Why school libraries are killing school libraries

I’m actually going to start this potentially controversial post by expanding on the title and adding in that it is also school librarians that are part of the reason why school libraries are a dying breed.

There have been so many discussions recently about the fact that school libraries should be statutory, that Ofsted should and must visit a school library as part of their inspection and that the reason why school libraries are dying is because there is not enough support from senior leaders in education and schools.

(Before I begin the entirety of this post I want to mention that I feel this kind of outcome isn’t necessarily what we should be aiming for. What we should require in schools is for there to be some part of it that is dedicated to all the things that a library can/should achieve but not necessarily  dictate to schools what that is. Let’s be honest a school that has a great librarian and a library doesn’t always equate to one that has an impact. But let’s not dictate to a school, ala M.Gove exactly what that should look like especially when we’re not so clear ourselves what this looks like… )

Well, I’m going to take a slightly different tact on this and suggest that maybe the reason why there seems to be so little support for school libraries outside of school libraries is that there is a mass of uncertainty as to what a school library actually is. This apparent opaqueness, in my opinion, is perpetuated by those that run libraries. For instance how many schools actually have a space that is called a school library? Ok, they might have a space that runs as a school library but is it actually known as that or has it been given some other name in an attempt to redefine it as something else such as an LRC or the many other, numerous, ‘rebrands’ that go on in schools?

For me, and remember this is my opinion, the reason people rebrand their school libraries is to change people’s perception about what a school library is. The belief is that the term library has so many connotations and so, by renaming the space, we can change the perception. In actual fact this is probably the worst thing that you can do. What you should be doing, to change the perception, is change the ethos and behaviour of what goes on in the library. You can change the name but if the behaviours persist then you’ve just destroyed people’s perception of that name as well as that of library. What you should be doing is changing those behaviours to make sure that the perception itself changes. The change of behaviour results in the change of perception not the other way around.

A case in point is that of the ‘learning commons’ a name that is starting to become ‘on-trend’ and synonymous with supposed forward thinking academies. Unfortunately their interpretation of the model (which in itself is full of contradictions) is basic in the slightest. In fact by even calling something a learning commons you are defeating the purpose of what it really is. Having spend many hours researching and attending conferences etc that have covered the premise of a learning commons I feel confidently able to point out that a learning commons comes about when a library adapts itself to the 21st Century and most importantly to it’s users. Stemming from the 1990’s and the digital commons, where spaces were available for customers to use this new technology (that wasn’t readily available in the home) a learning commons is more about an ethos behind how you run your service and what you offer your users, depending on their needs. It most certainly isn’t about giving something the name of a learning commons and expecting everyone to accept your space as the learning commons model. Remember you need to change the behaviours first.

When ‘drilling’ down to what a learning commons is and how it can be used in schools you see that a school isn’t necessarily the best place. Larger universities and colleges are more suited to the more formal model of a learning commons as they (the learners) are going to more likely be undertaking self organised learning where they require the space to be adaptable to them. In a school however the majority of the time students are undertaking  directed learning in a dedicated space, i.e. the classroom. They are only ever going to need a ‘learning commons’ space for self organised learning during break/lunch and after school. However, if you were to take the learning commons ethos, which it appears differs from the formal model, then it isn’t just about one space in a education environment. All students need this ethos perpetuated throughout their learning lives and embedded and interwoven in their classrooms.

It appears, in the numerous articles available on learning commons, that to achieve a learning commons a library needs to be responsive and adapted to it’s user needs. To be reflective on how they might need to use the space and to allow this to happen. A common in these terms is similar to that of the local village green, a place to congregate. Really what they are saying is that a learning commons is achieved when a library evolves and stops being a static model that just holds and organises books and information. This is a really jarring point for me. It relies on the belief that a school library doesn’t do this already. That it doesn’t respond to it’s users needs, that it doesn’t adapt, evolve and change as technology and needs do. This, for me, then begs the question who is giving people this impression, for someone must be otherwise there wouldn’t need to be a ‘model’ renamed as something else telling us how to evolve our school libraries. The only people that this can be are the librarians themselves, surely?

So, not only do I have an issue with the learning commons in itself I also have an issue as to why anyone felt that they needed to point this out. A learning commons is what you get when you have the foresight to adapt your school library to it’s users. It is not a separate entity to a library and so in calling something a learning commons you continue to perpetuate the myth and belief that a library cannot do this on its own. It is the same when you rename your library an LRC or research centre, or discovery base. All you are doing is saying that a school library can’t be this, instead of changing the perception of a school library so people can see that this is exactly what it can be, and so much more.

