On the heels of our recent Official Opening of the Victoria Diez Library, we thought it was time to hear from our fantastic librarian, Robin Stewart on his journey with the new library:
“Joy, Fortitude and Love”: Words to live by; words I contemplated intently when I first started working on the Victoria Díez Library Project – partially as they were emblazoned in font size 4000 on the library wall. Although those words may no longer be on the walls, they live on in the spirit of the library and what it aims to achieve with our students.
Thanks to a generous legacy from Monsignor Richard Sherry, the fantastic efforts of fundraising parents and the care our Principals and the Board show for their students, The Teresian School has completed the transformation of our School Library, which was opened by Ryan Tubridy on December 3rd. Ryan, himself an author and passionate advocate for literacy, spoke at the opening of the library as a space for kindness, a refuge and haven for the sharing of ideas, thoughts and stories.
It was in this spirit of sharing that Blessed Victoria Díez founded a library for her students and alumni in 1929, with the aim of the advancement of women through the Teresian Spirit. In her honour, we commemorate the 90th anniversary of the founding of her library and celebrate the wisdom, compassion and vision of Victoria Díez by naming our new library in her honour.
The Victoria Díez Library is a whole-school library, for all pupils and students; pre-school, primary and secondary. The library has proved immensely popular with our girls (and the boys in the pre-school) – there’s a little queue outside the door each morning when the library opens at 8am! The library is open before school, at lunchtime and after school, with classes from the junior school and senior school subject classes timetabled for weekly visits.
The Teresian School has an illustrious history and established reputation. It’s been doing fantastic work and obtaining great results for more than fifty years – so why hire a librarian now? Did the school really need one?
Firstly, it is important to understand that a room full of books (as the space was when I arrived) is not a library, merely a repository. Libraries are organised, dedicated spaces created and curated by trained professionals. When I trained as a Librarian, people’s response was often “sure what do you do all day, wear elbow patches and shuffle books around while shushing people?” (by the way, the unofficial collective noun for librarians is a ‘shush’!). There’s a lot more to being a librarian than this perceived stereotype – we (sadly!) never get time to read on the job for instance. Librarians are conduits – a word which literally means “bring together”. We bring together people and ideas, working to serve the five basic laws of Library Science, namely:
- Books are for reading;
- To every reader their book;
- To every book its reader;
- Make access to books easy;
- Libraries are growing organisms – change is good.
In the context of a school library, the key aims are to provide a safe, respectful and welcoming place, supporting curricular and extra-curricular activities, fully engaged with teaching and learning. The school library is a space to foster and develop a love for reading, a place to seek help and advice. Libraries provide research materials and skills, develop the capacity for independent learning, accelerate literacy, bridge the gap between Primary, Secondary and 3rd levels and act as place of belonging in a community of learners.
Another responsibility of a librarian is supporting digital literacy as well as traditional print literacy. However, the school already has excellent programmes and strategies in place for digital literacy – so where does the Library fit in?
A key role of modern librarianship is supporting and developing wider Information Literacy, of which digital literacy is a component. According to The School Library Association of the Republic of Ireland (SLARI) (of which the School is now an Institutional Member):
“The teaching of information literacy should be an essential component of any school curriculum. A school which has a well-organised library has the best chance of delivering a successful information literacy programme. Such a programme should help students at all levels to become competent library users and independent learners. They should learn how to identify and locate sources of information; to organise, record, present and evaluate information effectively. In line with international best practice, an information literacy programme should be devised and taught by a team which would include the school librarian and members of the teaching staff”.
So what is Information Literacy? The American Library Association’s definition is the most widely accepted: “To be information literate, a person must be able to recognise when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate and use effectively, the needed information…. Ultimately, information literate people are those who have learned how to learn.”
We tend to take information literacy for granted – “sure I can just Google it”. On reflection though, a ‘simple’ internet search, or any quest for information, is actually quite a complex task, summed up by a nine-step model:
That’s a lot to process! We need to equip students with the tools and skill-set they need to navigate an ever more complex information landscape.
If Information Literacy and School Libraries are so important, you may ask, ‘why don’t all schools have one?’. Unfortunately, not all schools and learning communities are lucky enough to have a dedicated library. Predominantly the most and least privileged schools are best served, but everything in the middle – the majority of schools – miss out on the opportunity. There appears to be a reluctance to acknowledge the importance of school libraries at Government Departmental Level, primarily due to the costs involved in set-up and maintenance: a very short-sighted view. There is a general expectation that digital native equates to digital literate, that because a child was born after the mainstream proliferation of digital technology they innately know how to use and navigate it correctly and efficiently – this is simply not the case. Although the School Library Association, Library Association and Chartered Institute of Library & Information Professionals have been doing sterling work to change policy in this regard for many years, other than the success of the Junior Certificate School Programme Library Demonstration Project in the DEIS sector, their efforts have gone largely unheeded.
While digital literacy and wider information literacy are vital, the ultimate raison d’etre for a school library is the undisputable fact that reading for pleasure is good for us, because reading develops empathy.
