I am proud to say, wholeheartedly, I love my job, I really do. I have spent five years in school librarianship and two years managing a secondary school learning resource centre (LRC) as the sole member of staff in the LRC. The school was a smaller than average secondary school in Essex on the borders of Hertfordshire and London also. The school had less than 550 students on roll with 4-5 form entry, aged 11-16 years old. The LRC was renovated in the summer of 2015 and I commenced my role in September that same year. The LRC consisted of a computer suite, careers library and a library of fiction and non-fiction texts. The stock hadn’t been updated or weeded for at least five years and was stocked with a lot of outdated and irrelevant items of up to 30 years old (and more). The school hosts Accelerated Reader for Key Stage 3 which I managed and promoted with the English curriculum department. I ran library lessons for years 7 & 8 in my first year using a booklet created by the literacy co-ordinator and created and delivered library lessons for all of KS3 in my second year.
The LRC was open daily for students to use during their free time during the school day. I started at the same time as the new Head of School and the LRC benefitted from a number of changes including standards of teaching and learning, high expectations of students and regularly setting homework. I asked students to sign-in upon arrival of using the LRC, this helped establish a sense of formality of use and quickly filtered out the students who wanted a common room. I shared the data from the sign-in sheet with the Senior Leadership Team (they love data!) and this helped me track the students’ use of the LRC.
This is my 101 Guide on Surviving 2 Years as a New School Librarian in establishing and managing a new school library or LRC. This is written, from my perspective, in good faith, with a little humour and is by no means an exhaustive list. Here goes:
Thou shall –
1. Shout from the rooftops about your role and your professional experiences! No one else will do this for you! Everything you do e.g. footfall through the door; student achievements in the library; library lessons, words read (with AR); book clubs and your various activities etc. Use newsletters, press releases, information for form-tutors to share; social media, announcements in assemblies etc. Ensure, where possible that you use student & staff images. This makes it real, connectable and more effective. You have a product that needs promoting – so do it!
2. Develop meaningful student relationships with a wide range of students. Yes, by all means, those existing readers and library users will always visit you; and those student-librarian relationships can develop quite easily. But what about those non-readers, those challenging students? Have you asked them what do they do after school or in their spare time for a little insight into their lives? How could you build rapport with them, develop a trusting and non-judgmental relationship? They are more likely to trust your judgement or guidance on a book (or anything) if they already have a relationship with you. These students are great for trialling new titles, especially those written and published specifically for reluctant or non-readers; they will also appreciate being given a trusted role. Additionally, constantly ask your students what they want from a library and a librarian based on the objectives of a library. You are, after all, serving them. Giving them a voice matters, and they will respond in time to you responding to their requests (e.g. a student requested a book club in my first year – I ran about three per year, he didn’t arrive to any until approaching the start of my third year, to which I then left!).
3. Lead a team of Student Library Assistants – those eager beavers will breathe light into your life! Train them as much as possible on those time-consuming tasks e.g.: labelling & protection; issuing & returning. This will give you time to deal with other areas of the library e.g. behaviour management; supporting more demanding students, give them a sense of purpose (‘I really need your help with this…’) and reward them (pain au chocolate; reward points; badges for lapels; queue-jump
passes; termly certificates and recognition in celebration assemblies and rewards parties). These SLAs will help lessen your load and will be happy to support you. It gives them a sense of ownership and responsibility and they are great company and keep you young!
4. Work with your allies first. I believe in developing and nurturing relationships organically rather than forcing them (although this statement slightly contradicts being a ‘social butterfly’ noted below). Some staff will naturally be drawn to the library and seek you out because they know our value and that of libraries. Work with these colleagues initially to develop new ideas, schemes and initiatives. Positive working relationships normally develop positive and more effective outcomes for all. Obviously, your relationship with your literacy co-ordinator is an important one and should naturally be on board anyway.
5. Use inspiration from everywhere. When developing a culture of reading for pleasure it’s very necessary to think ‘outside of the box’ and making reading dynamic and multi-dimensional. Watching the Great British Bake Off not only tantalised my taste buds but gave me a great idea for a book club activity: cake designing using titles of a book! The students loved this activity and it was recognised by the Essex Book Awards 2017 who awarded our school Most Innovative School. Additionally, creating a book-related activity that supports a charitable cause and raises awareness to specific campaigns also reiterates my point. Visit as many other libraries, museums and exhibitions as possible – they are a great source of inspiration…naturally.
6. Sympathise and show empathy with the community you cater for. Socioeconomic status of the local community will ultimately impact the school cohort and needs of the school community. If you fail to understand the community you serve, this will have a negative impact on your approach to your practice. Consider the levels of: deprivation, affluence, cultural capital, value of education and literacy levels from parents & children etc. Build community links – reach out to local businesses for projects and/or donations. Speak to them about the benefits of a literate community and the positive relationships built between the two establishments. Consider how these relationships can support a reputation for the school. This also goes for parents/carers – contact them with positive news about their children. Depending on your school’s behaviour policy it’s natural to draw upon the challenging behaviour from students. Contacting parents with positive news about their children’s attitude to reading or support in the library will go a long way. Students will be pleased for the recognition and it will create positive relationships with yourself and their parents/carers.
