Touchpaper library conundrums

These are 6 questions that I feel are fundamental to the world of school librarianship.

Inspired by the millennium problems and recent touchpaper education questions and spurred on by recent debates on networks such as SLN I’ve been thinking about the big questions relating to school librarianship.

What are the questions that we are all striving to answer in our schools and ultimately how can we answer them?

They are named touchpaper library conundrums as the idea behind them is to spark debate and research into how they might be answered.

In education EduResearch is just starting to take roots in schools with many schools looking to pioneer and become Education Research Schools. This is the exact area that we as school librarians need to be looking at too.

How can our role enhance that of the schools?

Some of my opinions may seem strong and not always to the liking of others but I feel we need to be more forward thinking as a profession if we are to make any difference in a school.

And so the touchpaper library conundrums came into being.

At our recent Herts LibMeet I launched 2 of the 6 conundrums that I have come up with. The session got librarians to start thinking about how they might about answering them and what we might need to do to get people in a more positive way.


The School Librarian Journal Article

Introducing the problems

Ok, so this is a big one. How do you introduce something that you know is challenging the way people go about things in a profession? Something that tries to move people on in their roles, that tries to get them thinking in a different way?

Something that you believe passionately in and that you know will make a big difference to a profession and something you know will have a direct impact on the quality of what is provided in school libraries across the country.

Well hopefully this is the beginning of that as today I start to light the school library touchpaper. Spurred on by things such as the millennium problems and more recently EduResearch, I’ve been thinking long and hard about the key questions in school libraries today. The real big big issues. What are they, what do they mean and more importantly how do we go about answering them?

Surely for us to make any kind of difference these are the things we need to be discussing, to be talking about and trying to uncover a way to move forward?

Sure publicity about school libraries and librarians is great but what actually does that achieve? Does it give us anything, do anything for us? Does it change anything at ‘grass roots level? The answer to that is most likely no, not really anything of any substance at least, nothing that’s going to be long lasting. PR is great but it’s only ever going to be short term, when the dust settles on an article or a report we’re straight back in the same place we’ve always been. When all the talking is finished that’s all it really is, words. Words won’t change anything, but people will.
So what’s really going to make a difference is us. If we take things into our own hands, if we provide the substance that’s going to have an impact and change things then we can really do something special. And I don’t mean run a one off event that might look good but again gives no real substance or meaning to anything or change anything. I don’t even mean an event that lasts longer than a one off I mean fundamentally changing something or producing something that changes the fabric of our roles.
So, I’m setting a challenge. A challenge that’s going to get school librarians all thinking about the big issues, and not just thinking about them, but coming up with a solution. A solution that’s going to give us the substance that words and PR can’t. Substance that’s going to change everything for the better and that’s going to be long term.

That is the challenge and that is the purpose behind the library touchpaper conundrums.

The touchpaper conundrums

They are called the touchpaper conundrums because ultimately I want them to spark a debate. A debate that is going to focus us and our profession on coming up with a way to improve the things we do, to make sure our role answers the key questions. By showing the value that we have in a school we can show the reason why all schools should have a school librarian and qualified information professional in charge. It’s OK talking the talk but this is going to us walking the walk to.

As I see it the conundrums cover the big problems that we have in school libraries such as engagement, our role within education, reading improvement and information literacy. The conundrums are therefore a way of trying to come up with a solution for these problems.

I’ve already launched a couple of these questions via my blog and also at the Hertfordshire CPD meetings that I run through my school. Not only did they spark that initial interest and debate in what the answers might be and how we can go about answering them but it has also provided people with a platform to go away and continue to think and do something about these questions.

Defining the problems

Actually putting together the conundrums was a task in itself. How do you go about defining a problem in one question? The wording has to be right but you also need to have an idea of what you are trying to achieve.

I initially starting thinking about the areas that I thought were the most troublesome in a school. I spend a lot of time working with librarians across the country either through INSETs or through providing consultancy to schools. This has given me a great opportunity to listen. Just listen to what librarians are saying.

Areas such as getting young people to read, using resources and creating information literate young people are the ones most frequently mentioned. These are the things in schools that you hear most school librarians complaining about or banging their heads to try and achieve. But also along there is the continual question around the school librarian’s role in a school, how they can make a difference to the quality of teaching of learning (the bread and butter of a school).

So in trying to set the right questions I felt I needed to set myself some parameters. If I wanted these problems to answered, to be meaningful then I needed to work out what was going to be important.

The parameters I set to focus the questions and then hopefully the outcomes are as follows:

  1. They must be relevant to school librarians and their roles in today’s schools and education system
  2. The questions must be based on improving school librarianship
  3. They must require a solution that uncovers principles rather than the creation of a new model
  4. Have a defined end-point

With these points in mind and with the knowledge of what the potential problem areas might be I began to formulate the questions that would require debate, research and potentially improvement as the ultimate goal.

The questions that I created are therefore:
1. In what ways can a school librarian impact on the quality of teaching in a school?

2. If a student needs to find information what process produces the best result?

3. What are the optimal conditions in a library needed to encourage a non-reader to read?

4. What is the shortest time period needed to improve a student’s reading age by 1 year?

5. Which organisation of physical resources produces the most effective search outcome?

6. What are the necessary and minimum requirements to create a reading culture in a school?

Covering those main areas and requiring more thought than just a simple answer these questions are geared towards having librarians think about what the answers might be. To question the way they go about things in their own school and ask whether it is the right way. To celebrate those people doing something special that is maybe answering one, some or more of these in part or in whole.

It is about us as school librarians taking ownership of making a difference to our own profession and showing what we are capable of and how important we are to our schools.

What now?

Now the questions are ‘out there’ I want people to start thinking about answering them. At the moment there are no answers to these questions. I want people to discuss with each other and to formulate their own. I would welcome responses to myself or to The School Librarian where we will run a follow up article covering what librarians are starting to do and the solutions they are coming up with.

I’m also really keen to organise a specific event with some of our top school librarians to spend a whole day researching how we might answer the questions. Not only would this be a great opportunity to further the work we are doing but it would also be great CPD for all of those involved, sharing the practice that they have seen and formulating a potential way forward for schools and their libraries.

If you would like to get in touch with me with your views and maybe any other questions or theories as to how you might answer them I would love to hear them. Please email


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