9 Tips for New School Librarians!

9 Tips for New School Librarians!

So you’ve been hired as a school librarian? Congratulations! What an exciting moment!

I was hired for my first school librarian position in 2015, and I vividly remember how excited I was. If you’re anything like me, you’re probably already dreaming about all of the things you’ll do, ways you’ll decorate, books you’ll purchase, etc.  You also may be feeling a smidge anxious or nervous. You might be feeling more than a smidge. And that is okay!

We’ve all been there. The position of the school librarian is, in my unbiased opinion, the absolute best job in the world. One of the best things about it, for me anyway, is that the job duties are so diverse and varied, I knew I’d never been bored. Of course, that also means there are a lot of moving parts and different hats. That can be intimidating, especially when you are just starting out.

Below are some things I would recommend to a brand new school librarian for their first year!

#1 – Get a Support Network….Pronto!

Although this job is THE BEST job, it can also be profoundly isolating. Unless you are uncommonly lucky, you are almost certain to be the only librarian in your school. Sometimes you’ll be the only librarian in your district! No one else working with you is likely to have any idea of what you do, and they may not understand the value you bring, how hard you work, or even that you are a teacher too.

If you don’t cultivate a support network, you are likely to burn out. Building relationships with students, teachers, and admin is, of course, a necessary goal, but you’re going to need other librarians as well. You’ll need to connect with people who do the same job as you, since they are the only ones who will truly be able to understand many of the issues you’ll face, and even the things you’ll want to celebrate!

  • How do I find other librarians to connect with?
    • Contact other librarians in your district to seek mentors
    • Reach out to librarians in local districts
    • Join professional associations, especially local ones
    • Use social media to join Professional Learning Communities (such as the Future Ready Librarians Facebook group, Twitter Hashtags #tlchat, #futurereadylibs, #istelib, Instagram hashtags #teacherlibrarian, #schoollibrarian, #schoollibraries)

#2 People First, Books Second

As a brand new librarian, you are probably very excited about all of the “stuff.” Decorations, book displays, book programming, events, comfy furniture, rearranging the space, reorganizing the books, and all the other physical aspects of the job. That’s completely natural! We all felt the same way.

However, the best thing you can do your first year is to consider all of that very exciting stuff to be secondary and to focus primarily on the people and on relationship building. As stated above, the job can be very isolating, so the main focus (to start) should be on getting to know students & staff, and on finding ways of letting THEM get to know YOU. This is critical because, as the librarian, you yourself are the best resource the library has. But if students and staff don’t find you to be accessible and approachable, if they don’t view you as a valuable expert and resource, they won’t come to you for help.

For the first few months, you’ll need to make yourself front and center in the library, highly accessible and visible. So, as hard as it is, try not to get distracted by the books and all the physical stuff at first. Since you probably won’t know anyone at the school, and may feel like an outsider or a bit awkward, maybe even like an imposter (I definitely did!!) you may feel tempted to allow yourself to become distracted and preoccupied by the physical things (weeding, genrefying, reorganizing, decorating, ordering, etc) that don’t require you to interact with staff & students much.

I would encourage you to resist these temptations and to doggedly keep yourself visible, vocal, and accessible for the first few months. The quicker you start working on carving a niche for yourself in the school community, the quicker the awkward, “I’m a newbie” feeling will pass. 

  • How do I position myself as accessible & helpful?
    • Be the first face they see when they enter the library
      • For the first year, I switched seats with my assistant so that I was sitting right next to the door & I was the one checking books out to students. This allowed me to be the one to greet students as they came and went, me to be the one to write passes, and me to be the one to check books out and answer questions. This allowed students to start getting to know me right away.
    • Don’t use your office too much
      • If you are lucky enough to have an office, don’t be in the office 99% of the time. Stay visible and accessible to students.
    • Stay on the move
      • Don’t spend all your time behind the circ desk. Get out and walk around the library often. Interact with students as you walk around.
      • If you have an assistant – don’t spend all your time in the library. Get out and walk around the school occasionally. Pop-in at the office, stop and say high to staff (office, custodial, nurse, counseling, admin, etc). Let them see you and get to know you!
    • Smile & greet
      • It sounds trite, but honestly just be sure you have a pleasant or smiling look on your face. Try to genuinely greet everyone who walks through the door. Look as if you couldn’t be happier to have them walk through the door and let them know you can’t wait to help them.
    • Welcome interruptions
      • Let students and staff know you welcome interruptions and are there to help them. People are often wary of “bothering” us, so always let them know their needs come first.  For example: If you are in the middle of writing an email, and someone looks like they need help, stop writing the email and help the person. People first!

#3 Collaborate, Collaborate, Collaborate

This one sort of speaks to #2, but I cannot stress enough how important it is that you start seeking classroom collaborations immediately. ESPECIALLY if you are on a flex schedule.  I always view myself as a teacher first, librarian second. When you have a flex schedule, it can be very difficult to convince teachers to collaborate with you. Sometimes it’s due to the school culture, sometimes the teachers have not had experience working with a librarian who collaborates, some teachers may not realize you are a teacher, and sometimes teachers are just so busy and overwhelmed. But in order for you to teach your students the extremely important Information Literacy skills they need to succeed in life, you need to have collaborative opportunities. So it’s best to start seeking them as soon as you start.  Because the process of being embraced fully within the department’s various curriculums will likely be slow.

