Interested in following the path to school librarianship after seeing the recent press coverage on school libraries? As a newly-qualified, brand-new school librarian, I’m sharing the highs and lows of my journey so far.
At school, I didn’t have a great library experience – I enjoyed reading, but the librarian was quite unwelcoming (I got thrown out for laughing at horoscopes and never returned) and teachers only used the space for PC access. Becoming a school librarian myself was a way of making sure that other young people had a better time than I did. Another thing that drew me to the role was the challenge of managing every part of a library service.
I didn’t have a lot of sector-specific knowledge coming into this role. I studied at the University of Strathclyde, which offered a general library degree; our work on school libraries was a 90-minute lecture which mainly discussed the findings of a PhD thesis. However, I didn’t go into it completely blind – I previously taught English in Germany and also worked as a library graduate trainee. How tough could it be to combine the two experiences?
Answer: pretty tough. I’ve been a school librarian for four months now, and it’s certainly been a steep learning curve. I’m split across two schools which couldn’t be more different: one school is huge in a generally affluent area, while the other is tiny and in a much more deprived part of the city.
Here’s a roundup of the most notable parts of the job. I should stress that as a rookie, I’m definitely missing obvious parts of school librarianship – this is not meant to be all-encompassing in any way!
You have to be your own boss. Although I have a line manager and contacts in each school, I’m not managed on a day-to-day basis. This was definitely the biggest change for me and I imagine it’ll be the same for any new graduates. My previous work in retail was micromanaged, and even as a graduate trainee I had an hourly timetable to follow. Aside from class visits, I don’t ‘have’ to do anything at any particular time, which has been much tougher to adjust to than I had anticipated. It can be difficult to stay motivated for long periods of time, particularly at my smaller school where I might only have one class visiting in a day. It’s easy to fall back on tidying and I probably spend more time on this than I should.
Loneliness can be an issue. They called this ‘solo librarian syndrome’ on my course. Although I love chatting to my pupils, it can be tough not speaking to people your own age – if I’m lucky I catch staff at breaks to sit with, but because the library is staffed at interval and lunch you’re often alone. From my (limited) experience, schools are quite cliquey when it comes to staffroom seating and teachers often stay in their own subject bases; it’s pretty easy to never have contact with an entire department. Over holidays (yes, holidays – I never knew school librarians worked over the summer) I can go the whole day without seeing another person!
You’ll probably need to make your case to other members of staff. One of the things that surprised me most when I started was hearing a teacher saying ‘You know, I’ve worked here 20 years and I didn’t even know we had a library’. The library may well be viewed as an extension of the English department and staff are often too swamped with their own work to try and slot you in, so it’s important to be proactive. I recently wandered over to the Geography department to discuss magazine subscriptions and a potential referencing workshop – the members of staff were very appreciative of me making the effort to go to them. To some extent, you’re at the mercy of senior management and what level of importance they place on the school library.
Job sharing is both a blessing and a curse. School libraries in my council are open 2.5/3 days a week and some are split between two members of staff for cost-saving purposes. I dislike this, as shared schools inevitably don’t get the same service standard as schools which are looked after by one person. I share both my schools with very experienced librarians. I’ve been very nervous over these first few months and it’s been useful to have knowledgeable colleagues to look to for advice; it’s also difficult in that they both have very set ways of doing things (which happen to be different a lot of the time). I also struggle to voice my own views, particularly if I think something could be done a different way: how can my opinion be of any merit if I’ve been there 4 months and they’ve been there for 15+ years? However, you have to remember that you have professional judgement as well and your ideas are just as valid.
Behaviour management is the worst part of the job. I spend far more of my time on this than I’d like. I hate to say it, but pupils can see librarians as an easy target because you’re a) not a qualified teacher and b) looking after a potentially large group without additional help from staff. I ended up in tears the other week because someone hit me with a rubber, which was as embarrassing as it was infuriating. I wish I had an easy answer for this one, but I don’t – I’ve been told that things eventually just ‘click’, but it certainly hasn’t happened yet for me. In other countries such as the US, librarians often hold dual teaching certifications, which sounds like it would mitigate a lot of these issues.
At this point, you might be thinking ‘gosh, she sounds awfully negative about things’. Don’t worry, I’m just reaching the most important point:
Helping others is by far and away the best part of the job. Whether it’s swapping ideas with a pupil who loves reading Orwell, finding a reluctant reader a book they enjoy or chatting to a group about Pokémon, I really enjoy helping people and seeing their enthusiasm grow. Sometimes pupils follow me around as I’m working just to chat with me about what they’re reading! Graphic novels are eternally popular; I recently started a manga collection and have quickly built up a following with heaps of requests – as soon as the books are out of the box they’re out on loan, which is probably as good as it gets. I was recently off for illness and when I returned, my senior pupils’ faces lit up to see the library open again. It’s a really great feeling which helps me get through the more difficult parts of the job.
These four months have given me a newfound understanding and appreciation of both the difficulties and rewards of school librarianship. To be brutally honest, I still feel like I’m one step behind and that I could be doing a better job, but I’m hoping this is more due to new job jitters and impostor syndrome than anything else. If I can make even one pupil more enthusiastic about reading than they were at the beginning of the year, I’ll have done my job.
What do you think? Have you had a similar school library experience, or do you have any school-related resources you’d recommend? Let us know at @lisnpn or as a comment on this post! You can also find Caitlin at @scaredycait.
Cover photo: author’s own.