Looking Back @ 3 Strategies for a First-Time School Librarian

Looking Back @ 3 Strategies for a First-Time School Librarian - To succeed as a first-time School Librarian, we need to learn everything about our library and school, listen to everyone and ask questions, and leave everything alone until we know what needs to change!August 2000. My transition from Classroom to School Library. I’m still a Teacher, but I now have a huge classroom with a mind-boggling array of resources. I need to provide lessons to every student in the school at every grade level but I have no curriculum guide and no class schedule. How do I begin?

If you are a new School Librarian, perhaps you feel as overwhelmed as I did when I first walked into my School Library. Combining my memories as a new teacher, my ideas from library courses, and my innate need for organization, I decided on 3 strategies for a first-time School Librarian: learn everything, listen to everyone, leave things as they are (for awhile).

Learn Everything About the Library & the School!

Snip of Library Layout - Making detailed diagrams of everything in your School Library is the smartest "first step" you can take as a new School Librarian.I’m a “stuff” person. I need to know what I have and where it’s located so I can get it when I need it. Thus, my first task upon entering my school library was to learn what was on every shelf and inside every cupboard and drawer. Because I knew I wouldn’t remember it all, I used a clipboard of blank paper to draw diagrams and I began in the librarian’s office, moved to the circulation desk, then to the workroom, on to adjoining rooms (which I discovered were a video broadcast studio and booth), and then to the main library space. It took a couple days, but I now had an extensive set of diagrams to tell me everything about the physical library facility. I took the sheets home and recreated my library layout—labeled and color-coded—on computer spreadsheets and I continued to use and modify that same document for the next 13 years. It was the smartest “first step” I could have taken as a new School Librarian because already I knew:

  • what was barcoded and what wasn’t, but needed to be (a “task” for my checklist)
  • purchase orders sent but items not yet received or processed (another task for my checklist)
  • resource and technology items likely to be checked out by teachers at the start of school (another checklist task)
  • available library supplies for various needs (a guide to how the previous librarian had managed the library)
  • the extent of Fiction, Dewey, and Reference resources in the collection  (a guide for where to concentrate my new purchases)
  • teacher-collaborated library lessons given by the previous librarian (a guide to “library-friendly” teachers and probable lessons to schedule)
  • ideas and materials I could use to establish my own teaching and management style (a separate Checklist of Possibilities!)

My next step was to explore all the files and applications on the librarian computer workstations to see what the previous librarian had done—which extended my knowledge of her management and lessons—and I rearranged files into folders according to my own organizational style.

As a new faculty member I’d been given a map of the school, so after obtaining permission and a master key from the principal I went through the school—with my trusty clipboard—and identified all the technology and resources that were “library barcoded” in each room. I found technology items that had been delivered to the school but were still in boxes and hadn’t been processed, along with library items in classrooms that weren’t checked out (more tasks for my checklist). During my school “tour” I also identified subordinate technology hubs to the main tech hub in the library workroom. Having such extensive knowledge of every part of the school is a real advantage:

  • technicians entering the school are sent to the library so I’m always aware of tech issues or implementations and I can plan new tech lessons for students and colleagues;
  • district workers carry my name back to their departments as the “go-to” person at my school;
  • I can answer building questions no one else can so I’m invited to be on planning committees;
  • before classroom purchases are made, teachers check with me to see if we already have the same or similar items, thus saving time and money.

Knowing exactly what I had in my school and my library gave me so much confidence! I’d have an answer for any question or request, and I could maximize my time and money. In short, during my first week I was already becoming an “indispensable” School Librarian!

Listen to Everyone and Ask Questions! 

Listening and Asking QuestionsIf I could give only one suggestion to an incoming new School Librarian it would be, “Become a trusted colleague of the School Secretary, the Head Custodian, and the Food Services Manager!” These folks are a key source of information about the way the school functions, and if we treat them with the respect they so rightly deserve, they will answer our questions and help us become even better at our own job, often doing something for us that they don’t do for anyone else. Just remember to return the favors!

