Rising to the challenge

Rising to the challenge

School libraries operate within an ever-changing environment, with education initiatives, curriculum changes and an influx of excited students every September all bringing different needs and priorities. But the past 18 months have brought unprecedented challenges. Nevertheless, during this period, school librarians’ priorities have remained the same: to ensure students have access to resources for reading for pleasure; to promote and encourage reading; to support teaching and learning; and to support the mental health and wellbeing of students. 

Being no stranger to technology and already using software applications and online tools to promote collections and engage with the school community, the first challenge for most librarians was to source (preferably free) resources that would provide material for a wide range of reading abilities and interests, and support curriculum topics. These were then embedded in guides and interactive posters, created using Wakelet, Padlet or Canva, that could be accessed online. 

Vital communication
Communication became key. Without face-to-face interactions, it was necessary to engage students and staff using alternative means. Cue virtual assemblies; YouTube and Animoto videos about books; virtual author visits; and online book groups. Online library inductions were delivered for the new student intake to support transition, presentations given to support Year 12 preparing for further education, and activities created to replace in-house events. In addition, many school librarians supported the teaching of information skills, something that became even more necessary with the increase in pandemic misinformation in the media. 

Aware of the fact that wellbeing was becoming increasingly important, links to mental health support services, recommended online resources and mindful activities were emailed to the whole school community. Throughout, school librarians have provided emotional support, particularly to those affected by bereavement and world events such as the murder of George Floyd. But it wasn’t all work; there were also fun sessions in the form of escape rooms, treasure-hunt games and quizzes, all helping to engender a sense of community. 

Once restrictions lifted slightly, librarians were able to achieve much more via personal interactions, following professional guidance from CILIP regarding the use of libraries and quarantining of resources. For some, this meant a click-and-collect service at pre-arranged visit times; others offered a click-and-deliver service to tutor groups, or took book carts into classrooms and playgrounds. (For case studies from the Great School Libraries Campaign, visit greatschoollibraries.org.uk/case-studies.) 

So how has the pandemic impacted school library services, and what will librarians take from the past 18 months into their libraries as they move forward? 

Lessons learned
In many schools, the pandemic has resulted in the skills and expertise of librarians in sourcing trusted information being recognised, alongside the fact that the library does more than support “just reading”. Teachers have reported better results with regards to referencing, research and an improved understanding of academic integrity, and plan to engage more with librarians. Thus these relationships and collaborative projects are likely to continue as they have already brought benefits to students and, even in situations where the librarian is a solo worker, they will be able to create online presentations with asynchronous activities for students to access off-site and at their own pace. 

Online meetings facilitated social interaction and many librarians noted that students who usually didn’t join in were happy to participate using the Chat function so, in a busy timetable, online book groups and other activities could bring more inclusiveness to the library and enable a wider range of students to take part. 

The click-and-collect facility, a.k.a. book reservations, has always been available, but it’s taken the lack of physical access to the library to bring it to the attention of students. Its popularity (as well as that of click and deliver) may be due, in part, to the fact that books were delivered in paper bags, thus affording privacy. Additionally, providing groups of students with a smaller curated selection has resulted in an increase in loans—maybe fewer choices made it easier for them to decide what to read. Whether these more personalised services will be continued very much depends on the time available to run them, but they are certainly something being considered. 

Finally, while digital resources and activities cannot fully replace hard copy and in-person events, they have a useful role in the school library and librarians are likely to carry on creating curated guides as well as using technology to engage students with books—the influence of BookTok on the reading requests of young people has not gone unnoticed. Whatever they do, I know librarians will, as always, be proactive; some are already creating lists of authoritative resources on Afghanistan in anticipation of requests. 

Barbara Band is a school library consultant and advisor, a qualified librarian with over 30 years’ experience, treasurer of the CILIP School Libraries Group and vice-chair of the Great School Libraries Campaign.