Secondary school librarian Kristabelle Williams describes how she’s kept her library open to staff and students throughout the last year, and demonstrates the positive impact of a well-funded and professionally staffed school library on students’ achievement.
Teachers and support staff have been working hard in schools to deliver education and care for students whether onsite or remotely throughout the pandemic, and school librarians have continued to run, innovate and adapt services alongside this in what have been challenging circumstances.
When our school moved to partial opening in March 2020, I commenced working from home, due to being ‘at-risk’. Consultant Sarah Pavey circulated a list of things to do if your library is closed which was helpful for many librarians whether making a case for working from home or against redeployment, or needing some anchoring guidance in the early days of the crisis.
I immediately set up an e-resources database, divided by curriculum subject, to support staff and students with remote planning, teaching and learning. We already subscribed to several, but many were opening up to free temporary access during the lockdown. I took out trials with online library providers to give our students e-book and audiobook access. Our local library provided temporary online account registration so their e-resources could be used without having to visit a library to collect a card. I promoted this to staff, students, parents and carers and created Padlets of reading lists with direct links.
Microsoft’s presentation app Sway was a great way to share this kind of information along with library news and communications; I created a weekly digital magazine with embedded author videos, book lists, links to articles, extracts and book awards, and free e-books and audiobooks. We promoted everything from the webcast of the stage show of Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights to Premier League football quizzes, from online book festivals such as Everywhere Book Fest to challenges such as the 100 Great Black Britons schools’ competition. It was important that most of what was promoted to students was free to access; a comics special issue was the most popular, with links to free webcomics and graphic novels in Spanish, Shakespeare adaptations, superhero comics from Nigeria (check out Comic Republic), stories about refugee and migrant experiences, and character drawing guides.
My weekly library lessons with Key Stage 3 classes moved online; through Show My Homework I set reading activities, news articles, quizzes and Accelerated Reader challenges. It also provided a way to communicate with students in all year groups to encourage and support them with remote learning and reading. Copyright relaxations and exemptions from children’s books publishers allowed me to record and share short stories, and I started a ‘Book At Breaktime’ series of audio read-alouds for students to listen to. I also kept teachers informed of copyright issues, extensions and digital textbook access from the Copyright Licensing Agency.
When schools moved to wider reopening in September, I used the Covid-19 Guidance for School Libraries from the CILIP SLG and the SLA along with evidence from the REALM project to plan a ‘Click and Collect’ style library book delivery service in school. After working with my highly supportive management team to risk assess the process we designed a system that enables students to borrow physical library books whilst staying in their ‘bubbles’ and for myself to work safely on site using PPE where needed.
Students use the online library catalogue to browse the collection, then use Microsoft Forms, email or in person requests via form or class to reserve books. As the orders come in, books are labelled with a name and form on a bookmark then added to the form’s basket which is set up in the library. These baskets are then delivered to form rooms every week before school. This has enabled many teachers to engage more with students’ reading. Book return boxes are placed around the school which contain internal plastic boxes which can be lidded when collected at the end of the week, quarantined for the following week, and then finally opened and shelved again.
Our library is vital for access to books, but book ownership is equally important for our students. Whether young people read or not is often due to cost, access and content, and cannot be understood in isolation from structural inequalities such as socioeconomic deprivation and racism, the past decade of real terms cuts to school funding and national literacy programmes, and the closure of nearly 1/5th of local libraries. In a pandemic where the public faces further unemployment and child poverty crises, book gifting has, is and will continue to be an important part of what our school does. We included books in our food and care packages which our staff were delivering to families during lockdown and I ran the book gifting programme Bookbuzz to Year 7s & 8s in the Autumn Term by tuning remotely into reading classes I co-ran with teachers to ‘Book Talk’ the titles, share videos and extracts. The Free Books Campaign is also helping fight these inequalities; in November I contacted founder Sofia Akel, who selected and packed boxes of beautiful brand, new books by authors of colour for us to collect. We then set up an online ‘free bookshop’ where students were able to read about and pick which title they would like to be gifted. I am planning to turn our ‘free bookshop’ into a permanent service for our students.
My experience with Teams classes meant that when we moved into partial closure again in January, I was ready to deliver weekly live lessons remotely. In these I discuss books, share ‘virtual’ classrooms made with Canva, promote our library apps, show author videos, run Accelerated Reader, and run sessions on dealing with ‘Fake News’ using Mike Caulfield’s SIFT method. I’ve used MS Stream to record video readalouds and ‘How To’ videos to promote titles and English GCSE texts; and run Manga Club and Book Clubs online on Teams using Nearpod, Kahoot and Microsoft Forms for quizzes, surveys and polls. Having a segment on our school’s ‘Lockdown Laughter’ podcast to talk about new book releases has been fun too.
Zoom meetings and CPD have also been important. Lewisham school librarians continued to meet online to shortlist books for our Lewisham Book Awards but also offer mutual support; the SLA and NEU Librarians Network have run webinars on new ways of working during Coronavirus. Some of the key texts I’ve read and recommend during this period have been Zoey Dixon’s article in Books for Keeps ‘How to be an anti-racist librarian’ along with Phil Beadle’s book What is Cultural Capital? and Ebony Elizabeth Thomas’s book The Dark Fantastic.
Now that we’re return to wider opening, our click and collect service will resume and I will continue to co-run Teams classes and clubs. I feel confident that many of the things I have implemented during the pandemic can, post crisis, be continued and built upon.
My experience is not necessarily the same as other school librarians; some have been running services as close to usual, or supervising students on site during partial opening; others have been redeployed into different roles; some have been furloughed; and some worryingly have had roles downgraded or been made redundant. The positive impact of a well-funded and professionally staffed school library on students’ achievement, reading for pleasure, information literacy, access to knowledge and self-esteem is evidenced; if we are serious about supporting children’s education and wellbeing after the pandemic, then they must be valued and prioritised.
Kristabelle Williams is a secondary school Librarian at Addey and Stanhope School in Deptford, in the London Borough of Lewisham, where she is also an NEU Health & Safety rep. She has worked in school libraries for seven years and previously worked in public libraries. Kristabelle is currently an Honour Listee for the SLA’s School Librarian of the Year Award. You can follow her on twitter @LibThroughThis and the library @addeyslibrary.