to take home, and whether the library service discusses with schools the type of activities being planned which will support learning in school.

I found consulting children an interesting challenge and a mutual learning experience – their young voices should be considered in the field of libraries and more.

Sean Creighton

Sean Creighton

A former employee of and freelance project worker with community and voluntary organisations, Sean is active with Croydon Assembly and with the Planning and Transport Committee of the Love Norbury group of residents associations. He is Chair of the Norbury Community Land Trust. He is a historian of Croydon and South-West London, British black society, social action and the labour movement. He coordinates the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History networks. He runs blog sites covering Croydon, Norbury and history events, issues and news. He runs a small scale publishing imprint called History & Social Action Publications. He gives talks on a range of history topics and leads history walks.

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  • Anne Giles

    I had a library in our house – holding 5,000 books, including The Book of Knowledge and the Encyclopaedia Britannica. We had no television and my father used to read to us every night, my mother reading to us during the day when we were little. Books are of utmost importance to children. Our main hobby was reading.

    • Elizabeth

      Not all children have your advantage then or now, as I’m sure you are aware. That’s just one reason why public libraries and school libraries are so important.

      I share your love for books and reading. I too grew up in a house full of books, but nothing like the number you had access to though, and with no personal copy of Encyclopaedia Britannica. We used the local library and the school library for this and for access to a wide range of reading material to support our learning and for leisure.

      I still live in a house filled with books, with far too many for the shelves, yet we regularly use libraries as a family. And my daughters regularly choose to work in school and public libraries rather than at home. And this is despite them having access at home to a private space and ready access to internet. Many don’t!

      • Anne Giles

        That’s why I agree with you that libraries are important. We had no libraries in Argentina – only bookshops!

  • Elizabeth

    The issue with book stock in Croydon libraries has grumbled on since the culling of staff and stock before privatisation/outsourcing to Laing, who rapidly passed the management of libraries on to Carillion. The stock has been cut so drastically that a host of shelving in libraries across the borough has been removed…. Nothing like row upon row of empty shelving to to emphasis what has been lost.

    The poor book stock does not affect just the children’s sections of libraries either but appears to be across the board, with odd book selections made for new titles added to the collection, and patchy coverage within a series, rendering the rest of the series unusable.

    I have no doubt that a considerable factor in this is a drastic reduction in funding. The most significant factor though, must be the loss of so many experienced and qualified library workers and librarians. Librarians and experienced library workers provided a brilliant library service to the Croydon community in the past.

    When we had dedicated teams for each library and a children’s librarian in each of our libraries, the staff knew and served the community well. Children’s librarians did outreach work with schools, promoting the library offer, liaised re book stock to support the curriculum offered in local schools, and offered exciting activities and author visits to engage children. All this has been lost.

    And whatever happened to the promise that Croydon Labour would rip up the contract with Carillion? Whatever happened to their promise of transparency? We are still waiting to receive details of the contract…..

    Croydon libraries, like all public libraries, should serve the needs of the local communities. Croydon libraries are failing to do this now, on so many levels. Who is going to hold Carillion to account? And if this is a failure of the previous Tory administration, why would Croydon Labour not take the earliest opportunity to highlight this – the opportunity to throw their hands up and declare it is not their fault?

    And I salute the remaining staff in Croydon libraries as they continue to deliver the best they can under what must be extremely difficult circumstances. Many of their colleagues have lost their jobs, often with little notice.

    Croydon library service is in crisis and has been for some time.

    Croydon Labour has failed to deliver. They need to do more, and not just push the flawed cooperative volunteer model of Lambeth.

    Our libraries need to be properly staffed and stocked as well as accessible.

    A small cohort of Croydon school students has highlighted this issue well. My hope is that the current administration has a major rethink and embarks of a proper consultation.

    If you wish to follow or support the campaign, see @SaveCroydonLibs on Twitter and Save Croydon Libraries Campaign http://soslibrary.blogspot.co.uk/

  • Allen Williams

    When I was a kid, I was a member of the Coulsdon & Purley Urban District Council Children’s Library, and was a regular borrower at the Coulsdon Children’s Library. It was well-stocked with helpful staff who would suggest books I might like to borrow. It was a great source of entertainment and information. It was a highlight and a treat to be able to go to the library every fortnight. The Council regarded its libraries as of great importance: UDCs did not usually provide libraries at all – Surrey County Council would have been responsible had the UDC not insisted on providing the service itself.

    When the London Borough was created, I had already started secondary school and moved on to the senior library, and the deterioration in the service at Coulsdon was almost immediately apparent. Branch rotation of books seemed to slow down or stop completely. Yards of formerly full shelves remained empty: the stocks of non-fiction were particularly suffering. It was clear that the Coulsdon & Purley libraries were not a priority for the LBoC. My parents stopped borrowing on a regular basis and so did I. Dad joined Camden Libraries (where he worked). Croydon Central library had now to be visited to get the sort of stuff I wanted and I became a weekly visitor to the Gramophone Record Library (in a shack round the back of the main building).

    Then the Central Library (including the records) moved to what had been Ebbutts furniture shop beside the new flyover. This remained well stocked and staffed until I left the area in 1971. By this time, it had become fairly pointless to attend any of the branch libraries: Coulsdon was like a ghost ship.

    Libraries are essential, not a luxury. Coulsdon & Purley realized this but Croydon never did. Branch libraries in particular are important for those who are too young, too old, or are employed away from, and cannot easily use, the centre of Croydon.

    I fully support any effort to restore the esteem in which a first-class library service should be held, and thoroughly deplore the out-sourcing of this public service to a commercial business and the de-professionalization of the staff.