Libraries in Germany – Expert Discussion

School Libraries in Germany: An Interview with Julia Rittel

Julia Rittel; © privatSchulbibliothek; © Südpol-Redaktionsbüro/T. Köster

School libraries play a central role in teaching information literacy, yet are attributed hardly any importance in German education policy. Goethe.de talked to Julia Rittel, director of the State Working Group on School Libraries in North Rhine-Westphalia.

Ms Rittel, how important in your opinion are school libraries?

School libraries can make a very considerable contribution to modern teaching. I mean modern both in the sense of individualization and autonomous work, but also in the sense of equal opportunities. Nowadays it is no longer enough to acquire a certain amount of knowledge during one’s school career; one also needs the information skills to be able to keep accessing new information. And this is where the school library can play a central role.

Julia Rittel; © privat

What happens at your school library, the media centre at Bonn-Duisdorf vocational college?

Our library is open eight hours every day – from the start of the school day at 8 am until 4 pm. Two or three times a day, lessons take place here with entire classes. In addition, small groups are often sent out of class to research something in the library. After lessons, pupils use the library to revise for tests, do their homework, work together on assignments and presentations or write applications.

Girl in a school library; © Südpol-Redaktionsbüro/T. Köster

Do you believe that every school needs a library?

Yes!

Why are the wide-ranging possibilities for cooperation with public libraries not enough?

I myself spent a long time working in a combined public/school library. That is almost the perfect solution – one has the know-how and sizeable collection of a public library, yet is directly on site in the school. If the library is not located in the school building itself, there is simply not sufficient flexibility to make the library a genuinely integral part of the teaching process. And then – because of the physical distance – the inhibition threshold is often too great.

If a school has a good library, teachers can send a pupil there during lesson time at the drop of a hat, or can even take the entire class. The library is tailored precisely to the needs of the teacher. After school or in free periods, pupils can also spend time here – without restrictions.

What about the priority given to school libraries in education policy discussions in Germany?

They are given amazingly little priority. It is incredibly hard to bring the subject into the public discussion.

School library; © Südpol-Redaktionsbüro/T. Köster

Why is this the case?

Because of various traditions. For example, Germany has a long tradition of “chalk and talk” teaching. There is also a very positive tradition of good text books, which perhaps made a school library less necessary.

Until 1920, every school in Prussia had a library, but then this tradition came to an end. As a matter of fact, the people who are taking education policy decisions in Germany today never themselves experienced a school library. Consequently they find it hard to imagine the benefits. Nowadays there are not even any official figures relating to school libraries in Germany. It is thought that around ten percent of all schools have a library which satisfies modern requirements, but that is nothing more than a very vague estimate.

Following the shock over the results of the PISA study in the year 2000, school libraries briefly received something of a boost …

That is true. Many all-day schools were established as a result, which meant that school libraries became more of a topic of discussion again. Children needed to be given somewhere to learn and spend time if they were to remain at school all day long. This is why canteens and school libraries were built in many schools in the wake of the PISA study – though sadly they often lacked any further-reaching didactic concept.

Do positive examples exist in Germany’s federal states?

An amazingly large number of positive examples exists given how little structure there is. One real highlight is the School Library Office in Frankfurt. It is run by several full-time employees under the umbrella of the city library, and is responsible for all schools in Frankfurt am Main. In the state of Hesse, the education ministry supports school libraries in cooperation with the local state working group.

School library; © Südpol-Redaktionsbüro/T. Köster

In other states, those responsible for school libraries often find themselves left to their own devices …

Yes, in many cases it’s like fishing in murky waters. Often there is nobody one can turn to. In North Rhine-Westphalia, we are trying to redress the situation somewhat with our State Working Group on School Libraries and our regional working groups, but there’s only so much one can achieve with volunteers.

What we really need are central advisory and service centres dotted across the entire country. It would be very helpful if district governments, state authorities or individual local education departments had professionals one could contact who worked on binding standards and best practice examples.

Are you saying that every school library should be run by a full-time member of staff?

Schulbibliothek; © Südpol-Redaktionsbüro/T. KösterNo, we’d probably get nowhere making demands like that. However, I think it would be very useful if there were one person in overall charge who would sit on the various committees and provide impetus, as I experienced in the US, for instance. It would also be very desirable for such a person to have a dual “teacher librarian” qualification – which is in fact the international standard.

It would already help us a great deal, however, if teachers, parents or part-time staff were responsible for the library at each school and professional advice were available to provide them with decent support.

Dagmar Giersberg
conducted the interview. She works as a freelance journalist in Bonn.

Translation: Chris Cave
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
July 2012

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