Tag Archives: young people

School library pupil helpers & volunteers

2 Dec

Volunteering in libraries has become a contentious issue in the profession, especially since many areas in England try to replace professionally staffed public libraries with co-called “community libraries” staffed by volunteers.

As per usual I approach this from a school library perspective, and a Scottish one at that. Bear in mind at least until recently (I don’t know what the current picture is) the vast majority of school libraries in Scotland were professionally staffed. I was just reading Lauren Smith’s blog about volunteering  which makes some excellent points. My perspective on volunteers is very similar. As a person who took on volunteers I have a few things to add.

As a school librarian, pupil volunteers were an absolute godsend. I would highly recommend taking on pupil volunteers. Running lunchtime opening is just a million times calmer and fun with help. I had volunteers from S2 (2nd year of Secondary school) to S6, and they helped with item issues and returns, shelving, making book displays. They were my “go-to” instant focus group for ideas I had for the library. I found the School Library Association ‘Pupil Librarian Toolkit’ handy (it is on their website but accessible to members only – http://www.sla.org.uk/advice-and-support.php). But I do significantly diverge from the approach it recommends. Essentially, the SLA toolkit recommends advertising the role, looking for pupils with various skills and qualities, interviews etc.

My perspective is that having pupil volunteers is not principally for MY benefit, as a school librarian, it is for the PUPILS benefit. So, I actually look for who would benefit from the experience. Yes, they have to show an interest, but beyond that, what is the function of a school if not to furnish pupils with skills and experience? Being a pupil volunteer is a great way to gain confidence speaking to people, working in a team, patience, and of getting some practical experience in a real, working library at the same time.

Bearing this in mind, when I was a school librarian, I ran a training scheme for my library volunteers. This was outside of library opening time & meant everyone could get together as a team. Using the SLA pupil toolkit, I would draft a job description, and we would look at it together and modify it until me and the volunteers were happy with it. We would then do a little skills audit, so I had a good picture of which parts volunteers had confidence in and where training was needed. We might do some teambuilding games or some enquiry roleplaying. Sometimes I had things I needed to make them aware of, such as privacy issues with people’s book loans, so we even did a smidge of library ethics. It depended completely on what the volunteers needed to learn. Other weeks, we would do activities like identifying the transferable skills they were gaining from volunteering. I felt it was important for the volunteers to be aware of these skills and qualities, so that they could make the most of them when applying for jobs or college later. We also participated in the Millennium Volunteer Award scheme, so their hours could count towards a certificate. The SLA also sent me some beautifully smart thank you letters for the pupils to keep. In return, I also felt very protective of my volunteers, for example, I expected pupils to be polite and respectful to my volunteers, and anything less was not acceptable! On the rare occasion where a volunteer gets hassled, be there to back them up, make sure they know you are absolutely there for them. After all, they are giving up their lunchtime to help. They deserve to feel safe and valued, just as they deserve training for the skills they need for the job.

I think pupil volunteers in school libraries are important. I think school libraries are in a great position to give some youngsters work experience and training. Being a library volunteer can give a young person a chance to shine, a chance to experience something different, a different way to be learning, to be experiencing success, to contribute to the school community. I mention this because I wonder if my experience could inform the debate on volunteers in other library sectors. I have done volunteering in the past, as a student I did various things, and that experience was very valuable to me. Right now, I would not do volunteer library work, I think it would be counter-productive and only encourage a ‘race to the bottom’ for salaries and enough library posts have been lost already. Rather than seeing volunteers as an opportunity to get a quasi-professional on the (very!) cheap, we should ask ourselves, how can we make volunteering of value to volunteers? Who would benefit from volunteering experience?

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Shh, don’t attract attention!

15 Sep

I am discovering that writing about censorship is really hard. How to talk about…what we don’t talk about? The whole point of this blog is to make more noise about what librarians do, to make the argument for an undervalued profession. Not just making the case to others, but for fellow professionals. Where is our collective voice? Teachers or nurses don’t seem to have a problem kicking up a fuss when some new policy or curriculum etc is detrimental to their work. And I still think overall, we need to be doing this.