  • How Do I Seek Collaborative Opportunities?
    • Let the staff know you are willing
      • Introduce yourself at the first faculty meeting and include a sentence saying that you can’t wait to collaborate and an invite for staff to reach out to you with their projects and needs.
      • Send newsletters stating you can’t wait to collaborate and invite staff to reach out to you.
      • Sneak it into as many conversations as you can with as many teachers as you can….. just all the time.
    • Let the staff know what kinds of things you can do/teach
      • Creating a “library services” menu can be a great way to communicate what you can and are willing to do.
    • Remind staff often (be visible and vocal)
      • Stay visible and vocal so staff don’t forget about you. Send newsletters regularly, speak at faculty meetings regularly, etc.  Walk the halls, eat lunch in the faculty room, go to department meetings, etc. Most of my collaboration requests come either right after I’ve sent out a newsletter, or when teachers just see me in the hall.  Seeing you or your emails jogs their memory that “oh yeah I’ve been meaning to ask you…..”
    • Share successful collaboration stories widely
      • Once you have a successful collaboration, share the story via newsletters, social media, etc. Share it with your admin. And ask the teacher to share it with their departments.  Usually, once one teacher finds value in you, other teachers jump on board more quickly!

Here is what my Library Services Menu looks like. I post it near the printers, and put one in each teacher’s mailbox each fall!

#4 Take Care of Yourself

One of my librarian mentors once told me:

“There is no life or death in the library.”

This has stuck with me, and I remind myself of this anytime I start to feel stressed or overwhelmed. Yes there will be a million things that seem to “need” to be done, pretty much all the time. You will never, ever “finish.” Once you accept that fact, its easier to relax and continue breathing. Since you will never finish everything, there is no sense worrying about it. Focus on developing ruthless prioritization. You will simply need to decide on which things are most important and which things can wait.  You cannot help your students or staff if you do not take care of yourself.  Don’t overdo it. Don’t take tons of work home all the time. Set limits. Stick to the limits. Say “no” when you need to.

  • How Do I Take Care of Myself & Avoid Burnout?
    • I don’t stay at work late more than once or twice a month, and not every month.
    • If I bring work home, I cap it at 1-2 hours.
    • I don’t work on Sundays.
    • I check my email one time per night at 7:30p. I tell my students that this is when I check my email so if they are asking questions they need answered that night, they need to send it before 7:30.
    • I ALWAYS ALWAYS take my lunch break. I close the library for my lunch break if my assistant it out sick and the school cannot provide a substitute to cover for me.
    • I don’t officially work over the summer. But I do allot myself 5 days over the summer for which to work on things that will make Back to School easier on myself (lesson planning, book cataloging, going in early to decorate, etc). I limit it to no more than 5 days, and I enjoy my summer off.

#5 The Support Staff are Your New Best Friends

The most helpful people in the whole school are the secretaries and the custodians.  I recommend you work to befriend them immediately, as they are the gatekeepers of the school.  They are the ones who will know the answers to all of your questions, and they are the ones who can make things happen for you. I literally don’t know how I would have survived my first year (or any other year) without their help.

  • How do I connect with my support staff?
    • I take the time to visit the secretaries and custodians several times throughout the year, just to catchup and chat with them.
    • I also bring them gifts 2x per year, usually breakfast or lunch (in August and in June). 

#6 Get Students in the Door

One of the most important things librarians need to do is to get students in the doors. We need to get our students into the library, using library resources! So you’ll want to figure out just what it is your students need from their library and then do your best to provide for those needs!

If you inherit a library that is already a popular spot for students, congratulations! Figure out why they like being there, and continue giving them that, but with your own spin of course. If, like me, you inherit a library that students and staff do not like to be in, congratulations! You now have the chance to profoundly change the space and therefore the impact the library has on your learning community. Do some needs assessments, formal and informal, and find out why they don’t like to be there. What things has the library done/not done, offered/not offered, that has led to ambivalence, discomfort, or dislike. Figure out how you can change those things!

  • How Did I Get Students in the Door?
    • For me, I was told immediately and by several teachers, literally on the very first day of teacher in-service, exactly what wasn’t working about the library under previous librarian’s tenures. Some librarians were perceived as too unfriendly, and other librarians were perceived as too unhelpful/unwilling to collaborate.  I knew, then, from the first day exactly what these teachers were hoping from me and I was able to tailor my marketing and branding accordingly. I marketed myself as very receptive and eager to collaborate, and as an approachable and positive person. 
    • Within the first couple weeks I was also told by students and staff why students didn’t enjoy coming to the library. Reasons included: previous staff were not perceived as wanting the kids there (access was difficult and restrictive), and even when they did get into the library, they couldn’t do the things they needed to do during their free periods.  I learned that in our high achieving and high academically pressured learning community, the students had a hunger for a non-stressful, and not necessarily academic space. They had a need for a community space where they could connect with each other, de-stress, breathe, and regroup themselves for the rest of the day. 
    • This informed me that my students did not need a silent study space from their library, but rather a dynamic, simultaneously engaging and relaxing community space. 
    • I began to add community-building activities like games, cards, community puzzle, community coloring sheets, mini-maker activities, origami, blackout poetry, etc. Things that facilitated social connectivity, academic and technological “unplugged-ness,” and relaxation. 
    • We added comfortable seating, charging stations, we relaxed “loudness” rules and made access much easier (changing the pass system and who could or could not visit the library.) 
    • It didn’t take long for students to start to identify the library as a comfortable and welcoming space that belonged to students. They come in droves now, and definitely don’t feel dislike, discomfort, or ambivalence towards their library now.

