It’s back to school season (in the northern hemisphere, anyway) and it has been a while since I wrote my first “Advice for New Librarians” article so I thought this was a good time for another one. You can still find my original post “10 Tips for New School Librarians” as well.
Whether you’re starting your first school librarian role, or starting out at a new school, or looking for ideas in general, I hope this post is helpful. When I look back, these are some of the things I wish I’d been advised (or which I was advised) of when embarking on my first year.
P.S. These are not in any particular order or hierarchy, because I’m a chaos monster who just writes whatever pops into her brain, in whichever order it pops in there lol
“Before” Pictures – Get LOTS of them!
Take a lot of “before” pictures, as soon as you start and also periodically throughout the year. Take way more than you think you’ll need, and take lots and lots of them before (and after, of course) every project, change, addition, program, etc you do. Trust me when I say that you will kick yourself for not taking enough “before” pictures lol. I actually took a lot and still it wasn’t enough, and I keep finishing big projects and realizing I didn’t take before pictures. Its aggravating and I wish to spare you that aggravation. Before and after pix are great for advocacy campaigns, grant writing, other fundraising efforts, etc. That show-and-tell format really works for demonstrating to our communities what the outcomes of our efforts are, so definitely be sure to take lots of before and after pix.
Put yourself out there
This is a repeat from my original post, but it bears repeating. Don’t hide in the stacks or behind the circ desk at the start of the year, even if you’re feeling awkward and new and like no one knows you and you don’t know anyone. The first few months are always a bit isolating and difficult, but you can get a jump start on the critical relationship building if you resist the effort to keep busy and out of sight. One good way to start is to simply set yourself up so you are stationed right near the door and can actively welcome and greet everyone who walks in the doors. If the real circ desk or librarian desk is not near the doors, see if you can get a standing cart or a folding table to set up near the doors to use instead for the first year. If you’re able to, try getting out of the library a lot too, walk the halls, attend department meetings, wander up to the main office to greet and get to know the office staff, admin, and maintenance department crew as these relationships need to start being built as soon as possible.
Do Needs Assessments
It disturbs me how rarely I see this stressed, but start doing needs assessments immediately. It is not a good idea to go in and start making changes before you’ve collected the data to inform you on which changes your community is most in need of. I know we all see awesome ideas from others that we want to implement but it is a mistake to start implementing things without doing due dilligence and gathering, and analyzing, actual data on what your specific community actually needs. You may have a great vision for a boisterous social library but through needs assessment may find that your school already has a space that meets that need and that they actually need the library to be calmer, quieter, and more academic focused. Or the opposite, you might have a vision of a quiet, academic focused library but find that your students are already having their academic needs met elsewhere and that what they most need is a more relaxed and social focused space. What each school community needs varies WIDELY and is dependent largely on what needs are already being met elsewhere in the school or community. Running a successful school library program means looking for the gaps and driving the library in the direction that helps meet the currently unmet needs. Try to approach the position with an open mind and not with rigid expectations or ideas of what the library should be, or what YOU want it to be. Instead be ready to be flexible and responsive to the demonstrated needs of the community. (If you are applying for positions it can be a good idea to ask the interviewers to give you a sense of what their vision for the library is, as this may help inform you of whether the community’s needs will be a good fit for you, philosophically.)
Needs assessments should be done continuously (all the time, not just during the first year) and can range from formal (surveys) to informal (conversations, listening, paying attention to what people complain about or lament over, informal polls via whiteboard polls, suggestion boxes, instagram polls, etc)
When I say the changes you implement should be data-informed and related to meeting needs of the community, I am not saying that you need to wait a whole year to implement changes or additions! Start collection the data and then start making the changes that need to be made right away. For example, you might find during your back to school in-services that many colleagues will introduce themselves to you and begin immediately telling you about how the library hasn’t been in heavy use recently, that the kids complain because they’re only allowed to come for books and nothing else or that the collection is too old to meet current needs, or whatever. This information is the kind of thing you can use to start making changes right away, by targeting collection development as a primary goal or by changing the “library pass” system and policies to allow for broader library uses. So you don’t have to wait to make changes, but make sure the changes you make are informed by needs assessment data, otherwise it is like choosing a paint color and painting a room in the dark. You’re not likely to end up with things being what they need to be.