However, I have been thinking about censorship in school libraries, after reading about authors of YA novels being asked to ‘straighten’ gay characters by literary agents, and joining in the subsequent #YesGayYA debate on twitter. A year ago, I blogged about searching for and providing LGBT themed teen fiction. No wonder it is hard to find this material, if it never even makes it to a publisher!

In my experience, school libraries can cater for the 11-16 age group better than any public library service. The impression I have is that a good school library has more YA fiction in stock than a branch public library. The teen fiction section in a public library is a bit of a niche, whereas it is the bread and butter of school libraries. Plus, public libraries and also bookshops seem to underestimate the age range materials will appeal to which is why I dislike age-banding on books so much. Maybe they work fine for kids who frequent book shops and read a lot, for the school population as a whole, absolutely way off. Way, way off!

Anyway, I digress! The point is, a lot of people have something to say about what is or isn’t suitable for an 11 year-old. People are a lot more reluctant to tell a 16, 17 or 18 year old what they can or can’t read. School libraries straddle that age gap. I’ve been fortunate to not face many challenges to materials but absolutely it happens all the time, and not just in Bible Belt America. We just don’t talk about it very much and tend to deal with issues one book or one incident at a time. I think the (unspoken) rationale might be that to draw attention to library services too much might invite more intrusion.

There have been times when I have dithered over whether or not to withdraw or stock a book and part of that is being aware of being against censorship. Sometimes it is even an self-censorship to avoid controversy. Whoever sanctioned the title and cover (someone sticking up two fingers) for Bali Rai’s ‘Politics – Cutting Through the Crap’ should have spared a thought for school librarians! Yes they want that book to appeal to teenagers, and I’m pretty sure it would, and what with libraries being a cornerstone of democracy nothing would make me happier than getting teenagers getting informed. But could it be just a little bit less sweary on the cover? I want to get the information to the kids…I don’t want to be stopped by teachers or parents.

I suppose this is how not really talking about censorship is itself a part of our professional stance against it. I know some school librarians were quietly ignoring ‘section 28’ while it was in place, for example (Section 28 was a UK law which forbid local authorities from “promoting” homosexuality. It was repealed in 2000). To have ignored it loudly could have lead to censorship so being ‘noisy’ would have actually lead to library materials being withdrawn. The whole issue is very tricky. Maybe we should never speak of it again, forget I said anything…

…or perhaps we need to act collectively, so that we know that when an individual librarian in a school somewhere is being pressured to take a totally age-appropriate book about sex or relationships or whatever it may be, we back each other up as a profession as a whole. Which would mean CILIP or other equivalents putting some work into our professional ethics and standards. Which is a topic for another time…

Teenage fickleness, PVC and Doctor Who

22 Nov

Noisy Librarians

As we all know, trying to be cool is deeply un-cool. Anyone trying to get through to teenagers is basically navigating a minefield of deadly ‘lame’ to reach a tiny patch of solid gold ‘cool’.

You think you are doing so well and then, boom! You get some crucial vocabulary wrong (“Hey kids, I know you’re all on your ‘Spacebook’ and ‘Myface’, but check out this website about studying for exams!”) or something that was cool last week is now incredibly lame. Your credibility is in tatters!

Teenage trends come and go at a rapid pace. Library budget planning tends to work on an annual basis. For libraries in secondary schools this age group is our bread and butter, yet budgets are tight. Is it possible to keep up with the ‘latest thing’?

Last week a pupil came in after school, and headed to the same fiction section as always. When he emerged without a book I asked

“Did you not find a Doctor Who book?”

He shrugged.

“I guess I’m just not interested in reading stories about David Tennant’s Doctor any more.”