Research in neuroscience indicates that the literacy caused the development of new circuitry in the human brain more than 6,000 years ago. That circuitry evolved from a very simple mechanism for decoding basic information, to the highly complex reading brain. However, the rise of digital-based modes of reading is threatening our essential ‘deep-reading’ processes.
The reading circuit is not given to humans through a genetic blueprint like vision or language; it needs an environment to develop. If the dominant medium advantages processes that are fast, multi-task oriented and well-suited for large volumes of information, like digital media, so will the reading circuit. As UCLA psychologist Patricia Greenfield writes, the result is that less attention and time will be allocated to slower, time-demanding deep reading processes, like inference, critical analysis and empathy, all of which are indispensable to learning at any age.
The negative effects of screen reading can appear as early as 9 or 10 years of age. Increasing reports from educators and from researchers in psychology and the humanities bear this out. English literature professors at 3rd level describe how many students actively avoid the classic literature of the 19th and 20th centuries because they no longer have the cognitive patience to read longer, denser, more difficult texts – George Eliot just doesn’t make the cut in the age of tweets and multiple tabs. This highlights the frightening prospect that ‘educated’ people won’t have the capacity to read with the level of critical analysis needed to comprehend the complexity of thought and argument found in more demanding texts, whether in literature, in science, in education, or in legal documents, wills, contracts and political manifestos.
Researchers in San Jose State University have conducted a series of studies which indicate that the ‘new norm’ in reading is skimming, with word-spotting and browsing through the text. Many readers now use an ‘F’ or ‘Z’ pattern when reading, in which they sample the first line and then word-spot through the rest of the text. When the reading brain skims like this, it reduces time allocated to deep reading processes. In other words, we don’t allow time to grasp complexity, to understand another’s feelings, to perceive beauty, and to create thoughts of our own.
It’s not only about the young. The subtle atrophy of critical analysis and empathy affects us all – it incentivises a retreat to the most familiar silos of unchecked information, which require and receive no analysis, leaving us susceptible to false information and demagoguery. In the age of Trump and Brexit, this is truly worrying.
Reading changes our brains. Beyond allowing humans to gather and synthesize new information, research shows it is key to cultivating empathy and compassion. This is particularly true of fiction, which allows readers to imagine themselves as other people, in other worlds, with different ideas and challenges. At the Princeton Social Neuroscience Lab, psychologist Diana Tamir has demonstrated that people who read fiction have better social cognition: they’re more skilled at working out what other people are thinking and feeling. Using brain scans, she has found that while reading fiction, there is more activity in parts of the brain that are involved in simulating what other people are thinking.
Having 24/7 access to screens and the internet makes it easy to quickly find information. This has a tremendous effect on attention that will inevitably have a change in our ability to consolidate memory. Removing technology isn’t the solution – technology isn’t inherently bad: technology can help individuals with dyslexia or learning disabilities and increase global literacy. It’s not about digital versus print, tradition versus innovation, it’s understanding cognitively and effectively what are the implications for reading and thinking for both mediums.
The compassionate imagination of childhood begins with understanding that there are others outside of ourselves. We learn this through hearing and reading stories. We have never needed the role of stories more than right now. Libraries are where stories live and, literally, scientifically, reading stories can help make us better people, striving to live the Teresian ethos in our everyday lives. The aim of the new School Library is to work together to enrich the lives of our students and the lives of the entire Teresian School Community.
Robin Stewart is Librarian at the Victoria Díez Library in the Teresian School.
He has many years’ experience working in the library and the education sectors, in organisations including UCD, Maynooth University, The Irish Universities Association, The National Institute for Regional & Spatial Analysis and Meath County Council.
His work has been recognised at the Excellence in Local Government Awards and Age Friendly Ireland Awards. He is currently reading “The Secret Commonwealth (The Book of Dust, Vol. 2) by Philip Pullman.
- American Library Association (1989) ALA Presidential Committee on Information Literacy: Final Report. 10/01/89
- Comer Kidd, D. & Castano, E. (2013) Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind. Science. 342 (6156), 377-380.
- Gabriel, S. & Young, A. (2011). Becoming a Vampire Without Being Bitten. Psychological Science. 22. 990-4.
- Green, M. C. et al. (2003). Narrative Impact: Social and Cognitive Foundations. Psychology Press.
- Greenfield, P. (2014). Mind and Media: The Effects of Television, Video Games and Computers. Psychology Press.
- Irving, A. (1985). Study and Information Skills Across the Curriculum. Heinemann Educational Books.
- Ranganathan, S. (1957). The Five Laws of Library Science. Indian Library Association
- School Library Association of the Republic of Ireland (2004) The School Library in the 21st Century: An Agenda for Change. SLARI Policy Statement.
- Tamir, D. et al. (2015). Reading Fiction and Reading Minds: The Role of Simulation in the Default Network. Journal of Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 11(2), 215-224.
- Wolf, M. (2018). Skim Reading is the New Normal: The Effect on Society is Profound. The Guardian, 25/08/18, 43