In the darkened corner of a dreary, dusty library, an unlikely army is gathering. They’re shaking down their cardigans, firmly pressing their spectacles back to the bridge of their nose and stamping their sensibly shoed feet.
On closer inspection, many of these school librarians are much younger than you may think. Some have pink hair, tattoos, arrived on motorbikes, hold black belt karate certificates… goodness me, some aren’t even women! Hmmm, what happened to the stereotypical dusty old spinster who daren’t say boo to a goose? (Each librarian shudders a little at the over-used cliché.)
This clandestine army is marching on a secret. A secret that only a few privileged school leaders and many students know – the librarians hold the answers to the universe…
Ask a librarian any question, and they will show you how to find the answer. After all, as Albert Einstein said, “The only thing that you absolutely have to know is the location of the library.”
These quiet (well some of them), intelligent (all of them) creatures have guided young children from curious to studious and from darkness to light (and back again when they request it). The child who wanted to know how bones grow had their curiosity inflamed and has qualified as a doctor. The child who was fascinated with drawing manga has flourished into a book illustrator. The child who requested everything available on nuclear technology has developed into a respected peace campaigner.
More than that. These wise individuals have watched children’s eyes light up as they flew on broomsticks across the skies, spoke with animals and adventured across islands into the past.
Once it was enough for schools to know that this fact-finding, imagination-inspiring group were there. But the librarians have become so adept at fading into the peeling wallpaper, some staff are ignorant of their uses.
For the first time, the army needs to cast aside their invisibility cloak, march loudly forward and make their skills explicitly known. Below are twenty ideas on how to stride out of the darkness and into the brightness of the school hall:
- Non-fiction: It occurs to me that “non-fiction” is a terribly negative name for this important section in your library. It may be worth rebranding as “Facts and Information” or “Research Section”. Currently, many heads of department have no idea what non-fiction books you have available for their subject or why it is even relevant. After all, they’re going to teach what the children need from the class text books. Point out all the benefits of students carrying out research for homework. Not only does research enhance the students’ learning, but it is tapping into children’s natural curiosity. Wondering why and discovering the answers for themselves inflames a passion for the subject. Explain the pitfalls of Google research and suggest the homework is set whereby the students must reference one pre-approved website and one non-fiction book from where they found their information. Offer to stamp the planner or homework book of every child in their class who carries out their research in the non-fiction section of your library. Teachers sometimes run out of homework ideas which are both relevant and enhance their students’ learning, therefore, you’ve just helped the teacher out, enhanced the students’ learning experience and shown that you and your library are a valuable resource.
- Displays: Every department loves to have a great display which is the envy of all the other departments. They rarely have time to make one, so in you sweep, the hero of the hour. Of course, displays must have a purpose and attract attention to that purpose. Pick a relevant national date or an important topic for that department and offer to make a display for them based around it. Make sure the display is amazing (see my tips on displays here). Importantly, make sure you reference relevant fiction and non-fiction books in your library pointing the viewer of the display in that direction. You’ve helped the department and you’ve helped yourself.
- Events: This is where you get to be the conductor of your own success. Students love having an exciting event. SLT love having something exciting to show on their website and social media. It causes chatter based on that event so if the event is about books, guess what – the conversation is about books. The uptake of books after each author visit to our school is always astronomical. An author visit is perfect, IF you invite the right author. Don’t just pick anyone available, make sure you check out reviews and take recommendations. Yes, these events take a lot of planning and organising, but I can assure you they are worth it and you quickly become efficient at arranging them. (Information on how to organise a successful author visit can be found here.)
- Bulletin/Newsletter: Read the newsletter or school bulletin each week. Is there anything the library can be involved in? Is there a relevant notice you can put in there? Don’t let opportunities to market your service slide by. Being proactive is key.
