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Beyond books: School libraries as sources of safety, inclusivity, and wellbeing

Last updated: 22 May 2024

New research suggests that school libraries, aside from supporting and strengthening pupils' academic achievement, also play a vital role in supporting pupil wellbeing.

But the library sector has been facing enormous challenges over the last 15 years, particularly since the beginning of the Covid pandemic. School libraries are no different, with declines in library budget, provision, and staffing posing significant risks to the extent to which libraries can be a source of pupil wellbeing in the future.

Scottish Book Trust has undertaken independent research to establish the ongoing impact of our high school libraries and librarians, and to showcase their value to pupils beyond academic achievement.

We have also created an advocacy kit for families, parents, teachers or learning professionals to advocate for their school's library. The kit is downloadable at the bottom of this page, and includes: 

Cultivating a love of reading

School librarians told us that they try to gain a deep understanding of pupils’ reading interests and preferences. They then use this knowledge to match pupils with books that will inspire a love of reading.

I would find a book that maybe had elements of escapism, of the places they wanted to see, or the characters or the people they wanted to meet and try to introduce them to some of those characters.

- Library Assistant

Looking beyond pupils’ reading levels and connecting with them on a one-on-one basis helps cultivate an environment where pupils feel empowered to read in line with their own interests and motivations. As pupils’ motivation to read is greater when they have opportunities to make choices about the texts they read and how they engage with those texts, this kind of library practice helps inspire an ongoing love of reading.

Linking books with pupils' lives

Librarians also described how they make reading relevant to their pupils by linking books with their lives outside of school. For example, linking books with film and TV/streaming, reading trends on social media, and other hobbies and interests which were meaningful to pupils.

And the S1's just started classic novels, so trying to link that in, perhaps with Netflix, like, Ann with an E with Anne of Green Gables, or there was a Little Women film, or we look at Swallows and Amazons.

- School Librarian

Research into teen reading has shown that pupils often find the reading they do in school to be boring or pressurizing. These negative experiences can accumulate, causing teens to form negative attitudes towards reading. Librarians work to combat this by showing teens how reading can be relevant to their lives outside of school.

Expanding pupils' worldview through books

We know that books can help us understand ourselves and others better. Librarians outlined how they help pupils access books which will help them broaden their worldview.

Our library project was in particular to address our rural area…our pupils were not exposed to different identities and cultures. So that's what our project was about.

- School Librarian

As reading fiction can support the understanding of others and has the potential to reduce prejudice towards those perceived as different, librarians used the library to broaden understanding among pupils who were not as knowledgeable about those different from themselves.

Building a safe space

Librarians made sure the physical library space was welcoming and felt like a safe space. They did this by having specific activities to help pupils feel comfortable, by being approachable, and by showing pupils they valued their interests.

Once they start to build up those relationships with you and there's a trust and a respect…because they feel that you've listened to them and are trying to help them.

- Library Assistant

As the transition from primary to secondary school can be particularly difficult to navigate for some pupils, having a safe space to take refuge can be vital for their wellbeing and ongoing development.

For some pupils in particular, the library can act as an even more essential safe space. For example, pupils with additional learning needs, and those with marginalised identities.

I very visibly display things about neurodivergence, about LGBTQIA. I openly talk about those things and make every accommodation that we can for people and very much want to work with individuals to make them feel comfortable and safe in this space.

- Network Librarian

For some teens, the library might be the first or only port of call if they are in need of a safe space; librarians were welcoming and inclusive of all pupils and adjusted their practice to meet the needs of everyone.

Supporting pupils' autonomy

Librarians supported pupils to be independent and encouraged them to take ownership over the library. Not only did this mean the library fit the pupils’ needs better, but it also helped the librarians themselves to deepen their practice.

We started producing a reading newsletter…and that is pupil led…[the pupils] write all sorts of book reviews. There's always an interview with a teacher or a member of staff… I must admit, they keep me going, because they'll come up with these ideas.

- Librarian

During the teenage years, feeling independent and having autonomy over our lives is increasingly important. Librarians recognized this, acknowledging and acting on the knowledge pupils had about their own needs.

What Scottish Book Trust is doing

As well as carrying out our own research to highlight the value of school librarians, Scottish Book Trust are also putting together an advocacy pack for school librarians.

Find out more about the impact of Scottish libraries, how you can support Scottish Book Trust or use our school libraries advocacy pack below.

An open-access paper about this research has been published in the Journal of Librarianship and Information Science. Read about it here: Beyond books: High school librarians as champions of pupil inclusivity, autonomy, and reader development(this link will open in a new window).