During my spare time in my school library, I was recently perusing various blogs, pinterest, twitter, etc – looking for any new ideas, best practice and developments in the field which I should know about. One such blog that piqued my interest on this occasion, was “Day in the Life” by Caroline Roche a section attached to her blog which allows various school library professionals to ruminate about a day of work for them. It was intriguing for me to note the variety in the days of each of these individuals – some of them jam-packed with teaching and instruction, others dominated by organisational and admin activities; some described library assistants, helpers, and senior management providing all-day assistance, others iterating the challenges of being the sole librarian in their school.
I have found this variety of experience to be the subject of many conversations which I have been privy to, both online and while attending CPD events with other school librarians. Over my meagre four years as a school librarian this has been on my mind a lot, especially recently as I just applied for Chartership. I can vividly recall in my first year in this position in 2013, attending a couple of CPD events -one run by HMC and the other by SLG. I remember that I felt overwhelmed and, somewhat, a failure by how much these other librarians were doing in comparison with what I was doing in my library.
Just to elucidate – my school library was purpose built in 2011 (before my time) – a secondary school library attached to the senior school of an independent school. This small, but elegant, library comprises two floors, over 15,000 books, and shelves which were custom-made, reaching from the floor to just inches below ceiling (indeed- the former Bursar told me that when he ordered these custom-made shelves, he had a moment of panic when it occurred to him that they might not actually fit into the new library which was currently being built… they did, but only by inches!). This school library, fitted with open-seating hosting around 40 pupils, and 13 soft brown chairs for reading, was created to provide an aura of academic rigour and quiet reading. The only computers in this library include the one at the Librarian’s desk, and two iPads which allow pupils to peruse the library catalogue. Classes were not permitted to come into the Library, since there was no special set apart “area” designed for classes, and, indeed it was impractical to host them and try to maintain a silent atmosphere for the numerous Sixth Formers who utilise this space throughout the day. Silence was key, and this was (and still is) strictly enforced all day.
When I compared this with my library colleagues in other schools, I felt that I was failing miserably. Other colleagues described having classes coming in nearly all day long, holding library lessons in the library, teaching literacy skills on a fortnightly basis, pupils coming into the library to play games and socialize about books, and -sometimes- even hosting fun activities in their libraries, such as scavenger hunts and role playing games. At my library, on the other hand, these things were strictly prohibited, an imperative set by management, which was stressed before I even took the job. The library was to maintain its aura as an academic and reading safe-haven – in silence – at all times. While this strict tone did discourage me in the beginning – especially when I compared myself with other librarians – I did come to terms with it. In fact, I even began to appreciate and empathise with this position, as I understood why it suited my institution.
A few years ago, if another school librarian had asked me how I felt about the system at my library, I would have admitted it was unchangeable, and that I yearned for a library more like theirs. Now, however, I admit candidly that if I were “in charge” I might do things differently, but I find myself able to defend and empathize with their position. I think this is in part from my Chartership work, which has compelled me to investigate the school aims and vision, and evaluate how my school library meets these. It also is, in part, from coming to realize a few things. I thought I would share these, as I am certain that I am not the only school librarian who has had this struggle!
1. “They” have preconceptions too
While we, as school librarians, come to the “table” so-to-speak with our preconceptions of how a school library should run, what should be prioritised, and what are the best practices – we need to understand that a school management team also comes with their own preconceptions, some of which they have understood to also be best practice, learned from their own CPD sessions, colleagues, and formal training. Indeed, I began to realize that the SMT’s ideas about how the library was run, stemmed largely from their whole-school vision.
2. Understand their position
I’m not saying in the first point that we give up if our views conflict- far from it. Instead, we need to learn first to understand and empathise with their position. Identify why they have operated the way they have in the past, and how they feel about it. What did they feel was successful and why. After all, as a school, (especially independent schools), they have the prerogative to decide what message they want to send and advertise as a school – and, indeed, through their school’s library.
In my case, I began to understand that my school wanted to send a message emphasising academic excellence and the pre-eminence of the book in learning – both things I also hold dear! I, therefore, began to empathise with the various rules they wished to continue to implement in the library.
3. Change takes time
And this is the key…Change takes time. One thing I have learned above all else, is that even though I may have ideas which would be brilliant – changes which would be “life-altering” for my library… change often needs to be given piecemeal, not in huge helpings. This may not be the case for every librarian; some very privileged librarians may arrive in their school with a SMT who simply hands them the directive to “make the library great at whatever cost.” This is brilliant, wonderful, and a dream-worthy situation…but not the norm, I expect. Instead, we are likely to arrive in libraries, as the top two points indicate, which already have a system, preconceived notions, and a vision for their library service. If you come into this situation with ideas on how things can change, then definitely do bring them to the table; but first – gauge the atmosphere. Are they likely to be open to the change you wish to present? If not, is there a way you can bring in this change in smaller doses over time?
I have found this to be pivotal to the change in my library which I am proud to have been able to effect. In my school library, I began to generate initiatives which respected the general rules of the library, but were still engaging, fun, and promoted enthusiasm for the library. I thought of ways which we could initiate small changes without causing disruption to the overall atmosphere – such as allowing classes to come in briefly to select books, holding competitions and events which could be completed without noise/chaos, giving briefings on information literacy held in classrooms/computer rooms adjacent to the Library – I also began a pupil committee who assisted me with choosing books, which met in the Library once per term.
So please do not be discouraged if you find yourself unable to create your ideal library in a heart-beat. It takes time, patience, and understanding. Afterall, change is often a drizzle, not a hurricane.
By Angela Platt, Librarian and Archivist
- ‘A Day in the Life’: http://heartoftheschool.edublogs.org/day-in-the-life-of/