- Wellbeing: The links between reading and mental health are well established and have been highlighted through the recent pandemic and subsequent lockdowns. Make sure staff know that they too can borrow books from the library (honestly, they think it’s only for students). Point out that you don’t have to be a child to read children’s fiction, some of the best books in the world were written for children and it’s relaxing to have an easier read from time to time. Make a shelf-help section of your library and ensure your SENCo, SLT and all staff know it is there.
- School council: Students love to have a voice, that’s why they’ve joined the school council and they’re always looking for something they can be involved in. Ask them to gather feedback about the library. Be brave, you might not like some feedback, but it immediately points out where you can improve your service and relevance to the school. Perhaps you could invite them to hold one of their meetings in the library and ask them what new books (fiction and non-fiction) they would like to see. Let them choose some books from a catalogue. Involve them as much as possible as they can become invaluable ambassadors.
- Positivity: the last thing we want is people to associate negativity with the library, but often the only times some students see us is when we turn up in their form room demanding the return of their lost library book. Look for opportunities for positivity. If you have a lot of overdue books, offer raffle tickets in return for the overdue books. At the end of the set time, one lucky winner will win a prize. Run fun competitions and visit the forms to tell the students about it. You will deliver it with far more passion and enthusiasm than the poor form tutor who is just trying to read through all the notices as quickly as possible.
- Parents evenings/open days: Create an informative and attractive mobile display about the library. Ask some student librarians to attend with you. Prospective parents love to see an active library. On open evenings, our library is open at my insistence. I have heard many a parent comment that our library has helped them decide to pick our school. Another tick for SLT – but make sure you tell them. Don’t keep it a secret. Just pop them an email the next day along the lines of, “I’m very pleased with the positive impact of having the library open on parents evening. The room was constantly packed, parents and children really enjoyed the activities I had put on and I heard comments such as…”
- Competitions: Who doesn’t love a good competition? There are all sorts of competitions you can run: design and decorate your own bookmark; Book Bingo; best book review; find out 10 interesting facts about… from a book; design a new book cover for…; short story writing; write a new ending for…; etcetera. Make sure the winner is announced with a fanfare. Don’t ask them to quietly collect their prize from the library – find out when the awards events are or enter their form room and encourage the whole tutor group to clap for the winner.
- School website/social media: Use these to your advantage. Every time you positively promote the library, you are positively promoting the school. It is a win-win situation. You don’t need to do anything amazing. Just photograph opportune moments, for example unboxing new books, latest book display, author visit, parents’ evening, competition winners, etcetera.
- Communication: you do all sorts of wonderful things in the library. You have all sorts of wonderful eureka moments with students, but nobody knows about them. Just drop an email to your line manager, the child’s tutor, or anyone else you think relevant and let them know. Go on – do it.
- Literacy coordinator: this person needs you more than they may realise. OFSTED are placing a lot of importance on literacy and reading and are keen to see librarians involved. Offer professional support from day one. You can offer all sorts of stats from your LMS and also from Accelerated Reader or similar reading programmes if you have them. (See my blog on Accelerated Reader here.) As well you know, literacy is important for all subjects, therefore the reading age of every child must be lifted to their personal best for them to be able to achieve in all subjects. You can help them in their job by involving them in a lot of what you do. Not giving them extra work, but including them in emails and keeping them in the loop about literacy events. Suggest ideas to them which you can help with, such as book of the week, World Book Day activities, staff recommendations, etcetera.
- Meetings: I have known librarians who turn up to meetings and are ignored. This can feel like a personal slight, but from the perspective of the other attendees, they probably have no idea why the librarian is there and are too focused on the million and one topics they have to discuss to pay any attention. Only invite yourself to a meeting if you have something of relevance or importance to discuss. If there is something I wish to discuss with a whole department, I usually contact the Head of Department and request 5 minutes at the beginning of their meeting. I thank them for their valuable time, deliver what I came to deliver, answer any questions and leave. There’s no point wasting your time or theirs. The short visit will make a greater impact than over-staying a welcome.
