Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Back to school

Today I went on a visit to the Library of Harlington Upper School as a guest of the school librarian Jenny Horler. I hadn't been into a school library since I left school some ten years ago, so I was very interested to see Jenny's library, all the more so for having heard some of her thoughts about school to university transitions at last month's TeachMeet.
'School Room' by Rob Shenk on Flickr
'School Room' by Rob Shenk on Flickr

It's unwise, of course, to form an opinion on a sector based on a single example, but I'm probably on fairly safe ground when I say that school librarianship is noisy and busy.  I don't know what I was expecting, really: I'm sure my own school library wasn't nearly as quiet and peaceful as I vaguely remember it being, and I'm certainly not sure that the peace that I think I remember was the product of high levels of library use.  I don't necessarily think the levels of activity I saw were a bad thing, but, *boy* it does look like hard work!  And really, although we sometimes complain about undergrads being high maintenance, they have *nothing* on 1400 13 to 18 year olds all clamouring for printing, stationery supplies and the rest...

The library serves a lot of purposes, not all of which can easily co-exist.
  • As a place, it's used as:
    • a study space;
    • a social space;
    • a ‘safe haven’ (schools are tough places);
    • an extra teaching and form room;
    • as an extra IT room.
  • It's expected to provide physical and electronic resources to support:
    • general study and coursework across all subject areas;
    • higher-level research for Year 13 Extended Projects;
    • literacy and reading for pleasure for a range of ages, reading levels, and tastes.
  • The librarian has to be able to:
    • teach study, research, and critical thinking skills and techniques;
    • troubleshoot IT problems;
    • keep control of up to 60 pupils in the library at one time;
    • recommend resources to meet any of the needs listed above;
    • help with school work and university applications;
    • find time for the standard library work of ordering, processing, shelving, tidying and weeding books.
All libraries serve lots of purposes, of course - I'm not trying to say that school libraries are special in that regard. But I did notice in particular that in a school setting there seems to be a feeling that the library's there for *everyone* to use however and whenever they want it. That leaves the library feeling like a vibrant and vital place at the heart of the school, but it's clearly also difficult for the librarian to manage successfully.  At what point does 'vibrant'  make it impossible to work or teach in there?

My trip back to school was inspiring. It's great to see so many people coming through a library throughout the day, and to see the various ways (such as using Delicious for subject-specific lists of links) in which the librarian makes a difference to the pupils who use the library, whether that's by getting them hooked on reading, helping with writing personal statements, or just by providing a welcoming place to spend some time.  I just wish that I'd made better use of my school librarian back in the day...


  1. The Delicious list is very interesting, thank you both for making it available

  2. The idea of a library as a 'safe haven' is an interesting one and one that's perhaps not emphasised enough.

    The library I work in is very similar to a school library (used for education and leisure; available all day; lots of PC provision) and I try to emphasise its role as a 'haven' from the heavygoing military environment. For me, it's important that library users feel relaxed.

  3. Oh I bet that was a really good visit - I thought Jenny's talk at the TeachMeet was really very interesting and I would have liked to have heard more from her.

  4. Simon - I think it's easy to pass over the role of the library as space in favour of focussing on its 'core' roles as provider of books/information etc. So I'm glad to hear that you try to make your library a haven - I wonder if your young recruits aren't having to face many of the same pressures and difficulties that cause people at school to retreat to the library for a bit of peace.

    Celine - There are moves afoot to have Jenny come along to a brown bag lunch to discuss her work further, although I gather that will be after Christmas now. So schedules permitting, you should be able to hear more from her in due course!

  5. Thank you for your summary of our day - and it was interesting seeing my role from another librarians perspective. It is rewarding working in a school library especially when their little eyes light up when they discover something new.
    There is never a dull moment.
    I enjoyed the Teach Meet event and would be delighted to come to Cambridge again.
    Jenny Horler @Harlington Upper School