Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Book Review of The innovative school librarian

Stella Thebridge reviews the second edition of a collaborative text offering a strategic approach to the leadership of school libraries.

The format of this second edition is apparently similar to that of the first (2009), with the regular use of short scenarios or ‘vignettes’. The first of these heads the preface, and others are then used frequently within each chapter to illustrate new subjects. This approach is designed to increase the readability of the text (in which it succeeds) while aiming to offer examples of ‘real-life’ everyday situations for those managing libraries in secondary schools. The contributors note that the vignettes are drawn from comments and queries on the popular School Librarian Network, and this gives them a ring of authenticity.

That the opening vignette is actually the same as that used in the preface to the first edition, is noted by the writers as evidencing the lack of real change in the sector in terms of the school library manager’s role. While circumstances have changed in librarianship, in education and politically and socially, the authors note that there is still a focus for many school librarians on the resources and day-to-day management of the library rather than the broader contribution of the librarian to teaching and learning in the school, and that this can be exacerbated by the views of others as to the library role in school. This means that the librarian’s contribution to school life, in terms both of pupils’ development and achievement and support for teaching, instead of receiving the recognition due, can be seen as irrelevant or becomes subsumed into the work of departments.

This book tries to offer ways to support those librarians, most of whom are working solo, and, even where there might be a colleague working as an assistant, there is unlikely to be another at the same professional level except in the largest state schools / academies or in parts of the independent sector. The book has three main sections, each further subdivided into three chapters. The contents list shows each of these subdivisions with their own six to eight subject headings.

The three main sections are as follows:

  1. Who is the librarian?
  2. Your community: from perceptions to practice
  3. Moving forward.

The first examines the professionalism of school librarians today and their self-perceptions, the way others might view the role, and ways of bridging the gap between the two.

In terms of the view looking in on the librarian, there is mention of the students themselves and school staff, of course, and also parents and governors. There is brief discussion (p30) of external bodies with a wider remit, not just national and local government or those who might make inspections in school, but some of the national bodies like The Reading Agency and the National Literacy Trust, who might make pronouncements which affect the view of libraries in schools. Any of these bodies might, whether involuntarily or not, undermine the role or status of libraries either by perpetuating a view that is not borne out by research or simply by omitting to mention them at all. This potential problem is not emphasised here, and while this is addressed to a certain extent in Part 3 of the book, it is important that professional librarians in any sector understand that they have to keep abreast of reports and research findings and promote or challenge them both within school and with professional colleagues.

This leads to another concern that does not appear to be fully addressed in this book, which is, as the audience is predominantly solo workers, that these understand the need for and power of networking with colleagues not only in their immediate area but more widely and across sectors too.

Linked to this is the apparent lack of any mention of Schools’ Library Services (SLSs) except in a brief reference to a SLS newsletter in Appendix 4 (p162) (I searched thoroughly for this). I must declare an interest, of course, but it seems a shame that this network does not appear to merit a few sentences. SLSs have been lending books and other resources in bulk to schools for many years, and nowadays usually operate as traded (subscription) services within public library or education departments, or, increasingly with museum and heritage services where these offer similar resource loans. While there are some authorities where there is no longer a SLS, many do still exist, and these often trade with schools in surrounding local authorities if these no longer offer such a service. So, many secondary school librarians have this service available to them, which not only offers the facility for loans to be made directly into the school library, but SLS staff also offer advice, maintenance and makeover work, CPD programmes and regular network meetings for the school librarians in their area (whether or not they are signed up to the loan services of the SLS). This network is crucial to the participants and complements others in existence, for example through the wider regions of the School Library Association and CILIP-SLG.

Again, a vignette in the “Inspiration” section of Moving forward (Part 3) quotes a school librarian getting together with a couple of neighbouring schools to run a book award (p113). Many SLSs already run these and can take away the burden of organising as well as sorting the reading of the books to choose the shortlist. Many more schools can be involved in an authority-wide award, and thereby SLSs create economies of scale and a much bigger final celebration and consequent greater buzz for the students. A mention of these and those run in some authorities by public library services, or wider “City Reads” initiatives, for example, would have been helpful.

While it could be said that the first two parts of the book set the scene and the final part gives ideas for moving forward, the use of the vignettes means that in most cases the discussion and ideas run through the whole book. It does mean that the reader benefits from reading the whole text rather than dipping in and out, and the index is not comprehensive for the latter. That the book should be read through in this way is also intention of the authors as stated on p xi. There are seven appendices which vary in length and maybe also usefulness. I struggled with the meaning of Appendix 1 and could not find reference to it back in the text as to why it was included.

Appendix 7 is a lengthy extract from a work about change management, which basically lists three steps: initiation, implementation and incorporation. It did not appear to give much fresh insight to the process of change or innovation. The book speaks at the end of innovation being at the heart of what librarians must do in school (as indicated in the book’s title), yet other parts of the book make it clear that, while there have already been innovative, imaginative, enterprising librarians, supported in their schools with Head of Department or even Assistant Head status, contributing meaningfully to teaching and learning, and respected for their power to change young people’s lives, as a whole we are no nearer dispelling the physical stereotypes of librarians (p34), just as in libraries generally there is still the tiresome myth that they are places of enforced quiet where librarians always say ‘Shush’.

It is not clear how widely this will be read by school librarians for several reasons: firstly, the book is expensive for individuals, even with a CILIP member’s discount, and most purchases would be for single use in schools where budgets are already low. How many school librarians will be able to catch sight of it? Secondly, while there are some helpful ideas, more experienced librarians will know much of the background already. They may also find some of the stories in the vignettes too good to be true. When faced with their own situation and experience it just will not be possible for them to break past a key manager in school who has no interest in the library, and reading some of these scenarios which show ‘quick fixes’ or ‘easy wins’ may just add to their sense of helplessness. Thirdly, there is a sense that this book is trying to promote the professionalism of school librarians in terms of librarianship graduate or post-graduate degrees as the benchmark for success in the role. While professionalism is not an unreasonable goal, this emphasis is practically not helpful for those who are managing school libraries well, though on pay-scales that do not reflect the professionalism of their work, or, conversely, where they are achieving good results and working well in school, yet with graduate or post-graduate qualifications in disciplines other than librarianship or information science.

This particular section of the library community might feel better served by other publications, e.g. from the School Library Association, who produce a range of very practical guides to specific areas of day-to-day school library management. If the format used here, with the vignettes, were divided up similarly, with less of the background information and more of the practical examples, this might represent better value than the present text as it is presented and priced. The work that relates specifically to innovation could then stand out and be used by those who really need this boost to their work. Most of the background as it currently stands will either be known by readers or can be gained elsewhere, especially through the existing informal networks (online and face to face). The ‘nitty-gritty’ might be more usefully distilled into a leaner and more practical handbook.