School Librarians Revealed: Part 1 – Book Fairies and Golden Tamarins

On 21 January 2009, SCBWI Central East Region and the Ipswich Children’s Book Group held a joint meeting at Broke Hall School (Ipswich) to hear from two Suffolk schools librarians. Jayne Gould and Alison Baker were kind enough to come and talk about themselves and their libraries.

A Tale of Two Libraries: how different school libraries work

The Stoke High School Library operates from a single room, but is a school library and a public branch library. It has two sets of staff (one for each function) and two sets of stock, although the stamped school stock is interfiled. The library has set opening times for the public, outside school hours, although it is not unusual for the public to forget. The school benefits from access to the county library service (and can order from other libraries) as well as closer ties with the local community (who benefit from having a public library where it might not otherwise exist). It also embodies lifelong learning to pupils as many ex-students come back to use the library.

Alison Baker is the Stoke High School librarian and has worked there for over 10 years. She started as a branch librarian before moving to the school side when they needed a chartered librarian.

Broke Hall School Library is not shut away in a separate room, but part of a school thoroughfare so most children pass through it every day. It has grown alongside the expansion of the school (which now has over 600 children) and has had a librarian, Jayne Gould, since 2000 (she was previously a children’s bookseller at the Ancient House, Ipswich).

The library has over 15,000 books on its catalogue and is one of the largest school libraries in Suffolk. It is one of the few that has a dedicated librarian, a role that in many libraries often combined with another post (such as teacher or teaching assistant) or taken by a parent volunteer.

Book Fairies: How Books Appear on the Shelves

Both librarians listen to what students ask for – suggestion cards are also used for students to write down books, authors or topics they want stocked. Children need feel they have ownership of the library and are encouraged to talk about what they read. The librarians also target staff in order to encourage them to use the library more (and, of course, prioritise requests made by teachers).

Pupils talk to each other about the books they read, so that often filters through to requests for stock. Children are often influenced by the display in Waterstone’s or WH Smith, especially if they come from a family of keen readers. In the high school, Tesco is often cited in requests as the pupils see books while they are shopping with their families. Hobbies also influence the types of books that children ask for.

Authors’ visits have a very profound effect on borrowing which extends far beyond the few weeks after their visit, for example, even a year after her visit to Stoke High School, Anne Cassidy’s books continue to be in great demand (there is already a long waiting list for her new book).

Film and TV adaptations have a huge influence too. They often draw in new readers and encourage existing readers to challenge themselves with longer books. Adaptations are also a powerful motivation for a reader who is not used to reading longer books, for example, Eragon by Christopher Paolini was borrowed by many students who ordinarily wouldn’t have borrowed a book of that size. Stoke High School library was so overwhelmed by the demand for books in the Twilight series (by Stephenie Meyer) many students decided in the end to just buy the books. High School Musical books always sell in high numbers at the Scholastic Book Clubs.

The greatest challenge is keeping up-to-date with what is being published. A lot of decisions about stock are made on the basis of reviews and children’s books magazines (like Carousel – Jayne’s background as a bookseller and membership of the local Children’s Book Group has proved invaluable.

Gaps in stocks are always highlighted when students undertake individual or group projects on “what interests them.” Alison tries to suggest students pick their projects only after they’ve looked on the shelves. But students still challenge the libraries with eclectic or esoteric requests, for example, books on boxing, or slugs and snails. When projects are about exotic animals, reference works can be hard to source, for example, books on Golden Tamarins. Jayne also helps collate orders for the school library service, so is very aware of what topics are covered and where they might be a need for new stock.

Ultimately, librarians seem to work on gut instinct and knowing the children in their school. Budgets are obviously an issue and some creativity is needed in building up stocks, for example, feeding in commission from book fairs and adding the occasional review copy to the library.

Coming soon – Part 2: Keepers of Books. Watch this blog!