Library Insights: The School Library as Sanctuary: Mental Health, Wellbeing and the School Library

Updated: Nov 3



Whilst the library has an essential role to play in supporting learning, through providing resources as well as access to computers and study space, many students see the library as a place they can retreat to, away from the hustle and bustle of the playground or canteen. This is one of the few spaces in school where there are not the academic pressures of the classroom, where their time is not directed or assessed and there are fewer expectations placed on them. “When they enter through the doors, teens often shed the exterior armour they have donned for their parents, teachers, coaches, and peers. Libraries have long been a refuge for teens who might struggle to find their place at school, and it is often the one space that is readily open and available to the entire campus community.” (Davis, 2019) It is the school librarian who helps facilitate this, by creating a welcoming and safe space that is accessible to the whole school community. In this article, I will be looking at how library design, events, staffing and codes of conduct, all work together to support and enhance a student’s mental wellbeing whilst at school.


It is essential that the whole school community, including staff, view the library as an accessible and inclusive space. This can be achieved through effective library design, most significantly by positioning the library centrally within the school, so it is seen as the main hub for students. Attention also needs to be paid to the library’s interior design, making sure there are differentiated spaces that support various types of learning and interaction. Once students have been encouraged to access the library, it is vital that they feel involved and have a sense of ownership of this space. This can be achieved through running frequent events, competitions and craft activities in the library, that inspire interest and participation (see some of St Benedict’s Library events, here). “When students engage in the many activities and opportunities provided in a library or library makerspace, they relax and have fun. It is non-threatening and students can fulfil their own desires to give things a go. It gives students wings and permission to forgive themselves for not being perfect; failing becomes part of the fun.” (Child, 2018 (Issue 105))


School libraries are often particularly important places for quieter students, the ones who may be marginalised, are less inclined to join in the rough and tumble of the playground, club group activities or debating clubs. As an alternative, students can visit the library “by themselves and relax with a book or magazine or take part in an activity. There is no need to be seen to be popular in a library and being part of a large group is surplus to requirements.” (Flint, 2019) In St Benedict’s library, we have an informal ‘Middle School Book Room’, which encourages reading and relaxation through its contemporary design, bright colours, low rise shelving, front-facing fiction displays, posters and sofas and bean bags. The area is stocked with the latest children’s and YA fiction, picture books, graphic novels, manga and magazines. This range of resources is particularly attractive to reluctant readers, allowing them to hopefully find something that suits their interests and reading ability. As described by author Alan Gibbons “A good school library supplements the prescribed curriculum with that other curriculum, the hidden, secret world of your own favourite books, comics, DVDs and websites.” (Gibbons, 2013)


Students with special educational needs (SEN), who have difficultly interacting with others or are overwhelmed by noisy spaces such as the lunch hall or playground are often frequent users of the school library. The space is also a sanctuary for students who may have pastoral issues, perhaps undergoing a difficult time within a friendship group, are being bullied, feel lonely, or have experienced bereavement or divorce at home. The library takes on the role as “the third space, between school and home” (Korodaj, Students Need School LIbraries, 2018), acting as a bridge between the two. It can act as a well-regulated, safe and secure space for students, through the implementation of a ‘Library code of conduct’ and ensuring the library is well supervised throughout the day. An example of this is Librarian Bonnie Barr’s library, who created a silent study area, which “provided crucial respite for students who needed a safe place to be alone. These students knew that if anyone came in there with the intention of subtle bullying, they would be asked to leave immediately under the “no talking” rule. Most importantly, this would happen without drawing attention to the bullied student, and without them having to engage in any confrontation.” (Accessit, 2018) . As identified in the National Literacy Trust’s 2010 ‘School Libraries’ report, “the school library has a significant role to play for children who for a variety of needs find the school environment particularly unwelcoming. As a space which is regulated by adults at times of the school day when spaces are largely peer regulated this is understandable.” (National Literacy Trust, 2010).

Working in a space that is accessible throughout the day, librarians have the unique opportunity to build supportive and non-judgemental relationships with students. “For some of our students: the school library may be the only space where they can come and speak to like-minded peers and/or a trusted adult that isn’t their classroom teacher or a parent.” (Korodaj, The library as third space in your school, 2019) Librarians also get to observe students at different times of the day, spotting the ones who look like they are going through a difficult time or are perhaps isolated. This insight into possible arising social or emotional issues means the librarian has a key role to play in supporting the wellbeing of students, acting as a direct link to the pastoral department, where any issues of concern should be reported.


It is through the above-mentioned practices, relationships and spaces that the school library really does have a unique role to play in supporting the social and emotional wellbeing of the school community. From its physical spaces and design to staffing and management, students have the chance to explore their own reading and learning journey in a supportive, safe and non-judgemental environment. Through directly involving the students in creative and stimulating activities and supporting a wide range of behaviours and learning needs, the library can help them develop a sense of belonging, self-esteem and identity that is often much harder to achieve in the larger, busier spaces of a school. This flexibility, understanding and openness is what makes school libraries a sanctuary for many students and such an integral part in their overall mental well-being.


Extract from Article published in The School Librarian (September 2020)


Emma Wallace, Senior Librarian, St Benedict’s School @LibraryWallace 28th April 2020

Bibliography

Accessit. (2018, October). The library - a safe space for everyone. Retrieved from Accessit: https://accessitlibrary.com/project/library-safe-for-everyone/


Child, J. (2018 (Issue 105), Term 2). School libraries enhancing student wellbeing. Retrieved from SCIS: https://www.scisdata.com/connections/issue-105/school-libraries-enhancing-student-wellbeing


Davis, S. (2019, August 20). Student Health & Well-Being: How Libraries Can Create Safe Spaces. Retrieved from NAIS.org: https://www.nais.org/learn/independent-ideas/august-2019/student-health-well-being-how-libraries-can-create-safe-spaces/


Flint, S. (2019, December 9). Libraries as safe havens. Retrieved from IE-Today: https://ie-today.co.uk/Blog/libraries-as-safe-havens/


Gibbons, A. (2013, March 22). The library: Beating heart of the school. Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2013/mar/22/love-your-library-school-alan-gibbons


Korodaj, L. (2018, October 16). Students Need School LIbraries. Retrieved from YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QguR1J8IXMU


Korodaj, L. (2019). The library as third space in your school. Retrieved from NSW Government: https://education.nsw.gov.au/teaching-and-learning/professional-learning/scan/past-issues/vol-38--2019/the-library-as-third-space-in-your-school


National Literacy Trust. (2010). School Libraries: A plan for imporvement. Retrieved from National Literacy Trust: https://cdn.literacytrust.org.uk/media/documents/2010_01_01_free_other_-_school_libraries_a_plan_for_improvement.pdf.pdf


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