Starting a new position is very exciting and you may be completely overwhelmed, and have no idea where to start (hint: start with a needs assessment 🙂 OR you may find that you have so many ideas banging around inside you ready to get out! Despite the excitement you want to pace yourself and look at the forest rather than the trees. You’ll need to prioritize and set long term goals. When I started, my needs assessments indicated that we needed community building and collection development work. I set a 5 year goal for meeting these initial objectives. You cannot expect to get everything done right away, you will burn out and melt down, because a lot of library program building takes time, takes relationship building, and data collection/analysis, and advocacy. If you run collection reports and find that 80% of your 20,000 book collection is too old and not circulating, plan a weeding goal that spans years rather than trying to get it all done immediately. Pace yourself. Not only do you want to avoid burnout, but you also don’t want to get laser-focused on one objective in a way that means you aren’t making headway on other needs and goals. For example, if you put 100% of your effort into the big weeding project it won’t leave any time to start moving the needle on the critical relationship building, needs assessments, instructional collaborations, and program development goals that may also be necessary. You don’t want to spread yourself thin by targeting too many goals at once, but you also don’t want to narrow in exclusively on just one at the abandonment of all others either. So do your needs assessments, target 2-4 goals, and set out reasonable timeframe expectations for them, with various benchmarks throughout to check your progress. To use an overused adage, think of library program development as a marathon, not a sprint. And when in doubt as to what to prioritize, always prioritize relationship and community building.
SPEND ALL OF THE BUDGET
This is absolutely critical. If the library receives a budget from the district, spend every single penny, every year. Also, find out from colleagues if the budget ever gets frozen in the spring because if there’s a tendency for that to happen then make sure you spend all of the budget early so you don’t lose it. Never, ever, ever, EVER leave even a single penny unspent. Unspent funds will be interpreted as proof that you don’t need the budget you have and they will cut the budget in response going forward. And that is a real shame because its the students who miss out on having a need met. If you aren’t sure what to spend your budget on, do some needs assessments to see what resources students need more of, or wish the library provided that it does not yet provide. Consider supplies, makerspace activities, author visits, ebooks, audiobooks, hi-lo books, graphic novels, manga, comics, and of course more prose books. Just always spend all of it. And then, once its spent, if you identify another need (like perhaps the 9th grade ELA is doing a unit with a certain book and you can secure an author visit from that book’s author, or something) ask for more. Create a proposal of what the need is and how you’d like to meet the need, how much funds are needed, and how the program/idea/product will meet the need and result in positive outcomes for the students and make your proposal to your admin. Sometimes districts or buildings have remaining discretionary funds or grant funds that aren’t spent yet by spring and they may be happy and able to direct those unused funds to your proposal. The worst that can happen is your proposal is declined, but its always worth asking!
Build relationships with the ‘Movers & Shakers’
The school clerical staff and maintenance staff are the biggest information-holders in the school. They are the ones with all of the literal and metaphorical keys to nearly every lock and roadblock you will run into. Befriending them as soon as possible is one of the best things you can do, firstly because they are your colleagues and its always a good idea to build relationships with colleagues, and also, because they know all of the answers to the random questions you’ll have about things that no one will ever think to explain to you in advance. Building good relationships with them, which requires you to be intentional in seeking them out and developing those relationships, will make a big difference to how stressful your first year is at a new building. And that means you’ll be better able to meet the needs of the students! I just can’t even tell you how much help I get from our support staff and our maintenance crew. They are literally angels walking the earth, and they seem to know the answer to any question, or they know who to direct you to for the answer. I don’t know how I ever would have figured out how to manage the budget bookkeeping or have gotten so much physical changes to the library layout, without the help from these colleagues.
