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Shadowing a school librarian
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Shadowing a school librarian

In December I went to Ysgol Harri Tudur / Henry Tudor School, Pembroke, to shadow school librarian, Liz Smith

I recently started my part time post at CILIP Cymru Wales and one of my tasks has been to assess the representativeness of our committee. We have good representation from Higher Education, a Chair from Further Education, and representatives from Health Libraries, museums, the National Library, CyMAAL and the Society for Chief Librarians (who represent public libraries). Nobody from school libraries…yet.

Then, in October 2019 the Great School Libraries Report came out. The result of a lot of hard work from School Library Association (SLA), CILIP’s School Libraries Group (SLG and CILIP campaigners, the report struck at the heart of issues with survey data with schools from across England and Wales at its core. Revealing a situation that isn’t perhaps as terrible as was feared, nonetheless the results clearly indicated a lack of consistent service, an electronic resource deficit across the board, and confirmation that fee paying schools are ahead of the game and investing more in their library services.

The Welsh contribution to the report, however, was minimal. The situation does differ in some significant ways in Wales where Education and are devolved. For one thing, library services do not feature in any official way in Estyn inspections. Additionally, the fact that the survey – a huge and expensive endeavor from these non-governmental bodies – was not bilingual, unfortunately means that the picture from Wales was always going to be partial.

Liz Smith

So how do we find out how many school libraries and librarians we have in Wales? How much budget and square footage they have? How many electronic resources do they provide access to and how much teaching takes place in the library? In 2020 I will be working on building relationships with the Departments of Education and Culture, Sport and Tourism, with the SLA, the SLG and others to try and see if we can conduct our own bilingual survey. In the meantime, however, I really wanted to see what a day-in-the-life of a school librarian in Wales looks like, and I was told to find Liz Smith.

A proud school librarian, passionate for her job and profession, Liz Smith has been involved in SLG for many years and has been SLG Wales Chair, Secretary and committee member. Cuts to staffing and a new school building (and library, of course!) meant she hasn’t been as involved in professional bodies for a while but I found her on twitter and she agreed to host me for a day and show me what life behind the school doors is like for a librarian today.

Dewey shelves

Approaching the new school building at ten to nine I was a little apprehensive. I realized I hadn’t been into a school for…well, at least twenty years and whereas my secondary school was a bilingual, 450 pupil school in mid Wales, Harri Tudur has over 1200 pupils and a visitor now has to have their photo taken for their visitor pass before being signed in. There was no time for nerves or reflection, though. Liz, who had already been in work for over an hour and a half, was there to welcome me. On Fridays (the day I visited) at Harri Tudur formal learning finishes at 1.30pm and pupils have an optional early finish or choice of afterschool enrichment activities, one of which the Library provides.

I was taken to the library on the first floor, a room at the heart of the new building. Location does make a difference here, as it does to all libraries, not only because pupils become familiar with its presence but also because the library was far enough away from some subject areas in the old building, such as Art, to make it difficult to embed in the curriculum.

Even before the school day starts there are pupils busy in the large library which seats about 90 pupils. The GSL report suggests that a library should be able to seat a tenth of the school population. Somebody needed to print a Powerpoint presentation, sixth formers were welcomed as they came in to grab a study booth and laptops were being signed out already. The new library has less PC’s but a class set of laptops and a trolley of Chromebooks, which were signed in and out throughout the day by Liz, and at breaks by her pupil library assistants (PLAs), and whenever he had a spare moment from his Sixth Form studies, her Senior Pupil Library Assistant..

Library computers

When the bell went for Lesson 1 a class of year 7s came in with their teacher, leaving bags in the locker style opening shelving near the door and sat in the teaching space at the circular tables in the middle of the room facing the interactive whiteboard.

Liz explained to me that school librarians aim to work in partnership with the teacher, enhancing the learning, enabling vital information literacy skills to be built into the research, integrated into and integral to the curriculum. In some classes she has created the lessons and scheme of learning, in conjunction with staff, and leads the lesson, team teaching with the teacher; in others the teacher leads and she works with them to support lesson plans created within their faculties. At its best, this would be in partnership with her to enable them to exploit fully what the she and the Library can offer them.

Today two Year 7 English classes are booked in as part of their IRead programme, designed to help pupils to nurture and develop a love of reading. She has created the lessons and Scheme of Learning, evaluating the lessons on an ongoing basis with her English colleagues to tweak and improve them. The year 7 syllabus is 40% ‘Skills’ here so the library is intrinsic to the pupil experience from the moment they start secondary school and I get to see the IRead classes for the still pretty new pupils. Each is given their reading journal from last time and there is a discussion about how fiction might be organized on the shelves and how to search for books. As a part time cataloguing librarian in Higher Education my ears perk up.

Each table discusses and reports back their thoughts; together as a class they then explore the merits and drawbacks of organizing fiction by author, or author and genre, or, as a few pupils suggest, initially, by title. They point out if books are arranged by genre and author you might not know in which genre a library puts the book that you need. Liz does remind them of Heritage, at this point, the Library’s online catalogue, which would help with this (they have been introduced to it in a previous Skills lesson). They do agree, however, that this arrangement can be helpful when browsing and feeling like reading a thriller or funny story, for example, with no author in mind.

Library whiteboard

Next, each pupil is given a card with the name of an author of fiction on and they have to go and find a book on the shelves by that author. Some confidently stride over and then spend some time getting exactly the right book. Others go in groups chatting, some hold back and are given some help. Eventually all bring their book to the front of the class and stand in alphabetical order by author surname as if they were books on a shelf…no mean feat and a skill that the hardiest of Library of Congress shelvers does not dismiss lightly! Liz plans to have a secondary pupil-friendly alphabet up when the new school-ness allows for the addition of photo frames etc on the walls.