If we want school libraries to be in all schools, if we want them to be valued then we need to start with our own perceptions as to what a school library is. We need to be clear in our own profession about this before we can begin to expect anyone outside of the profession to understand what we do and what we can achieve. It is down to us to define what a school library should be and look like and I don’t mean a tick list I mean a fundamental vision of adaptability to needs and requirements and behaviours. We need to stop trying to rebrand ourselves by giving ourselves different titles and stick to one name for us and one name for our space and be clear on what that means. If we can’t do this then we can never expect anyone else to get it.

So my question is; who are you, what do you do? What is your space called and are you adding to the destruction of school libraries or are you helping to build a positive perception about them and what they do by challenging the behaviours associated with school libraries and making sure your ethos is one of adaptability and credibility?

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The Makings of a School Librarian

Makings of a School Librarian
I’ve been thinking a bit recently about what a school librarian needs to be to be successful. I’ve been working a little bit with some young librarians looking at going through chartership and the question arose from one of these conversations. I can’t remember the precise wording but it revolved around a question as to the different needs and skills of librarians in different sectors.

It was an extremely interesting question and one that required me a little time to think about what it was about a school librarian that was either different or just specific to a school librarian.
Therefore in this post I’ve tried to show what I feel is required of a school librarian and the reasons why. I don’t necessarily see these skills/personality traits as something that is only covered by school librarians but I do feel they are all vital in becoming a successful one.

1&2. Number one (and two) for me is to be adaptable. So much so I’ve put it twice! Twice because firstly I feel you need to be adaptable in both your processes but also in your beliefs around how a library can/should run.
Being adaptable in your processes for me is about having to change the way you go about things depending on your circumstances. In most libraries you can move from one to another yet things are always done the same. However, in a school this couldn’t be further from the truth. If you move from one school to another you need to be able to change and adapt to the way that your new school works. School libraries are very much at the mercy of the establishment they belong in and work in very different ways to each other depending on the needs of the school and opinions of the headteacher/school leadership.
Therefore, just because you have gone about things in one way in a school it doesn’t mean that it will be the same in any other.

The second adaptable then is that of the beliefs that you have in libraries. Many school librarians come into the profession from either public libraries or other library backgrounds and so already have a sense of how a library should work and what a library should be. These beliefs however must be taken with a pinch of salt in a school library. They really are unlike any other library. Even FE or HE libraries have little in common with schools. In reality a school library is a hybrid of other types of libraries with its own bit of crazy added in too.

What this means is that you really can’t come to being a school librarian thinking that you can put a public library or any other library model into play. You need to realise, acknowledge and importantly embrace that a school library can be anything and that that anything is solely dependant on what the needs of the students in the school are.

3. This adaptability in beliefs links to the next point to me which is being open minded. Open minded to changing your beliefs of how to run things but also open minded into what you might be able to achieve through a school library. Not many other libraries can have such a direct impact on daily, even hourly basis on your user. As I’ve mentioned many times before a school library needs to be responsive to its users and not demand its users to fit into its own model. In public libraries the user needs the resources so will adapt their practice to use it. However in a school the users, or students can easily decide they don’t want to use the library and they don’t necessarily need to. However, if you match your library to their needs and be open minded about this then what you can achieve is something really special, personalised to your students and ultimately a great success.

4. A resilient optimist. By this I mean you have to realise that it is impossible on a day to day basis to make the impact and achieve your goals. In a school these need to be long term things that you want to achieve and you need to be realistic in understanding that these goals and objectives might change at the drop of a hat as education so often does! You’re going to face disappointment and failure on a daily basis especially if it’s trying to work with other departments, however if you realise this and importantly accept it then it’s not that bad. Importantly it also allows you to realise that there are opportunities out that and that you need to take them whenever they arise and that you need to keep trying no matter what the setback is. Unfortunately too many librarians see this as being passive aggressive and thinking that everyone should listen to you and want to work with you because , well they just should. This may be the case but this attitude doesn’t achieve anything positive.

5. Thick skinned. Being a resilient optimist and having to face numerous setbacks also means it’s vitally important to gain a bit of a thick skin. In education and in many schools you will come across lots of people who are ‘in it for themselves’ and only concerned about getting one up, or looking good. Unfortunately this mentality seems to permeate most schools as it’s the kind of attitude that normally ends up getting what they want in the ever fickle bubble that is education. However, just remember that it’s not about being seen to do the right things it’s about actually doing it and doing it for the right reasons!