Familiarize Yourself With the Collection
As soon as possible you should start familiarizing yourself with what is present in the collection (also what circulates, what does not circulate, and what’s missing). It will be extremely difficult for you to make recommendations or help students with readers advisory until you know the collection pretty well. Schedule time in your calendar for collection review, where you walk the shelves and study the titles, start reading their summaries, gathering familiarity with what’s available. This info also comes to you through various other projects such as weeding, diversity auditing, genrefication, etc. Participating in projects like those get you in the shelves touching and reviewing the books, and you’ll be surprised at how quickly you’ll become and expert on what’s present and what needs to be present, just from spending active time reviewing the collection.
Stay connected with other librarians
School librarianship can be a lonely and isolating role, because you will typically be the only person in the whole school who does (or even really knows) what you do. Its tough not to have a department of other librarians right in the building with you. This is why developing a strong professional learning network of other librarians is really critical. You’ll need people to ask questions of, bounce ideas off of, and even to vent with. I’ve found an incredible PLN thanks to social media, but if that’s not your jam you might have success getting involved in local library organizations/associations, state associations, or even reaching out to other local librarians and seeing if they have, or what like to start, a regular librarian get-together. Your colleagues who are classroom teachers will become your PLN and friends too, and you’ll develop strong relationships with them and learn a lot with and from them. But there are challenges to the role of librarian that they will not often have experience dealing with, and that’s why also developing a strong librarian PLN will be worthwhile too. There will be times that you really need librarian specific support.
Keep in Touch & Collaboration with Admin
Being in the library often means a lot of autonomy, but you don’t want to be doing work that is entirely unnoticed by admin. Plus you want to make sure that your vision and goals are in allignment and support with admin’s vision and goals for the library, whenever possible. This is why its a good idea to regularly meet with admin to discuss library goals and objectives, and to layout some of your initial visions and goals to make sure you are on the same page with admin about what direction to take the library in. If you are not in alignment you may want to back up and do some more needs assessments to make sure you’re on the right track and if so then you may want to spend some time advocating and educating admin and colleagues to help them get on the same page as you or so ya’ll can start to come to compromise and understanding with each other. Its really important to stay in touch with colleagues and admin to touch base and check in with each other to ensure you haven’t gotten off track with overall school needs and expectations.
Don’t forget to have fun
We are so lucky because our jobs can come with a lot of joy. It can also be very overwhelming and stressful. When you feel that stress or burnout coming on its important to stop, breath, and refocus yourself by reexamining your goals and your objectives. Make sure you’re still on track, and identify which parts are causing too much stress. Think about rearranging or rethinking what isnt working, or what you’re not in a good place to be working on at that moment. Learn to let things go or set things aside as need be to protect your mental health. Don’t forget to have fun! If you’re stressing over a particular project or goal, consider setting it aside for a bit and switching to a task or project you find more fun. Take care of yourself, pace yourself, try to make choices that help you continue to enjoy your role. Look for signs of burnout and try to pivot and rest when needed to care for yourself. You deserve to be well and to able to find the fun, and your students deserve to have a librarian who is well and able to find the fun with them 🙂
Bonus Tip: Look into your districts materials selection and challenge polices.
Also look into whether they have demonstrated a history of actually following their policies or not. Try to get a sense of how they are handling the current book banning movements led by the extremist far right groups. Absolutely do not assume that these issues won’t come to your area or school district. Proceed with the expectation that if your district has not yet had these challenges, that they most assuredly will. It becomes increasingly likely as the movement continues to gain steam (and considerable, CONSIDERABLE funding). Sure, maybe you’ll get lucky and these issues will never come to your school, but it is far better to start preparing yourself anyway than to find yourself unprepared when it happens. Gather this info before you get your first challenge so that you can be at least a little prepared. Connect with mentor librarians or colleagues in the district to help you gather this info and insights, and consider attending board meetings to see what the general vibe of the community is as this will also help prepare you. Look to ppl & organizations like @FReadom, Every Library, PEN America, and Kelly Jensen for staying updated on what’s happening and how to deal with these book banning & censorship movements.
With all of my love and congratulations on your new role,