7. Deal with conflicting professional objectives with respect. As librarian, my role was always driven by promoting a positive attitude towards reading, specifically reading for pleasure. However, I found that working within the English team amongst teachers, our objectives concerning reading was often conflicted by their targets to ensure that students develop a reading level of at least 16 years old to enable them to access their GCSE exams. Within a library lesson, I was even confronted by a teacher who openly discouraged the students from reading the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. As disappointing as this was, this was a firm reminder of how important my role was in promoting the long term benefits of reading for pleasure and achievement, not just for attainment.
8. [may] Be thy ‘second mother[or father]’. Some students have described me as a ‘second mother’ to them; this is an endearing term and a testament of how students might perceive us based on our unique roles in schools; it’s not a reflection of any unhealthy attachments made! We’re dealing with young people, little human beings with feelings, varying backgrounds and experiences. My experience of working within school librarianship has compounded and reinforced the moral and ethical
duty I have in supporting students’ social and emotional wellbeing and ultimately, their safeguarding. I was really fortunate to have my office (store room or vice versa) adjacent to the safeguarding and wellbeing officer’s. She recognised the benefits of reading and the significant role a school librarian has in providing some of the school’s most vulnerable students a safe place and purpose. I have had an active role in raising safeguarding concerns based on the observations I have made. This was because of the positive relationships and rapport I have built with these young people; it made them trusting and comfortable with me to make disclosures. In this respect, as a practitioner, you must trust your gut instinct, and share the smallest concern or aching inkling, chances are you’re probably right! I can say, in my five year career, that I have hopefully had a positive impact in young peoples’ lives who have experienced the following: gambling addiction; mental health issues (depression, anxiety, anger, self-harming); influences of drugs and drug abuse; family and relationship breakdowns; and parental abuse (neglect and emotional abuse) to name a few.
9. View the budget as half-full! It took me a while to practice this myself. I was on a budget that equated to less than £0.90p per student. When I shared this with other librarian professionals I was embarrassed and ashamed by the gasps and on some occasions, laughs. This financial limitation allowed me to become innovative and creative. I had to become incredibly creative with the existing resources and plan to be without some ‘indulgences’ for a while (a decent whole puncher, stapler, lined paper etc.). What I did invest in, book shadowing, for example, gave some of the school’s greatest positive examples of reading for fun and pleasure and this was shared and celebrated by the whole school community.
10. Be a social (librarian) butterfly! No, this does not mean prosecco day and night. What it does mean is that you ensure you attend some of the staff social gatherings (painful for some introverts, I know). This is where you will have the opportunity to network and make some closer relationships that will ultimately help you in your role in the long term. It is quite normal to miss certain members of staff for weeks at a time because of your conflicting timetables. Constant sound bites of discussion & conversation are my experience of working in a school caused by constant interruptions. Help yourself become familiar with staff and students by getting involved in the many school events around school. If staff are asking for volunteers for Sports Day, judging an event or tasting dishes in food tech, then do it! Students and staff will see how willing you are to be part of the school community and not just the stereotype of a ‘typical shy librarian hiding behind a desk.’ (not my words – I was informed of this stereotype by a parent recently, when they exclaimed I wasn’t the stereotype).
11. Be thy own CPD leader. Identifying your strengths and areas to improve on is your responsibility. Do not expect staff or your line manager to understand your role or the skill set that you need, it is likely you will become very disappointed. Having been omitted from many Inset days where even the other support staff were included in CPD, I realised that I can’t sit around waiting for CPD to happen. It’s up to you to raise CPD and networking opportunities, because this is essential in your role. Society and technology are changing rapidly, and we need to have the skills, knowledge and information to respond to it. Make a note of the Inset days and consult your line manager and inform them on what you think would be right for you to work on during those opportunities in advance. Don’t leave Inset days for weeding! Membership of various bodies and groups and attendance and participation at CPD/networking events will support your sanity and development in your role (e.g. CILIP and their groups: SLG YLG; SLA; local School Library Services; social media too and many more groups and networks!). Of course, read, read, read! There are some fabulous books regarding all matters relating to school librarianship, children’s literature and information literacy (those are my three areas to work on).
12. Appreciate that Rome wasn’t built in two years. Success is as much about developing long term success rather than instant success. Patience is a quality that I have had to learn through my many frustrations. I had to learn to let it go, and realise that projects that I was desperate to develop would have to wait. The desire to please everyone will simply cause disappointment in yourself. Work with the school’s development plan (e.g. improving boys’ reading habits; supporting gifted & talented/Pupil Premium students etc.) if you haven’t been given a specific task to tackle. You will hopefully have more success with less projects than several at a time. Furthermore, demonstrating successful impact against the school’s development plan will satisfy the necessary personnel who question the need for your role!
13. Share your appeciation for authors and publishers. Don’t be scared to feedback to authors and publishers. They need this, it’s often a lonely job for authors too and sharing feedback from students is particularly useful for them. Consider an author, doubting their abilities alone in their writing shed, banging their head against their writing desk! That happy Tweet or email sharing a student’s love for one
of their titles can go a long way. Don’t forget that you can arrange school visits (if budget allows) for assemblies and workshops and it benefits the students greatly.
There you have it, that’s my 101 Guide on Surviving 2 Years as a New School Librarian. I will conclude this by reiterating that this is not an exhaustive list, there’s much, much more to add – I will leave that to the many amazing school library professionals to add to.