Ministry struggles to fill bookshelves

The local high school of Neokastro in the prefecture of Imathia has a well-equipped school library containing over 5,000 titles. Other than the librarian, it employs four to five teachers, all from different fields, whose job is not just to teach, but to suggest reading material to students. This is pure science fiction. While there may indeed be a village in Imathia called Neokastro, and while its junior high school may have a library, the truth is that it does not function along these, European, lines. School libraries in Greece have become something of a fairy tale, a running joke. For five years now, they have been the subject of announcements, committees have been set up, executive officers assigned and functioning libraries (in whatever fashion) continue to number 500, a fraction of the 2,800 libraries that were supposed to be introduced throughout Greece. Throughout this five-year period, little has been said on how exactly the said libraries will operate or on their educational role, and even less has been said on how the libraries currently in operation work and to what extent they are successful. The focal point of all these discussions, held by every authorized body, seems to be the choice of titles: a subject of little consequence when the actual role of school libraries has yet to be established. A few recent changes to the school library system has shed some light on this most complex issue. Over the next few days, all the members of the committee charged with drawing up a list of approved titles for school libraries – comprising a regional director of primary and secondary education, a member of a university educational department, a writer, a librarian, a representative from the primary school teachers’ trade union DOE and another from the State High School Teachers Federation (OLME), and a school counselor – will meet behind closed doors in Koukaki, and, armed with a list of title proposals by the country’s publishers, will select titles until they reach their goal of 12,000 books. According to the invitation extended to publishers by the school library department of the Ministry of Education (an initiative funded by the Third Community Support Framework), each publisher must submit «to the panel two copies of the titles they propose.» The story behind the story is a long and dramatic one. Back in 1999, the publishing world received a booster shot. The first 500 school libraries were entering the operational phase, paving the way for another 2,300 libraries throughout the country. Four years later, and following numerous ups and downs, those 500 libraries, managed, with varying degrees of success, to open their doors. Books were placed on the shelves, most publishers were paid, even teachers played at being librarian for a while. But, they worked. Ever since, the ministry has been talking about the establishment of another 500 school libraries, at times placing the responsibility on the 13 prefectures, at others on individual school councils (made up of parents, teachers and students). Furthermore, the ministry’s invitation to the publishers stipulates that all proposed books should be available in 638 copies at the time of their proposal and should be ready for immediate delivery if, and when, the books are chosen for the libraries. This hints at plans for 638 school libraries. Procedural glitches The entire procedure, however, is dogged by glitches that have been noted by publishers and covered by the press. Many questions arise. For example, how effective at compiling a reading list is a committee mostly composed of trade unionists? How can a small group of people be expected to have in-depth knowledge of the suitability of 5,000 titles? Doesn’t the committee risk choosing those titles that are better known and popular rather than better quality? Why are publishers expected to have 638 printed copies of each title without knowing whether their titles will be chosen after all? Furthermore, it is worth noting that the group of publishers’ unions that have contributed to the public debate in the media over the past few years is composed of the Hellenic Federation of Publishers and Booksellers (POEB), the Publishers and Booksellers Society of Athens, the Association of Book Publishers, the Union of Academic Book Publishers and the Union of Thessaloniki Publishers. The newly established Union of Book Publishers of Greece (ENEBE) has not taken part in the debate, though a letter it sent to the press independently in late May raises various interesting points. Among these is the belief that books should be selected by the same people who choose school curriculum reading and from a broad list of titles already approved by the Ministry of Education. The procedure currently being applied is close to this union’s suggestions. The course the whole school libraries issue will take remains to be seen. The future will show in what manner the beleaguered school libraries will operate and whether they will in fact exist in all schools. And by operation, we mean that the books will be taken off the shelves, will be read and will answer students’ queries, and that teachers will be informed enough to make reading suggestions. A publisher makes some points In a letter to Kathimerini, publisher and bookseller Sofika Eleftheroudaki – the person in charge of carrying out over 30 percent of previous decisions concerning existing school libraries – made the following points: – The initiative should focus on creating at least a basic library in every school in Greece. These should comprise books for a classical Greek education written in modern Greek, a representative sample of modern Greek literature, a representative sample of world literature and dictionaries and other reference books either in printed or electronic form. She also suggests that these titles should be selected by a group of established intellectuals who are not affiliated to unions. – Organizational issues are extremely complex, especially in terms of coordinating the different bodies involved and in ensuring that payments are made, and on time. For example, Eleftheroudaki notes that her company is still owed 200,000 euros from the first phase of the program (the first 500 libraries), which is tied up in red tape. She argues that if the coordination of the program were placed in the hands of individual school bodies or local bookstores, publishers would be even worse off.