Having worked in a school library for only 18 months during my career I can honestly say that it was one of the most challenging times of my working life. The senior leadership team wanted me there because a 'school should have a school library' but had very little idea about what I could do beyond issuing and returning books and probably worse, were willing to pay me just to do that. Every time I suggested a change I met with resistance... not within my library walls, if I wanted to run a book club or book awards that was fine, but trying to engage within the curriculum was a very big problem. I was often asked why we needed to do something differently and the old adage of 'if something is not broken why fix it?' rang true...
My problem was that I had qualifications that enabled me to do an exciting and engaging job. I had worked hard for those qualifications and wanted to use my talents and brain to engage my students and teachers in how a great school library could enhance teaching and learning. I soon began to realise that this was never going to happen, I had no chance of promotion, no chance of being treated as an equal to teaching staff, and no chance of feeling fulfilled in my role. But yes they paid me well but it was not enough. Going to work every day to sit in a room full of books and talk to the few students who liked the library was just not enough and I know that I am not the only school librarian ever to feel this way.
Luckily for me, it didn't last, I was able to move jobs and had a fulfilling career that enabled me to stay working with school libraries but at a distance... walking away from those schools that didn't understand what I could do and focusing on those I had a chance of making a difference in, was a great feeling. Working with a team of people who were supportive and as engaged as I was made a huge difference to my ability to make a difference even when things were hard. My role in supporting school librarians long term is founded on my experience and I am sad that there are still incredible school librarians being treated the way I was all those years ago.
Where is the problem?
It might sound great, get paid to issue and return books and nothing more... however, if you were a teacher would you be happy if the senior leadership only expected you to sit in the classroom with your students and not teach them? This would possibly be great for a couple of months, it would be a lovely break wouldn't it, but then imagine how you would feel? Long days of doing the most uninspiring admin, oh yes you are still expected to do the boring stuff, not just sit and talk to the children let's give you marking to do... not your own but someone else's... that will keep you busy, engaged and motivated won't it?
Now on top of this imagine not having any other teachers to talk to either, they see your role in the classroom as not as important as theirs and have no time to waste talking to you. You might be lucky and get to talk to some of the teachers at breaktime but you have now been told that you have to stay in your classroom and supervise your students and are allowed your break after everyone else's... You are now alone in a school, in your classroom doing a job you hate because you know you have so much more to give. Sadly this is how many school librarians feel every day...
The sad reality for many school librarians
So why am I telling you this? Recently I have had three very good school librarians tell me how disheartened they are with their roles. One even posted this on X
"Felt a bit disheartened yesterday when several visitors to our school spoke to me in a really patronising tone as if working in a library was ‘soo cute’ How do we alter this perspective and make people realise #schoollibrarians don’t just sit and read books all day?" @verity_robson
What if you can't change jobs?
So I was very lucky, I was in the right place at the right time to be able to move jobs but what happens when you can't? I know a lot of very dedicated school librarians who have said to me recently that they are emotionally and physically demoralised. They feel that after years of fighting for their students, they are still getting nowhere. Senior Leaders don't understand their role, teachers don't understand their role and support from the top of the library profession for school librarians is limited at best.
School librarians have to dig deep, they have to find a way of seeing beyond what is happening around them. We need them not to give up and believe that things will change for the better, knowing that there are people around them who are working hard for change and understand their pain. We need good librarians to continue their professional learning journies, sharing their professional standards and best practices because without them our profession is not just dying it is dead. There is a wind of change and we must have professional librarians in place to be there when it does.
Why keep going?
"The school librarian has a breadth of expertise that can be used to deliver lessons on study skills, critical thinking, online safety, and even professional development for teachers." - Nexus Education
"Fully integrated library programs with certified librarians can boost student achievement and cultivate a collaborative spirit within schools." - Kappanonline.org
"Librarians don’t simply issue books, tidy shelves and supervise students. They need to be managers, have budgeting and negotiating skills, have knowledge of marketing and promotion techniques, and be aware of books and other resources (fiction and non-fiction) available as well as what is due." - Booktrust.org.uk
"Wide and free choice of books is a key motivator for children, and the school librarian is the key to unlocking that choice." - SLA.org.uk
The school librarian designs and teaches engaging inquiry-based learning experiences that incorporate multiple literacies and foster critical thinking.
School librarians are amazing people who play a vital role in creating a culture of reading and inquiry, which is fundamental to the academic achievement and lifelong learning of our students. They are not just book issuers or shelf tidiers, but managers, budgeters, negotiators, and marketing experts who curate a collection of resources that cater to the needs and interests of students.
School librarians are responsible for teaching students how to use the library, delivering lessons on study skills, critical thinking, online safety, and even professional development for teachers. They are champions for equitable access to resources, ensuring that all students have the opportunity to explore diverse perspectives and information.
The mere presence of a librarian is associated with better student outcomes, but what the librarian does also has positive effects. If given the opportunity, they instruct students, plan collaboratively with classroom teachers, provide professional development to teachers, meet regularly with the principal/headteacher, serve on key school leadership committees, and facilitate the use of technology by students and teachers.
School librarians are the heart of the school, providing students with the tools they need to succeed and fostering a love of learning. We should be grateful for everything they do and ensure that they have the support they need going forward.
Call to action
If you are a school librarian reading this please don't feel disheartened, know that you are doing an amazing job and there are people out there who can support you. Find your tribe and be with others going through the same thing.
If you need more support my membership is open to all and you would be very welcome. Find out more here.