Finally, after an opportunity for thinking and discussion, each table sends someone to the whiteboard with the group’s ‘Top Tips’ for choosing a good book. I’m surprised by how even seemingly shy pupils take to writing on the board - “reading the blurb on the back”, “asking a librarian”, “asking a friend”, “looking for a book by the same author”, “reading the first line”. These all get listed and shared in the reading journal as a record of developing literacy skills and giving them strategies to try for themselves. I realise that the conversation this class has had today is one we all need to keep having, at University, at work, with friends, colleagues and family.

Breaktime games

Then it is break time, but not for the library. I counted 80 pupils in the room during break – playing games – Pokemon, Rubik’s Cube, Uno, Dungeons and Dragons – chatting, working and taking out, renewing and returning books. During the week there are also Doctor Who, Rebel Readers, and Readers of the Round Table clubs who meet in the library at break times.

There is a comfy area with seats looking out through huge windows at where the old school used to be, now an all-weather pitch. There are booths with and without computers, and the teaching area is flanked with bookshelves on two sides with the white board at the front and the library reception desk opposite. There is also more table space between the shelves and entrance on the school corridor. The room is light and bright. Although there was much to-ing and fro-ing and some frustrating discussions and outcomes, Liz was pleased to have been involved in the design and grateful to have been able to make some key changes to make the space more practical and fit for purpose. She’d like to have had a say in the shelving and would have chosen something better placed to promote the books, with more appropriate labelling functionality (I’m sure all library project managers are nodding here) and would have liked teaching space seats that don’t swivel, but she seems pretty pleased with the room, one year in.

Library sofas

Straight after break the next IRead class comes in. This one is calmer and more focused. During the lesson one girl finds a book she can’t wait to read and asks me (looking suspiciously like a librarian behind the desk) if I can check it out for her. I feel I may break the Heritage Library Management system if I tried and apologise sympathetically. Another pupil wants me to sign out a laptop to him but without a PLA with me and Liz teaching, he has to wait. The two hours taken for these two classes are not the only activity in the library, however. Simultaneously, sixth formers have kept to their booths, and are in and out for their lessons. A small Welsh Bac class came in and quietly got on with their work behind the fiction shelves, and a pupil with special needs and her learning assistant came in too.

While Liz and I have cleared away the reading journals, pens and pencils and straightened the chairs the next class has come in – a Spanish A-level class and their teacher to watch a Spanish film on the interactive whiteboard screen. Liz asks the teacher if he would mind watching the library while she takes me to the canteen for some lunch. He kindly agrees, but this is an issue. If Liz wants to take the lunch break that she is entitled to have, she has to make all the pupils leave, which she naturally is reluctant to do. I imagine a number of school librarians miss a fair few lunches…

Over lunch, which we take to the staff room, I get to ask some questions…Liz is line managed by the Deputy Head for Teaching and Learning and unlike some school librarians, she works through the holidays which enables her to do some of the planning, preparation, evaluation, stockwork etc which is tricky to do in term time. In the Summer Term each year, Liz meets all the Heads of Faculty to discuss the curriculum for the coming year, including resources, possible lessons and other joint projects. .

Space display

Staff are supportive and many willingly use the library’s services. One example of whole school reading promotions are the posters I noticed on the door of each member of staff saying what they are currently reading. She laments losing her assistant not only because this restricts what she and the library can offer, but also presumably, because running a service single handedly gives you little room to learn and share, to practice and experiment. I can see why Liz has been less involved in wider professional networks of late but somehow, she manages to keep both her enthusiasm and professionalism forefront. She tells me about reports I should look up, from Education Scotland and SLIC, that might help me establish a stakeholder group in Wales. She tells me about the upcoming new curriculum and how its interdisciplinary nature should offer Welsh school libraries better opportunities for engagement; perfect for working with faculties to embed the Library in their schemes of learning.

Back from lunch, I tackle some Dewey reshelving – Liz has to order, process, catalogue, shelve and withdraw so it seems the least I can do. Then Liz gets out some of the reports we’ve discussed, filed in the brightly coloured ringbinders along with material on information literacy, the curriculum, and reading competitions, for example. She shows me online the Education Workforce Council Wales’ Professional Learning Passport. Teachers are required to be members of the EWA, Teaching assistants can be, but librarians aren’t mentioned at all. It sounds like continuing professional development for a school librarian in Wales is tricky, requiring some decisions about where and how to invest your time and effort without being entirely sure if the rewards will be what your current or future employer recognizes. In this context, with the Library open and busy with classes, small groups, and individuals from 8am to 4.30pm, so that strategic work gets squeezed into before and after opening, I can see why the CILIP PKSB is a little overwhelming.

Liz leaves early today because I need a lift to Haverfordwest to get the bus back to Aberystwyth, so it is just about still light. I’m exhausted. It’s a long journey home especially because I can’t read on buses without feeling travel sick…

Bus to Aberystwyth But I have a lot to think about. I’m more convinced than ever that we have to bring together a group of stakeholders to address the dearth of data about school libraries and librarians in Wales, to then advocate collaboratively for a recognized and consistent national approach. Simultaneously, however, we need to be thinking about how we as the library information professional body can better support librarians who risk isolation both because they may well be few and far between but also because engaging with the wider library profession and each other is made difficult by lone working and geographical distance.

CILIP Cymru Wales has a lot to think about. Thank you Liz!

Amy Staniforth, Rheolwr Cyslltiadau CILIP Cymru Wales Relationship Manager

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