- English: This department should be your biggest ally. There can be a clash between the English teacher and the librarian both thinking they know which books are best for the students to read. A discussion is far more useful. Why do you think this book? What do you have against this book? Of course in busy schools there is rarely time for discussion. It may take a while and you may never win over some, but take one win at a time. Visit the English department with a selection of new books and explain why you chose them and who you would recommend reads them. Or find out which book the class is studying and offer ideas of similar books/authors the students might like to read independently. Some teachers won’t have time to read any other books around the one they’re teaching, therefore what you tell them about the books they will find useful to then pass on to the students. A nice touch is to wrap up one book for each member of the English department to take home over the school holiday, with a note inside saying you hope they’ll enjoy relaxing with a good book and please return to the library when you are finished so the book can be labelled and shelved for students on their return after the holiday. Hopefully, this will create some great book-based conversations on their return to school. You’ve done some nice team-building and library promotion in one.
- Other departments: The library can be completely invisible to some departments, many believe it is just a part of the English department. Here are some ways to involve staff from other departments: run a book themed cake decorating competition and ask the Food Tech staff to help judge it; ask Textiles if the children could make cushions for the library. Ask the art department if they have any student art work which you could display. Do the maths department know about the Murderous Maths series? Maybe you could set up a Forensics Who Dunnit evening with the science department. Can the school band have their music recorded and piped in the background at events or during evening homework club? Ask Modern Foreign Languages for book recommendations either set in the country of the language they are teaching or famous books from there translated into English. IT could help students create a podcast for the library. Advertise other after school clubs on your noticeboard. There will be a way to weave each department into the library.
- Qualifications: Offer your student librarians certification as librarians. This can be using the SLA, your local school librarian network or an in-house one you have created yourself. This helps students begin to develop their curriculum vitae when applying for work or further education. You could also offer to support EPQ qualifications for Sixth Form. Make sure that the certificates are awarded in front of the whole school at an awards evening or some other relevant event.
- Student librarians: Schools intend to develop the whole child, the experience is more than just academic. This is where libraries really stand out from the crowd. There are not many “jobs” a student can do in school which will give them the life skills they need as they develop into an adult. Being a student librarian is an excellent first foot on the career ladder, teaching them responsibility, reliability and leaderships skills. Make sure the Careers Advisor is aware of the student librarian role within school and additionally, offer work experience to non-student librarians during Work Experience week. They’re always looking for placements so you will make them happy and have extra help for a week too.
- Clubs: Extra curricular activities are a big deal in schools. The students love them, the parents love them, SLT love them and OFSTED love them. One hour a week after school is the norm. Some librarians like to run their clubs half termly and some termly. They can be as simple or as complicated as you like, from a simple Book Club to a huge inter-department Murder Mystery club. All the ones we run are free, but there are also some great resources you can buy in, such as the Creative Writing club through Authorfy.
- Pastoral: The library is a safe place for many students, whether they’re shy, anxious or have a special need. Liaise directly with pastoral staff and your SENCo to make sure they know that these students are welcome here. Depending on how and when students are able to access the library, you may want to make some special passes for the most vulnerable students to be able to enter the library immediately without needing to queue or wait for their allocated time.
- SMSC: Spiritual – students’ imagination is expanded through fiction; Moral – their ability to understand and appreciate other’s viewpoints by “walking a mile in their shoes” through reading biographies, true accounts and fictional situations; Social – participating in after school clubs, being part of the librarian team, being involved in conversations around books and authors; Cultural – experiencing other cultures through biographies and fiction as well as learning about other cultures through the non-fiction section of the library.
OFSTED are never far from any school’s door, nor from any SLT’s mind. They currently (and rightly) have a big focus on literacy and embrace the importance of an effective school librarian. All the above will be extremely helpful to your school in the event of an inspection.
Remember: not all heroes wear capes, or should that be, not all librarians wear cardigans!