Home/Reading/Ten things I’ve learned about setting up a school library (in no particular order)

1. Involve parents, staff and children right from the start
There will be teachers (especially ones who may have been in the school for some considerable time) who say “there’s no point in giving these children books this beautiful, they’ll just ruin them/ lose them/ steal them/ damage them/ deface them”, those who say some children should have to keep their library books in school so they don’t commit any of the afor-mentioned crimes against books and those who say it’s all been done before and you’re fighting a losing battle. But get these people on side and they can be powerful allies if they can switch that rhetoric to face the opposite direction.

If I was to go back and start the process we’ve been through again, this is probably the one thing I would do more of. I’d get even more people on side early on, since they are the ones who will be using the library day to day. I would have sat down with more of the teachers and walked them through the new books we would be getting, asked and valued their opinion more.

Everyone has an opinion on reading and if they don’t think they do at the moment, this is the time to encourage them to get one. The more people you have buying into the value of the library from the outset, the better for everyone. Involve the staff and children in the planning of the library – ask them what their needs for the library are, what features it should have and what seating they would like to see there. Ask them for their recommendations on books the library has to have.

Ask parents and to buy new copies of their children’s favourites and donate them to the new library. Yes, that sounds more like an ask than an offer, but you’re offering them the chance to be part of the new library. We asked parents and staff to write a short paragraph on their chosen books and this collection became Priory Reads, one of the most prized collections of books in the school. The parents felt engaged through being asked to (literally) buy into the library from the start and now they have helped make it what it is, hopefully they will see how much we value reading and how much we value their support in developing readers. It has also meant we’ve got titles on our shelves we might never have considered (some collections of Shel Silverstein poetry for example, unavailable in the UK, but brought over by an American teacher).

2. Work with professionals
It’s tempting to think you can cut costs by going straight to Amazon or leafing through a cut price children’s books catalogue. It’s also tempting to avoid the major suppliers of school library furniture, as there are certainly cheaper options out there. However, if you want value, these are two things I would certainly avoid.

A good children’s bookseller won’t be the cheapest option, but the value you get from someone who is an expert in children’s books is enormous. A smaller collection of well chosen books will win out any day, over a larger collection of mediocrity. Our chosen bookseller came into school and helped us weed out the books we had that were well past their use-by date and really made an effort to find out exactly what stock we needed based on the needs of our children (and all at no extra cost). The books might not have been the cheapest, but we know they are the best and we know the service we got from our bookseller was great value.

And the same with shelving; anyone can make shelves, but shelves designed for the age of children who will be using the library, shelves that are flexible enough to adapt to the changing needs of the children are worth an awful lot more. Also, the help you get from someone who really knows what they’re talking about when it comes to library design, is incredibly valuable, especially if you only have (as I had) very limited space. They can come up with ingenious ideas you never would have thought of for storage, features and making the best of the space available (which in our case was pretty minimal).

Spending money on the right furniture means you’ve got a space fit for purpose; it means the children can access the books easily, that you can move shelves as and when you want, that you can create displays of books that will tempt the reader into new avenues to explore.

3. Ask and you just might get
We were lucky to get support not only from school funds, but also put in successful bids to local funding organisations and the school’s parent council, all of whom could see the value in developing a great space for the love of reading in school. After all, who’s going to argue against more children reading a better selection of books, better attainment in reading, more enjoyment of reading? Ask parents and teachers to get involved by donating their choice of books – the worst they can do is say no (for the bids I won, I probably lost the same number); at best they might donate some fantastic reads and become one of your champions and at the very least, they now know you are developing the library and taking reading seriously.

4. Fight for a librarian
A librarian in this age of funding cuts might seem like a luxury, but your library needs evangelists (see Point 1). The right librarian can not only look after the stock and keep the children borrowing, but also work on reading interventions and identifying children who need extra support, identify children who are not using the library for whatever reason and work with their teacher on getting them reading (perhaps they just haven’t found the right book yet?). A librarian can organise the timetables for children to come in and borrow (which in a school as huge/ a library as small, as ours, is a big deal). Make this person the library’s biggest champion, in fact make them reading’s biggest champion. And get them to train others in library skills. The librarian can – as ours does – organise and train a group junior librarians, train teachers in book selection, run reading interventions, run book fairs and book groups and keep the library buzzing with recommendations and book talk.

