Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Defend the National Library from National

I've got a bit of a confession to make. I Love Libraries. Not E-Readers, online repositories, over-used class book sets, or glorified literacy-encouragement tools (although all of these are useful and have their place) ... I mean *actual* bricks-and-mortar books-and-more-books storehouses of knowledge and facilitators of learning.

I grew up in libraries; still live in one today; and am resolutely of the opinion that having easy access to literally tens of thousands of tomes on just about every subject conceivable was vital for a younger Curwen's learning and personal development.

It was therefore a cause for considerable surprise, shock and dismay when I was contacted by a teacher-librarian working at a local secondary school about proposed changes to the way the National Library system works.

In years past, teachers and librarians have been able to supplement the resources directly available to them by hitting up the National Library through Curriculum Services and ordering supply-crates of often highly specialized books for classroom use. If you're outside the education system, such a facility may not sound like much; but in my own experience - and those of the educational professionals I've talked to - it's proven invaluable in ensuring our kids have access to the information they need in a format that's useful and accessible to them.

And no, despite Peter Dunne's protestations to the contrary, you can't just expect kids to make do solely by trying to track down and access information via the internet.

While I fully applaud the National Library making greater use of digital vectors to enable students and teachers to access its resources; the decision from on high that this approach should be pursued at the expense of having physical books available for dispatch to where they are needed strikes me as being less about making sure our kids get the informational support they need ... and more to do with the fact that kids reading books via the internet costs the government less than sending crates of books around the place. (The net fiscal impact of the policy as a whole is a rather theoretical saving of $392,000)

In an ideal world (which, given who's in power, this obviously isn't), the National Library would be pursuing a "both" rather than "either" approach which didn't blithely assume all students, schools and classrooms were equally able to make use of online or digital resources. Despite the government pushing "e-learning" and "digital literacy" as educational mantras with all the fervor of somebody who's willing to try *absolutely anything* other than properly paying and valuing teachers as a means to boost educational outcomes, not every child has access to a digital device in the classroom, and not every classroom has reliable ongoing access to the internet. This is particularly the case for schools in rural and lower-decile areas, who may find themselves effectively double-penalized by the relative paucity and difficulty of access to equivalently resourced alternative libraries in their home communities.

Unfortunately for whichever bureaucrat or bouffant-wearer dreamed up the policy, I'm not even sure this shift away from the provision of physical resources will actually save the government money. As the School Library Association of New Zealand thoughtfully points out, the system that's been in place for the previous aeon made economic sense because it had the high-use and high-demand books required year-round and in bulk (whether fiction or non-fiction) being bought by schools and school libraries to be used immediately and extensively by their students. The National Library, by contrast, concentrated its efforts on acquiring the specialized and supplementary materials that individual schools were likely to only require in small numbers (if at all), and far less frequently.

The new system, by contrast, will reportedly feature the National Library buying up masses of popular fiction in print copy to be shipped round the country in the name of fostering "reading engagement" (something school libraries do anyway, and with the added bonus of not having to wait for other schools to return the resources first), leaving schools to purchase the less frequently used and almost invariably rather expensive specialist texts required to fully support the NZ Curriculum.

Even setting aside the obvious issues with having the stuff that's going to be ubiquitously in-demand and over-subscribed year-round kept at a central repository and only available to a given school on a rotational basis, a moment's consideration will reveal how this new approach makes little to no sense from either a librarian's perspective or an accountant's - let alone from that of the poor, long-suffering teacher!

Given the number of obvious issues and oversights with this policy, it should surprise absolutely no one that it appears to have been developed without a single iota of consultation with either schools or school librarians. Sadly, this kind of callous disregard for the input and perspective of education professionals is part and parcel of National's approach to making decisions concerning the education sector.

The National Library - and, for that matter, the presence of books in schools - is both a treasure and a treasure-trove. Attempts to relegate either to the past in the name of a few cheap savings would be (to borrow a phrase Peter Dunne used to describe his critics on this matter) "comical if they were not so tragic."

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