6. Reading Specialist. This is the final point and the one that I feel really embodies what a school librarian should be. OK, so a big part of a school librarians job is about information. Information searching, gathering and information literacy skills. But these are skills that are best delivered through the classroom by the teachers on a consistent explicit basis rather than an ad hoc one. The thing that is needed in schools and the thing that no one else is able to do is to be that of a reading specialist. What I mean by this is a person that has not only the knowledge about how we read and the science behind it but also about how we can engage readers and develop them in our schools. How we can promote and advocate reading and a reading culture across the our school community and importantly how we can use our knowledge and understanding of the individuals in our school to help them to improve their proficiency and ability in reading and so help improve their learning at the same time as helping our teachers to improve their teaching outcomes. This is the real thing that sets us aside from anyone else in school and the thing that can really make a difference.

The messy business of impact

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In pretty much every workplace and beyond people are always concerned with impact.

What impact is the government reforms having? What impact is the new Tesco advert having on sales? What impact is my parenting having on my children? Etc etc

Just behind impact is its smaller yet more important siblings measurement and proof. When you talk about impact you can help but also talk about measuring it. As a society and a human being we are concerned to the point of obsession with measuring impact. It makes sense though, if you’re going to talk about impact and it’s important to you then you need to think about how you’re going to measure it so you can prove it.

How do Tesco measure the impact of their new advert – sales figures most likely, focus groups potentially, surveys etc. what about the government then? Maybe opinion polls, votes at local/general elections? And the parent? Well maybe how your child acts in relation to the moral code you’ve tried to instil, how they grow up as a human being maybe?

There’s something each of these have in common and probably akin to any way of measuring and proving impact. It is by looking at the outcomes. If the outcomes are what you had hoped them to be then you have been a success. If the government puts austerity cuts in place to save money then they’ll look at how much money has been saved – the outcome. If Tesco wants to measure and prove their new advert again it’s the outcome, sales figures etc and a parent? Well no surprise it’s again the outcome – how close to my ideals of a success have they grown up to be?

The only problem, and the messy part of impact and measuring impact is that you cannot categorically prove impact. It may seem strange but in most cases it’s either impossible or very difficult to say definitively that the outcome has been defined by the action.

Let’s look at Tesco and their new advert. They release their new advert and then look at sales. Sales are up on last year and the advert is a success (ok there’s probably a little more to it than this but just go with it). We can assume that the advert has had a positive effect on sales. But do we know that categorically? Yes it seems the most likely answer but how about any other things that may have occurred?

A national press article slamming another supermarket for their food containing non traditional meat? Or a link to a sweat shop in India? Or how about the advert coinciding with the closure of another local store?

Ok some of this may seem far fetched but the point is there, you cannot definitively pin the outcome on the action.

How about the government then and their austerity cuts? They are saving money so things must be working? Maybe or maybe it’s because we’re taking more care of finances all over the place and being less frivolous , accounting for everything so that money is being saved? Maybe, maybe not?

How about the parent? Well you only need to think nature vs nurture for there to be many variables. And that’s the real point in each of these issues there are too many variables to be able to measure with any kind of certainty what impact your action has had.

How about in education then does this happen there? You bet it does!

In fact it happens on daily, neigh hourly basis! We are forced to think exactly that, what impact is my teaching etc having on the learning of the children. Importantly it’s also part, or should be part of a library. What impact is the library having on teaching and learning, students, the school?

But let’s think a little about the implications in a school and the classroom.

First let’s think about a history teacher in the classroom who teaches a terms worth of the Romans. A student takes an assessment at the end and the student passes.

How about a student who is failing in their English GCSE? A teacher runs some extra intervention, 3 months later the student is back on track. Excellent in both examples, you may think.

But maybe in the first example the student’s dad is a historian specialising in the Romans? Maybe. And in the second example the student’s parents pays for some extra tuition from an external tutor. Maybe.

The thing that makes impact so messy is the variables. It’s due to these variables there is no way to actually prove impact.

It may be a shock but I’m afraid it is the simple truth. You cannot prove impact.

So the question is if you can’t prove impact then what’s the point and what have we been doing all this time?

Although it seems silly it is vitally important that we do this. We need to put all our cards on table and be as explicit as possible as to what we have done.

We need to do this because instead of trying to prove impact what we’re really saying is, it’s started here, I’ve done this and the outcome is this. Prove that I haven’t had an impact.

And that’s really what it is. Doing everything you can to have an impact, being explicit about it and noting the outcome. If the outcome is positive then it’s very difficult to say you haven’t had an impact.

It’s very hard to prove impact but even harder to disprove it too.

So what does this mean then? What it means is that we need to be explicit about the things we are doing, we need to rate start and end points, we need to measure and track progress and lay it all out.

So how about a library then?

What are you doing to improve reading in your school? Where did your students start, what did you do with them and where did they finish? If it was a positive outcome then challenge someone to prove from your tracking that you didn’t have an impact.

The tracking part is vitally important too. If you can’t show all the things you have done then there is no way your argument can hold up.

So the real answer to proving impact is to ask someone to disprove it!