5. Increase the amount of book talk
Buy books and they will read. Oh, hang on, no they won’t; I’ve learned children don’t automatically become better readers just because there are amazing books on the shelves – they tend to stick to what they know, even (or perhaps especially) in the face of hundreds of great new titles. We found one of the best ways to get children to know a wider range of genres and authors is to take the books to them rather than waiting for the children to stumble across the book that will change their reading life forever. I spend an hour a month minimum in each year group pimping out our new books (this month it was books about football for Year 6, horror for Year 5, stories about the sea for Year 4 and loveable rogues for Year 3) and I can see in the borrowing stats those books are rarely on the shelves once they’ve been promoted.

Making the effort to recommend books across the school (in assemblies, in corridors, in the lunch hall) has had a great knock-on effect – children have started coming to me asking me to recommend a book they have been reading and I’m hearing reports from teachers that children have been recommending books to each other.

Promote the books to staff as well – tell them about new books in, make the effort to show them books which link to their topics. We’ve seen a slow but steady increase in the number of teachers and teaching assistants borrowing books, which can only increase their knowledge of children’s authors and the books they can be recommending to their children.

We’re just now starting to ask children to recommend books to each other using our online library software, in which they can leave reviews on their latest read for others. We started by asking them to create 20 word reviews – small reviews of the books they return which hang over the front of the book to entice others to borrow it.

6. Join your education library service
For our collection of information books we lean heavily on the services of the education library service. It’s cost effective, it means we can rotate the stock and keep in titles which link to termly topics in the school’s creative curriculum, it means we can get new titles in the fiction section as children request them rather than always having to shell out for new titles (and if that book proves popular, we might then order a copy in ourselves as it’s clearly a winner).

Our library service also helped with the design of our library and with our library software and are a great source of support for what works out to be a small amount of money – again the value we get from using this service far outweighs the costs involved.

7. Use other spaces in the school to extend the library
We are lucky enough to have a beautiful reading garden outside our library and we punched a door through into it so children can take their books outside on lunchtimes and read in the garden. Unfortunately, we’ve not had great weather for it as often as as we would have liked, but as soon as the sun is out, so are the children and teachers. It took a few iterations to get it right and it was only after the children started to use the garden that we realised how we really needed it to be.

The garden is a great exhibition space too and at the moment is home to a collection of short form poetry and it is great to see children dragging teaching assistants and parents out into the garden to see their writing on display.

8. Get children’s work into the library for others to borrow
We’re still working on this, but at the moment we’ve catalogued all the poetry collections in which our children’s work features. We have copies of compilations of poetry and short stories in which our children feature, but the idea is to produce some of our own books from the children’s work, which will tie in with our aims to give the children real audiences and real purposes for their writing.

9. Don’t be afraid to bin old books
This is somewhat of a heresy for a book horder (if any of my family read this, it doesn’t apply to the books on the shelves at home…), but old, shabby, worn-out books are a waste of space. Face it, some of the books on the shelves – no matter how worthy they are, no matter how much you yourself loved them as a child and love the musty smell of slightly rotten book – are never going to be read again. Bin them. Make space for other books. Even better, make space for a shelf on which you can display some of the books face on to the readers – even though it cuts down the number of books you can display, these are some of the best read books in the library. You can tell a book is ready for the bin if a) it’s old and the spine is not even creased and when you hold it upside down the pages splay out in the way only an unread book can do b) it’s got an old, fusty, boring picture on the cover in which people have mullets and flairs and melamine worktops. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, but that book you’re thinking of, that’s not one of them. Bin it.

10. Run your library with passion
It’s worked for us. Children’s confidence and motivation are absolutely key in developing readers. If you are running a school library, the only way to do it is with passion. Loving the books enough to make the effort to ensure there’s a fresh collection on display every day, that you are up to speed on the latest children’s fiction, that you are confident yourself to suggest the next book for a child to read and that you develop the ability to pick out a book you know could be a life-changer. It’s also about taking risks – some of the books on our shelves tackle life’s big issues: birth and death, families and divorce, alienation and prejudice, hatred and love. Not everyone will agree books this powerful should be given to children, but with the right preparation and sensitivity, I believe children should be exposed to the power reading can have to enrich lives and increase in us our compassion for others’ situations.

Currently reading: Haruki Murukami’s 1Q84.

Currently listening to: The Felice Brothers

By | 2012-06-25T13:45:12+00:00 June 25th, 2012|Reading|3 Comments

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3 Comments

  1. audrey morton 27th June 2012 at 9:05 am - Reply

    a fantastic write up that i found myself nodding to almost non stop!! as a junior school librarian i find myself in what, at times, seems an isolated position but this write up sums up everything good a well run library can bring and what a difference it makes to a school. i am very proud of the achievements my library has made and the difference it has made to our children. tihs kind of thing needs promoting a lot more – well done!!

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