The thing students told me first helped them identify that the library had changed was the adding of community coloring sheets and then using them (after students colored them in) as decorations on the walls. Simple, no cost, big immediate impact. You can learn how to make these coloring sheets here.

#7 Make the Big Changes If You Want!

Make big changes if you want, just as long as they are informed by actual school needs.

This one goes a bit against the general advice given to first-year school librarians. Usually, these types of posts advise new librarians to take things slow, to avoid big changes until you’ve been at the school for a year or two so you don’t upset the status quo or make mistakes. That is one perfectly fine approach.

I took a different approach, however, and it worked out extremely well for me so I’m going to advise that you DO make big changes, if you want to, during the first year. Particularly if the school admin have indicated that they WANT the library program to be updated or changed, as was the case for me. In my interview, the admins were clear that they were looking to revamp and modernize the library program. The school was also going through the 1:1 launch program the year I started so it was a time of big culture change and the things I wanted to change about the library fit well within those larger district goals.

In my first year, I did not shy away from making big changes and it was the right choice. If you have inherited a library that is beloved and well used by your school, you probably will not want to make as many big changes right away. But if, like me, you’ve inherited a disliked and unused library, big changes might be just what the doctor ordered.

Based on the things the admin said in my interview and on the feedback I received from teachers, I knew that my school wanted the library to be modernized, updated, and made to be more welcoming, representative, comfortable, and enjoyable.  Therefore I knew that the changes I wanted to make (adding high interest and representative books, facilitating a social and collaborative connection between students, offering brain break activities, etc) should not wait even 1 year. I knew those big changes were needed right away. So I made the changes. I received some pushback and criticism from certain teachers. I received positive feedback and excitement from other teachers. But the only thing that really matters is that these changes caused students to start coming to the library, using the library, asking me for help, and providing positive feedback.

  • How Do I Make Big Changes the First year (If I want to)?
    • Make sure any changes are informed by actual school needs & requests
    • Be transparent about the changes (let staff and students know about them via newsletters, faculty meetings, social media, etc)
    • Be open to accepting advice and even criticism from the learning community
    • Seek advice, ideas, suggestions from your learning community
    • Get admin support and approval first

#8 Get to Know Your Collection & Community

Before you can make a ton of changes, you’ll need to know what your community values and needs. Start doing needs assessments immediately. Learning the district’s goals, the curriculums, and the community will help you decide what resources you need to add, change, or remove.

  • How do I get to know my learning community’s needs?
    • Do needs assessments via formal and informal means (surveys, informal discussion, observation, etc)
    • Seek invitations to as many dept and admin meetings as you can, as often as you can.
    • Attend board meetings
    • Attend union meetings
    • Speak with students and teachers frankly about their own needs

Get to know your collection so that you can make recommendations to students. Getting to know your collection is a process that will not occur immediately, but which you do need to actively work towards. Once you know your collection (and your learning community) you will be able to know what needs to be added, changed, and removed from it.

  • How do I get to know my collection?
    • Start bringing books home and reading them!
    • Run collection reports and analysis. Get a feel for which books are checked out the most and which ones are not.
    • Talk with students about what they’ve been reading and which ones they’ve enjoyed or have not enjoyed.
    • Talk with teachers about reading trends they’ve noticed in their students, and collection strengths & weaknesses the teachers perceive in the library.

#9 Have Fun

Most importantly: Have Fun

If you’re not having fun, make the changes necessary so that you are having fun. Because if you’re stressed and put out, that will impact the library atmosphere which will impact the students and staff.  But if you are having fun, your joy and passion will translate into the library atmosphere, and therefore spread to the students and staff.   If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed and miserable, stop and take a breath. You are probably trying to accomplish too many things at once, and too quickly.  Think about what your 1-2 goals are for the year. Which things on your “to-do” list need to happen to progress those goals.  Do those things.  Anything on the list that doesn’t progress your 1 or 2 goals can be put on the back-burner.  My first-year goals were to change the perception of the library as a quiet, outdated place and to establish myself as an information resource to staff and students.  Those two goals helped keep me on track during the year.  Once you have your goal or goals (no more than 1-2), keep your eye on them and remind yourself that the first year is not about perfection. It’s about getting started.

Enjoy your first year!

Geoffrey Nevine — IT Services and IT Consulting

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