By Alison Tarrant, MCLIP, MSc Econ Honour List Librarian, School Librarian of the Year Award 2016
Cambourne Village College is in its fourth year. We opened in September 2013 with a single year group, and have been building up year by year. Starting from scratch really enabled those running the school to think about what was needed – and a school library was definitely part of the plan. I was appointed as Librarian in the Easter term of 2013, which allowed me to plan an excellent library service.
Among some there is a misconception that the library is just a room full of books, and the Librarian someone who stamps them. Though the most visible aspect of the job, this is not excellent library service, and definitely doesn’t reflect the role of Librarian. At the core of excellent school library provision are two things: Information Literacy and Reading Development. These provide the fundamental helix which enables everything else.
Information Literacy (IL) is the ability to find, use and communicate information in an ethical manner,(1) and is often widened to include research skills – such as note taking and evaluating outcomes. It is teaching pupils the skills they need to maximise the opportunities the internet provides, while exercising criticism. As Librarian, I create worksheets that guide students through the research process we use. (2) I introduce this to all Year 7 classes at the start of the school year, and recap with other years as necessary. I lead sessions to introduce specific skills when required. I collaborate with teachers to provide resources that provide scaffolding for students, while allowing them freedom, and I produce videos that guide students through resources or skills as reminders for homework. I create Research Starter booklets for any topics where it is harder to find information at the right level – using short excerpts from higher level texts allows students access to the information without its being overwhelming. This creates a platform from which students can conduct their own research; once they have a foundation of knowledge they can access other information more easily, both in terms of understanding (3) and validity.
The Library stands astride a difficult gulf – supporting reading for pleasure while simultaneously ensuring pupils are progressing in their reading skills. Those who literally cannot read will probably fall under an intervention department, but there are plenty of students who fill the spectrum between ‘able to read’ and ‘fully fluent independent reader’. (4) At the most basic level, the Librarian’s job is to make this development easier by encouraging students to read, by connecting books (including e-books) and readers. Calling this ‘basic’ is not to underestimate its importance. There are pupils in CamVC who only read now because two years ago they found a book they loved – this can have long-lasting and potentially life-changing impact. Not all students will want to read, and I take a further step in trying to identify these students. ‘Attitude to Reading’ surveys given at the beginning of the year help us recognise those ‘reluctant readers’, while comparing the results to their reading ability allows us to identify different groups (‘can but won’t’; ‘can’t but will’ etc). This leads to intervention interviews with the students in question: What is it that is preventing this child from wanting to read? Is it a family matter? A self-consciousness? Do they struggle with idioms and contexts? Are they simply not used to it? It is only by talking to the students that we can get to the core of the issue and start to target the cause, rather than the symptoms. Of course we will not be successful with everyone, but sometimes having the conversation is more important than the outcome – the fact that someone cares can make a difference to a child.
Reading is important – it provides opportunities to experience someone else’s life decisions, and unveils the wider world in all its complexity, helping students understand themselves and each other better – and I am here to discuss this all with them. “Miss, what’s a hermaphrodite?”; “What do you think about the death penalty?”; “Why does this book have rude words in?” The journey of discovery is not complete without someone they can turn to and ask the questions that have been raised in their minds. The Librarian extends learning and guides curiosity – “Ah, you liked that one? Try this,” or places a book in the hands of someone who needs it (a book with an LGBTQ character for someone who is questioning their sexuality perhaps) because they will not ask for it, but it might be the most important book they will ever read.
For the first two years, the focus was on embedding the double helix – setting up the Patron of Reading scheme and ensuring library lessons were fully utilised with an activity to develop reading skills in each session. At the same time the library started to develop an atmosphere – warm, inviting and engaging. Each school library represents a school in the same way the daemons in Philip Pullman’s ‘The Northern Lights’ represent each character’s personality, and the library was starting to capture the best of the staff and school surrounding it. In the early days the library was empty, with far too few books (building the collection year by year is the only way that makes sense – allowing that flexibility to respond to changing curricula and students) and yet now the shelves are overflowing. We now have e-book lending set up and a few different e-resources to help students with their research. For us it is a combination of formats and information – not one versus the other. Books, e-books and the internet are all tools that are useful in different ways and for different things; part of my job is ensuring the students can select the appropriate one and use it to its full advantage.
The role of Librarian has developed as well, from the days of cataloguing and setting up the Library management system, whereas now it is more focused on the library being a whole school resource – including contributing to teaching. I am uniquely placed in having an overall view of what is being taught and when, so I created a curriculum map. Compiling this information is invaluable for realising opportunities for collaboration between teachers, and showing progression of knowledge. It gives me an opportunity to make sure my resources are up to date, and that any opportunities for research skills or reading lists are utilised. My knowledge of what is going on within the school makes teamwork with colleagues easier, and creates opportunities for collaboration between different members of staff. For some Librarians, using this knowledge means they can develop additional learning opportunities – whether this be through interactive videos, creative projects, or any other talents your Librarian has.
I contribute to the school at a strategic level. Attending Middle Leader meetings means I know the pressures and deadlines that exist within the school and enables me to provide assistance and contribute, for example, with suggestions for the school’s development plan. Given the central role the library plays in school life, this 360 degree view allows me to make sure the library is aligned with the school’s aims over the next year or so. Access to the development plan is essential for any library which functions as a department within the school, and ensures that the school is getting the most from its investment. It answers the fundamental question: Where is the library contributing to the school’s aims? My Library’s development plan is broad. It covers reading ages, inclusion, staff CPD, working with feeder primaries – and these are marked off against the annual report, showing the impact and value of the library and librarian.
It is only through being respected as a professional (5) in my own right that this excellent library service has been achieved. I am incredibly well supported by the Senior Leaders, with a sensible budget and access to CPD. (6) As the Library has developed, the role of a Library Assistant has become a necessity, and we are planning a long-term vision for library provision, laying out the core aims and priorities of the library. There are very few definite things in education, but research has shown that libraries that have this support, impact on student outcomes (7) regardless of economic status. Providing an excellent library service is far more than stamping books: it is varied, important and has a positive impact on both staff and students.
 Learning Resources in Schools, Library Association Guidelines for School Libraries (1992).
 Hirsch, E.D. ‘Why Knowledge Matters’, Harvard Education Press, 2016. P.83
As first published in Leading Change – The journal of the Leading Edge network.