Interview with Sarah Cuthill, archivist and librarian

Sarah Cuthill is school librarian at Clifton High School in Bristol, England and has worked in archives and libraries in universities, the arts and business, both in the UK and in Australia. She began her school life in Buckinghamshire in the UK and then moved with her family to Switzerland at the age of ten.

Tell me about your first school.

My first school was St Mary’s C of E in Amersham. It was a purpose-built village school and we celebrated its centenary in 1973. There was a big recreation park across the road and we had our lunchtime play there – it was lovely because there was so much grass and space. The classrooms had high vaulted ceilings and great big windows but too high up for us to look out. I remember my first day: I had to tuck my skirt into my navy knickers to go on the slide! I also have a memory of a lot of ink once we got into the juniors (leaky pens). There was a patch of grass but we were only allowed on it when it was not raining. Later on we had a school goat who lived on a corner of it. It was a very happy time.

I liked the hall and remember the woollen tapestry-type picture on the wall. There wasn’t a designated library but a series of bookcases around the hall and we had a regular borrowing slot. There was one book about a dog in a snowy predicament which I got out often because I loved it! The location was probably unsatisfactory for the staff but as a pupil I liked the proximity of the books because we were in the hall every day for assembly and lunch. My worst memory is of having to eat liver and beetroot.

St Mary's CofE primary school, Amersham

St Mary’s CofE primary school, Amersham

We also had orchestra in the hall which I enjoyed, and I remember the Christmas assembly of 1973 when we were allowed to sing Slade’s ‘Merry Xmas Everyone’ as well as carols. I then sang it 40 years later in my daughter Hazel’s assembly. We went to church around the corner every Friday and were all rather intimidated by the vicar. Nevertheless the church retained a warmth for me and the fact that a classmate’s grandparents were buried in the churchyard, with wonky headstones, made it more of ‘our’ place.

Did you learn to read in school?

I learned the rudiments at home from Mother; as the youngest of four there were plenty of books and incentives to read. I remember writing an ‘r’ the wrong way round when I was three years old and writing my name for a visitor. We read together, I think – Ladybird books spring to mind – and at school I remember the Janet and John series (well, I remember that that was the first, and ‘Out and About’ followed). I don’t remember that ‘Eureka’ moment when it all seemed to fall into place, but Mother did continue to read to us which I think fostered a love of stories. I also remember ‘Listen with Mother’ on the radio before I started school. I don’t recall reading learning at school, but I do remember learning addition and subtraction (because we did it with cowrie shells).

Was there a place in the school that you felt particularly safe and secure?

I think I was happy generally at primary school; I was particularly happy looking after the school pets.

And were there places in the school where you didn’t feel so happy?

I don’t recall any.

What were the main differences between your junior school in the UK and the school you moved to in Switzerland, aged ten?

The school was in a converted 19th century townhouse which made it feel interesting. It was really tiny in terms of numbers, and two classes were taught in one room. I liked the small classes. I don’t think there can have been more than about 100 in the school in 1975. There was no library but we had ice skating in the winter and went on hikes. My sister Mary and I were relieved that there was no sports’ day and when our new headmaster asked us about differences between our new and old schools this is something we brought up. Foolish girls! The headmaster immediately decided to set up sports day.

We borrowed the playground of a nearby Swiss school – I remember having to share it with the military doing shooting practice on more than one occasion – and at lunchtimes went to a lovely big open space down by the lake. We also had to borrow a classroom elsewhere for singing classes, which we had every week. The teachers read loads to us and we had to read a lot for school. They had an arrangement whereby international book fairs would visit at least once a year so we could get more fiction in English (for school and home). I had read Somerset Maugham, Salinger and Lawrence before starting high school (aged 13); Mother always said that the high school knew which pupils had come from our school because they were so well-read.

After two years the school moved to a purpose-built modern place a busride away which was probably better for the teachers – it had its own playground and a hall where we could do PE – but felt rather soulless to us. There was no library there but there were books in every classroom.

Our high school was in a converted villa in beautiful grounds; we travelled there by train. That school was also small, a little over 200 pupils, and although I was terrified of some of the teachers my memories are almost exclusively happy! And they did have a library.

You’re currently working as a librarian in a co-ed independent school and managing the library space. How does that work?

There are about 500 pupils in the school between the ages of 3-18.  There are three libraries: the Junior Library which has sections of fiction and non-fiction for the Juniors and Prep (infants)(c. 9000 books); the Senior Fiction Library (c. 3000 books); and the Senior Library which is non-fiction and journals/online resources etc (c.10000 books). I am the only librarian so have to juggle a bit! The Prep children have weekly library sessions and the Juniors have fortnightly, but they can come in at lunchtimes as well. The Fiction library is largely unstaffed but there is an unsupervised loan system; the Senior Library is open till 6 p.m. and it is where Sixth-formers are expected to be if they are not in a class.

How important is quiet in a library space?

It depends on what people are doing. The senior library is used mainly as a study area so students are expected to be quiet but not silent. The younger children like to read together or be read to, which by necessity means less quiet. But it is important for those who want a quiet reading space to be entitled to it. I try to encourage respect and consideration rather than silence;  I am not tolerant of the seniors’ whistling!

If you had unlimited resources, how would you improve the library?

I would bring all the libraries into one connected space, for purposes of efficiency and increased use, and designate it an Information Hub. I might also employ an assistant to help me with the clubs which I run!

How important is it for a school to have a library as a discrete space?

It helps focus or identify the library’s function and raises its profile as a resource within the school.

How important is the display of books?

Very  – it maintains interest. Good turnover is important too. I am becoming more aware of the hiatus between children’s expectations of that and my own, particularly with reference to the attraction to children of new books, and their reluctance to engage with dog-eared copies.

If an architect and a school librarian were to meet, what should they talk about?

Balance of space for study/electronic media/shelving/light.

If there was one thing you could change overnight in all schools, what would it be?

A tricky one, but off the top of my head I would say increase the amount of reading pupils are expected to do – I don’t mind whether books or Kindles etc. It frustrates me that my daughters’ English teachers say that they do not expect pupils to be able to read a 300-400 page book as well as discuss it (at ages 11 and 14). The more they do the more they will be able to do, and being able to read and digest not only opens one’s mind but can assist in for instance improving the filtering of information. The children are perfectly capable of that amount of recreational reading, so they should be challenged more.

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