Posted on 19/11/2014
A Library Built for Boys
Guest blog by Martin Jeeps, Head of English
This article was posted online today in the Times Educational Supplement
What do you call a library with just 250 books? An over-hyped bookcase? A shelf with ideas above its station? Whatever your answer, you probably wouldn’t expect this to be the fiction library of a school intent on establishing itself as one of the most successful academic schools in the country. However, this was exactly the library that the first intake of boys at Fulham Boys School encountered when their fiction library was launched just over a month ago.
I can already hear the collective groans of all of the librarians in the schools that I have ever worked in. Not too loud of course: people are trying to read in here. What is perhaps going to upset them more is the news that quite a lot of those 250 books are duplicates. In fact nearly half of the total is made up of the same 15 books, 8 copies of each.
Now the reason for this is not a deficit of finances or a lack of appreciation for the benefits of a library. It is a specific strategy for inspiring boys to becoming prolific readers of fiction. Over the last decade I have spent a vast amount of time with young people in the sort of well-stocked, highly-organised school libraries that many schools would rightly be envious of. The one thing that has stood out to me throughout these experiences is the difference between the way that boys and girls behave in the face of such a plethora of choice.
There is a danger of stereotyping here and I am happy to acknowledge that for many boys the idea of a library with thousands of different books in it is heaven on earth. However, in my experience, those that thrive most in this sort of environment are generally girls. Girls generally enjoy browsing through shelves of different books for something that captures their imagination. Girls will read blurbs, skim the first few pages, or ask the librarian for some background information. They will take a risk on something they have neither seen before nor heard anything about.
The majority of boys react very differently. They are in many cases paralysed by the choice that such libraries provide. Above all, they do not want to waste time reading something that might not turn out to be any good. When there are so many avenues for instant entertainment available to them, why would they invest time in something that might not live up to expectation? Instead they play safe, choosing something that they have already read before or something that they know will not disappoint (but probably not challenge) them.
So what is the answer to this? In my experience the thing that unites boys most in terms of enthusiasm for reading is getting into a new series, especially one that has been recommended to them. Boys love the competition of reading the same series as each other, sharing their progress and predicting what will happen next. Once you get them into a series, they will not rest until they have exhausted each and every book. In schools that I have worked in before we have recommended the first book in a series as ‘book of the month’ but this falls down as soon as the one copy of it has been loaned out.
What we have done at FBS is to choose 15 series that we know will appeal to boys. We have 8 copies of the first book in the series and then 2 of each of the others. This means that the boys are much more likely to have access to the same book as each other and our aim each month is to make a different series ‘go viral’. To coincide with the film release, our first book of the month was The Maze Runner and this triggered a surge of interest reminiscent of the Boxing Day sales on Oxford Street. Within minutes, the first 8 copies had gone but as the first week went on, they slowly started to come back in as the boys moved on to the rest of the series. As word spread around the school community, so the competition emerged as rumours started to fly around as to who had made it to the last book in the series.
Now obviously this strategy suits the fact that we only have year 7 boys. As they get older and the school expands, we will need to invest much more heavily in our fiction stock to meet the demands of our most voracious readers. But hopefully their experience of fiction in year 7 will help to ‘hook’ them on reading. Of course we will need to move beyond teenage series and start to promote the classics. However they will only listen to these recommendations if we have built the library around their interests. A library built for boys.