I never had any desire to be a librarian. In fact, the thought never crossed my mind when I was at school, despite a love of books and an obsessive need to be constantly reading. And I’m not sure why my careers teacher didn’t suggest it as an option; perhaps I was a bit too loud to ever be thought suitable for such a profession. So I headed off to do Business Studies at uni and then found myself working in project management.
It was only after I’d had my second daughter, and realised that I couldn’t go back to the previous job if I actually wanted to see my children grow up, that I started looking around for something else to do. I saw an advert in the local paper for a position at a school as a “Media Resources Officer”. They wanted somebody who liked reading, could create displays and encourage students into the library. I applied and got the job. School libraries were very different then, no IT to begin with, and I’m not sure if I was going into the job now with the lack of experience that I had then I would be able to cope. But I’m glad the school took a chance on me because it has been the best job ever. I loved it from the very beginning and walked around in a state of euphoria, hardly believing that somebody was actually paying me to do this.
School librarianship is not an easy option. It has a very wide remit so you find you’re juggling many facets of the role; the whole reading for pleasure agenda and reading across the curriculum as well as information skills throughout the school. Not to mention the management of the physical space and resources. Being a solo librarian makes it hard to do all of this as well as you can which means, sometimes, accepting that good enough (rather than perfect) has to suffice. But there’s something about the job that keeps you at it. It’s hard to describe; part of it is the autonomy you have, the way you can direct your own time and effort. Every day is different, even if you’re delivering the same programme each year it’s to a completely new intake. Working with the students is fantastic albeit frustrating at times but then when you manage to make that connection between book and student it makes it all worthwhile. I found that after a while I wanted to qualify as a librarian; I had the experience and wanted the piece of paper to prove it so I undertook a distance-learning degree. It seemed a natural step from that to become a Chartered librarian.
The job definitely has its ups and downs. There’s not actually any part of the job I dislike, even shelving books; the hassles tend to come from people outside the library itself! And there have definitely been some great moments. It’s hard to choose just one. I guess personal achievements are up there, such as getting my degree, becoming Chartered, being nominated by my pupil librarians for the School Librarian of the Year Award, being awarded the inaugural School Library Association Founder’s Award. But it’s also the small things that make the job special: recommending a book to a student and them enjoying it; being able to have great conversations about books with like-minded people regardless of their ages; when you finally manage to connect that anti-reading student with a book they enjoy and actually ask if there’s a sequel.
As for the downside, it can be a bit isolating, the pay isn’t brilliant and there are never enough hours in the day. Fortunately, there are some fantastic networks for school librarians where you can share ideas and good news as well as asking for advice and sounding off occasionally. Budget cuts suck and it’s horrible when you hear of colleagues being downsized or re-graded. Yet we still carry on so I guess there must be something about being a school librarian that keeps us going.
If somebody was thinking about school librarianship today, I’d say “go for it” but be aware that schools are very different from other sorts of libraries. Qualifications are important as is maintaining your CPD; the world of education does not stand still nor does publishing or technology and experience is vital but this will come with time. I was inexperienced and unqualified when I started but somehow managed to stay ahead of everything. Having an assistant helped as she was able to show me the ropes whilst I found my feet but I think you need to have a certain type of personality too. Forget the stereotype of the quiet librarian working in a lovely peaceful place; school libraries are busy, buzzy, can be noisy, and have a constant stream of teenagers wandering through them, their librarians need to be able to juggle a multitude of demands, deal with both the ordinary as well as bizarre requests, and be ready with tissues when there are hormonal overloads.
The one thing I would like to change though is the status and professional recognition of the role. School libraries are not statutory which is rather crazy when you think about how important literacy is to accessing the curriculum. And to me, literacy means reading which needs books. Statutory school libraries with a minimum of standards including a professional librarian would be a good start; the next step would be the recognition of the wider remit of our roles within schools. The system needs to realise that teachers are not the only qualified staff in schools and there are others who can, and do, play a valuable role in the education of the students.