Now, I’m known around school as a bit of Doctor Who geek. I tend to find out who the fans are. It’s a show that appeals across generations. But this fickleness took me by surprise. Of course it shouldn’t have done. David Tennant isn’t on our TV screens as the Doctor any more. He’s last year, he’s ancient history! David who?!

And yet my heart sank. I don’t have money for more Doctor Who books right now. I already have quite a few, is it really fair anyway to spend more on something only a few people really enjoy? How quickly are going to go out of fashion?

The same dilemma faces us everyday. High School Musical books are still popular right now, but for how long? Is Hannah Montana still cool? I bought so many copies of the Twilight Saga books the shelves are bursting, yet when another film comes out, interest surges and I can’t keep up with demand.

Popular culture resources might burn out fast but they burn bright – for a short time they are very popular. I try to balance cost against durability. Bargains are out there – discount bookshops, sales: I spotted WHSmiths were selling Twilight for £1 so stocked up; I buy Guinness World Record books in the sales instead of when they first come out. If they are cheaper, I can buy 2 or 3. The kids have to wait slightly longer but there are more to go around.

CILIP’s ‘Start with the Child’ report is one of those resources I go back to repeatedly. It puts into words things librarians instinctively knew, but backs it up with solid research. The report talks about “youth culture” as distinct from “culture” in general. Youth culture emphasizes music, fashion, consumer goods, technology and informality; it is fun, participative, well presented and accessible (cheap!). To meet the needs of this age group, libraries need to emulate these qualities. It recognises that this is challenging, and anticipating trends is difficult

“Libraries find it more difficult to respond with credibility to popular culture but ignoring it runs the risk of alienating young people”. (Page 64, CILIP, ‘Start with the Child’, London, 2002)

So we keep on trying in all areas: library appearance, planning, accessibility (avoiding use of charges, for example).

I don’t mean to say that we should only stock biographies of Justin Bieber – I think I could lend about 200 of those right now! Libraries need be places where people can access a wide range of cultural and literary resources. I also feel that the young people are pretty relentlessly advertised to, and that their choices can sometimes be based on which brands are cool, and wanting to be associated with that brand. Of course librarians don’t judge! But I think it is good to avoid getting too caught up in hype over a ‘brand’. Otherwise are we actually doing the work of the advertising agencies? Is that really offering children and young people a real choice?

Last week I tried a variation on Carel Press’s reading game. I always run this game as part of S1 Inductions where it is great because it works for all ability groups – just swap around the books you use. Last week, I did a version with an S2 class, in which every single book was a “classic”. My condition for including books in this exercise was that they had to have an attractive cover. New editions of Pride and Prejudice, Little Women, the Jungle Book, The Lost World etc, went down pretty well.

Obviously “classic” is a debatable term, and I did include some “modern classics”. But that meant we could have a class discussion about what makes a “classic”. We talked about films or TV adaptations; we looked at the few titles which were in older editions, chatted about what difference the cover makes. Funnily enough, no one borrowed an old edition at the end. So being ‘well-presented’ really works.

Maybe sometimes I try too hard. I was helping a pupil choose a book recently, and as I took one off the shelf to show him, it made that sticky peeling sound from when books in PVC covers have been sat squished together.

“Woah, that’s a really bad sign, no one’s borrowed that book for ages!” he said.

I was indignant! This was a Young Bond book, not some dusty old thing! But I did wonder…so later I spent a spare few minutes separating books to get rid of that ‘sticky’ sound. Of course when I tested them again a few days later the sticky sound was back….so now I know I can honestly say that doesn’t mean a book hasn’t been borrowed in ages. Or does a few days or weeks mean ‘ages’ if you are 11? Perhaps it does! Maybe eventually I should swap to another kind of cover…and so the struggle continues!

Back to the Doctor Who books: I know I shouldn’t, but I donated some of my own (like I said, I’m a fan!). They haven’t been borrowed by anyone yet. Epic fail??