Saturday, October 5, 2013

Libraries Give Us Power

I know what you’re thinking, when you see that title. You think I’m going to tell you all about how the library is fantastic, and that you should all visit your local one to satisfy your intellectual curiosity.

Well, people, that’s my job. My role in school is to instill a love of reading, to give you a guiding hand on your independent learning endeavours. So yes, there is going to be some of that: it’s inevitable.

But as I enter my third year, and our newly opened library does too (I guess you could say I was part of the deal), it seems like a good time to reflect on the position of the library in the school. No, I don’t mean that in a “what is our five year plan for the library” sort of way. I mean it in a different way entirely…

 This past summer I spent four weeks volunteering in Uganda. I was teaching at St Andrews Primary school in Bwebajja, near the capital city Kampala. Before I went out there, I knew it was going to be an eye opener, and believe me it was the furthest out of my comfort zone I have ever been. I’m a reasonably well travelled guy: I’ve set foot in every continent bar South America, totalling 21 different countries in all. But Uganda – with its dusty roads, corrugated iron shacks on every street corner and electricity and running water that was erratic at best and non-existent at worst – stood apart as a truly unique experience.

Ever since returning, there hasn’t been a day where I haven’t thought about Uganda. I got to see a lot of the country: going on safari to Murchison Falls National Park was a real highlight. But the one thing I miss more than anything is the children from the school.

These children have nothing. Those who lived on the school site stayed in unbelievably dark, damp and cramped conditions, in most cases sleeping two to a bed on a triple bunk. There is no state education system in Uganda, so in a sense they’re actually much better off than the 60% or so of children who can’t afford to go to school. But this doesn't mean they’re wealthy. On one day during my last week, the Principal (with great reluctance) sent all those who hadn’t paid their fees home. The net result was I had about ten students out of the usual forty five in my class.

 Yet, while they have more cause to complain than most, they were always so happy. Not once did I see a child feeling sorry for themselves. What I did see were children who were endlessly eager to learn, constantly asking me questions that ranged from where I’m from to who Socrates was. It really was an inspiring, humbling thing to witness.

 So what has this all got to do with the library, and how you use it? It may sound so very hackneyed, but it’s made me grateful for what I’ve got. We should all be grateful to have such a well-resourced library that unlocks the doors of knowledge to those who are curious and brave enough to find the key. We had to scrape by on a few of each core text book in St Andrews, which often meant painstakingly copying whole pages on to blackboards. Those children who were asking me about Socrates and the UK don’t have the option to find the answers in the library, or to simply use Google.

 “Libraries gave us power”, sang the Manic Street Preachers back in 1996. They still can, and I urge you all to use yours to empower you, especially when there are so many people around the world who are unable to access one.

This post first appeared at


  1. This is very thought-provoking. I've recently been frequenting libraries again, since I'm working in school admin. now and not actively teaching (which means free time, yay!). My rediscovered appreciation of them is mostly selfish, though. When you don't see what other people endure day-by-day, you tend not to think of it. So it's a good reminder to have you tell us what a great privilege it really is to have libraries. The children you taught sound like they are amazing and brave - I hope all of them can have access to libraries eventually.

  2. Thank you, and yes, the children are fantastic. Hopefully, we will be facilitating access to a library for them in the not too distant this space!