As the school year progresses, welcome district personnel and visitors into the library and, if possible, give them respectful and undivided attention, asking as many questions about their situation as possible. A good impression carries throughout a community and suddenly one day, someone you’ve never met greets you, knows who you are, and wants to help you accomplish something to benefit your students!

Our main purpose as a School Librarian is to support classroom instruction, so we must communicate and collaborate with teachers. On the first PD day in the library at the start of school, I was introduced as the new School Librarian, and I asked my colleagues 2 questions:

  1. Is the School Library meeting your needs for classroom instruction?
  2. What can I do as a School Librarian to help you with classroom instruction?

I’d already placed brightly-colored 3×5 index cards on the tables so I could ask colleagues to write down at least one suggestion for the School Library and one suggestion for the School Librarian. By the end of that day I knew what had been working, what hadn’t been working, and some new directions to take the School Library, all of which I added to my “Possibilities Checklist” (see first step above). That initial appeal for cooperation led many teachers to seek my input on library visits and lessons throughout the rest of the school year, and my continued willingness to ask questions and listen to suggestions helped build a solid reputation as a valuable collaborative partner!

Leave the Library As It Is Until You Know What It Needs!

Underneath the anxiety, a new School Librarian feels adventurous, itching to implement exciting ideas from library courses! I had created my “Possibilities Checklist” and added suggestions from teachers, but I was wise enough to decide: Don’t Change Anything Yet!

  • A physical arrangement may not make sense until a large group is moving around.
  • Seemingly frivolous policies and procedures may actually facilitate best use of the library.
  • Environment or activities may be crucial to lessons or established teacher and student expectations.
  • Real needs can’t be anticipated in a vacuum—the library must be “in use” to know what works and what doesn’t!

A School Library really belongs to the students and we need to experience the “school culture” of students, to discover their attitudes and needs for their school library. I arranged library visits with ELA teachers for the second week of school and interacted with students as much as possible. By the end of that week I could see how the facility functions for individual students, for classes and teachers, and for the School Librarian, and I had greater appreciation for collaborating with teachers by first discovering what they were doing in the classroom.

I had to modify my “Possibilities Checklist” many times as I worked with teachers and students during scheduled and informal library visits. As a clearer picture of needs developed, I slowly began making changes to improve library use, including completely swapping the location of Fiction and Reference and creating new descriptive signage. In January I persuaded ELA teachers to visit the library for a ‘review’ library orientation and everyone loved the changes I’d made.

In my district we were expected to spend 1/2 our library book budget by the middle of December. Since I was a newbie librarian, I was able to obtain permission to wait until January to purchase books, and I’m so glad I did. Here is what I did—and what you can do—during the 1st semester to maximize the value of book purchases for students, teachers, and classrooms:

  • Shelve returned books nearly every day to become intimately familiar with the library collection.
  • Run circulation reports every few weeks to see what’s popular with each grade level.
  • Note how the location of books affects what students (and teachers) are browsing and choosing.
  • Run comparison reports of the library collection with other same-grade-level schools to learn what’s popular in the community.
  • Throughout the semester generate “To Purchase” lists for Fiction, Dewey, Biography, and teacher materials on vendor online ordering sites.

My POs were finally sent out, and a couple months later, two pallets stacked high with boxes of books appeared outside the library doors. Our entire school was buzzing with excitement to come visit the library, and as fast as I unpacked boxes, students checked out the new books! My circulation statistics soared and I could always put a great book into a student’s hands.

What I Know Now …

I’ve had jobs in and outside education during my nearly 5 decades of adulthood, and I’ve met many new employees who think they’ve been hired to revolutionize the industry; they come in like gangbusters, trying to change everything without really putting in the time to learn anything. Thanks to my Dad’s never-forgotten advice, I begin every new position by asking questions, listening to others, and learning all I can before I offer any suggestions for change. That attitude helped me become a valued employee at every job I’ve had, including being a School Librarian. If I could have a do-over, I wouldn’t do anything differently.

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