Or, Great Expectations

“Hitting the ground running” is probably a phrase everyone who works, or has worked, in a school knows well. Whether spoken out loud or not. Plans for the new school year start long before the start of summer. But when September rolls around, it’s always all hands on deck. Learning starts on day one, and it’s a great time to set expectations for the rest of the year. Getting your library ready and setting plans in place now will help a great deal.

Now, I’ve never liked that word when applying it to one person by another. But I do have expectations of myself and a place. In my case, the school library. To ensure a library space has the most impact, it needs to be looked after throughout the year. Only then will expectations be met.

If you build it, they will come… but if you don’t look after it, they won’t stay very long. Although this worked out for Kevin Costner, you don’t want a library full of the ghosts of once-motivated readers. The danger in this is that leaders are scrambling for the next fad. These act as nothing but a seance where spirits make contact, then decide it’s not worth committing to a decent conversation.

But getting your library ready now will help give your library spaces a high profile. You can then justify the expectation they will promote books and reading as soon as the doors open in September. To get the ball rolling, we want to suggest some things to start considering now. And to ensure you don’t spend the whole of next year asking, “is there anybody there?”

(For clarity, I use the term librarian to mean someone who works in a library. When I mean someone qualified, I state this separately.)

I’m going to try and be as inclusive as possible. It shouldn’t matter whether a school is lucky enough to have a fully designed, dedicated library or not. What I would say is that a librarian is more important than a library. Seriously. In a perfect world, each school would have a dedicated space with a librarian. Although if I had to pick one or the other, I would go for a passionate, knowledgeable human every time.

If there isn’t a dedicated room or area, you can display books just about anywhere. Wall shelves in corridors, outside classrooms, inside classrooms, in school halls (I don’t know why I don’t see this. The one room where the whole school gathers for assemblies and lunch but has zero books. Go figure). But you do need someone to maintain these, keep them fresh, visible and exciting. A librarian also doesn’t have to be confined to a room of books. Although our safe, natural habitat, becoming a visible presence around the school will raise their profile and, therefore the books. 

There’s no getting around the quality stock. At this time of year, I will audit the books we have. Then make sure these cover all areas of the school’s curriculum. I’m lucky to have an excellent school library service whom I can trust to send a good selection. These are books which will support learning so that I can guarantee their need and usefulness. School libraries are much more than the curriculum, though. Looking beyond, it’s important to have a wider selection of nonfiction, fiction, poetry etc. Set aside money for requests that might come up later or new releases which are ‘must haves’. 

It’s a tragedy every council doesn’t offer a School Library Service. If yours does not, then even more care must go into the books you’re buying. At Just Imagine, we offer support to schools developing their libraries – all of the pictures in the blog are from Rodings Primary School in Essex, just one of the many schools we have been delighted to work with over the years.

Our partner bookseller, Best Books for Schools, only carries books they believe benefit readers and schools, so do make this your first port of call when making purchases. The selection is wide-ranging and includes books to entice the most reluctant of readers as well as books to support the curriculum and wider reading interests. A broad range of curated easy purchase packs are offered to help save time, though you can of course, select your own books to tailor your collections. A bespoke service is offered to schools that need a tailored approach. You can get in touch by e-mail assistant@justimagine.co.uk

As well as getting your library ready, you need a ready librarian too. A qualified one in every school would be incredible, but it all comes down to how you envisage the role. Knowledge of books, writers, and illustrators, a genuine love of reading and wanting to share that is more valuable than an official qualification. However, continuous development is essential. Just Imagine’s Summer Schools programme, author events and Book Blasts all count. The School Library Association (SLA) also does incredible work supporting unqualified librarians.

Something which seems quite small, but also very important are signs and displays. These are something that also needs thinking about before September. However, a sign also needs pointing out. I’m not suggesting a sign needs a sign. Because then that sign will also need a sign, which will also need… ad infinitum. What I mean is that most children won’t take notice of them unless you show them. One of my long-term goals is to create independent library users who choose when and how they use it. But you need to show children how and let them know they can.

This links in with another point, which I’m quite stubborn about. There are caveats, though, as I will admit it might not work for every school. Nevertheless, it’s something well worth considering. Abolishing timetabled class library slots. Honestly, I hate them. Some work. Most don’t. Library size and location, class size, year group, books available, staff, and staff attitude to a library slot. Think about all these before assuming it’s the only way a primary school library can be used for lending books.

A great alternative is getting your library ready to open after school, every day if possible. This encourages parental engagement, independence, intrinsically motivated readers, and chances for amazing book talk. Older children will recommend books to younger ones. Parents chat with each other and their children about books. Opportunities for staff to talk to parents and children present themselves too. I’ve been able to get to know children as readers more and more over the years. It also means encouraging readers to use it at times throughout the day if children are unable to go after school.

This then links once again with something else. It might seem dull, but at this time of year, I also pay more attention to the data collected on the library system. This is another advantage to stopping class library slots and encouraging the alternative. For example, If everyone in the school takes out a book every week, the data collected is largely useless. It won’t show you the motivated readers who simply love reading, and it won’t show you who you need to target.

Library software isn’t just for scanning books in and out. Cataloguing books properly is also something to consider. Using a computer to search for books is a beneficial skill when pupils leave primary school. This is an ongoing task, but I’m updating keywords and fields for all the books. It means a search for ‘loss’ or ‘climate’, amongst others, will send users to different areas of the library. And perhaps make them pick up a book they hadn’t considered. This is of great use to staff too.

In one way or another, if you clicked on this article, you’re taking books seriously. This isn’t a definitive list to preparing your library, but just some things to consider for the new school year. I will keep saying: is there a better way of doing this? And I don’t mean swapping a seance table for a ouija board. Although, I will recant this if you’re able to summon a passionate and knowledgeable librarian.

You may also be interested in these resources:

The Great School Libraries Campaign

Nikki Gamble invited Alison Tarrant and Mary Rose Grieve, joint chairs of The Great School Libraries Campaign, to talk about building a case for school libraries.

Voices from the Classroom: The Great School Libraries Campaign

Reviewing Your School Library

Here is the slide presentation we used at a recent staff meeting. You may find it useful for stimulating discussion in your own school. And we have assembled some key documents that might be useful

Exploring Children’s Literature Summer School

If you are passionate about children’s books and interested in developing your own knowledge and understanding, you might like to join our community of like-minded teachers and librarians as we explore 5 themes on the topic Image and Design in Children’s Books. Nikki Gamble and Mary Rose Grieve will lead workshops, and there will be input from special guests.

Find out more and book your place