Starting Off: Where Not to Begin

startLast month I tackled a question from one of my newly hired school library students who wanted to know: “Where do I begin?”  Since then, as I have continued to mull this over, I realized there is another side to the question that definitely begs consideration. My culminating advice to her was to start with people, not things. I argued, “There are many useful things you could do to start your first days on the job. The one place that you probably shouldn’t start with is the collection.”

Even as my student embraced my suggestions, in her exuberance she mentioned that she was also considering genre-fying the fiction collection. Perhaps she thought doing so was starting with the students in mind. I had another student several years ago who, somewhat prematurely, accepted a school library job in a failing school. Her first act in this school where the students and teachers hadn’t had an effective school library program in several years was to start genre-fying the collection. She was so proud and pleased with herself I didn’t have the heart to say what needed to be said. Is this really what your students and teachers need from you now?

As I wrote in my last post, I get it. It is so absolutely tempting for us to start with the collection (weeding it, rearranging it, organizing it, reordering it, highlighting it, fussing over it) because this is where we often feel most confident in our abilities. Starting with something that we know we are good at is usually a good place to kick-start our confidence in taking on a new position. It is instinctive and comforting. But when anyone walks in those first early days of the school year and sees us focused and intent on relabeling and moving books around, what message are we really sending; what stereotypes are we perhaps reinforcing? That we are the keepers of the books?

For new school librarians especially, those early first-impression back-to-school days when faculty, parents, and students walk into the library are critical.  What they see of the library is what they will think about the librarian. What do you want them to see, to think, to remember?  A quiet, static place with lots of well-organized books on orderly shelves and a librarian who handles a circulation desk or a robust, vibrant, compelling, interactive classroom filled with instructional treasures and facilitated by an accomplished, proficient, collaborative teacher librarian?

If we want to be taken seriously and convincingly as instructional partners and co-teachers, if we want to erase any lingering stereotypes, we must send a clear message: we are teacher focused and student centric. We are not just about the books.

Before our shadows ever cross the library threshold, we should have a vision of our school library firmly in mind. And then everything we do from day one, should be constantly measured against that vision. That’s where we start.

Image source: License: CC Public Domain.

Author: Anne Akers

Clinical assistant professor in the Department of Library and Information Studies at the University of NC at Greensboro working with school library candidates. Former elementary, middle, and high school librarian in Virginia, Mississippi, and North Carolina.

Categories: Advocacy/Leadership, Blog Topics

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6 replies

  1. Thanks!

  2. Yes! This! Our priorities the first few days help shape teachers’ perceptions of us and our jobs. It’s hard going into a new building, but getting to know the staff and the school can help us figure out where our energy should be going. Thanks for this!

  3. Yes, but what does that look like in practice? I think new librarians are looking for more detailed advice than “be robust and vibrant.”

    I am starting a new position at a school library after 3 years at a combined middle/high school (my first library position). I was desperate for advice and I made so many mistakes. I think the heart of it is:
    1. Get to know your colleagues as fast as you can
    2. Get to know your students
    3. Don’t try to change everything at once. Even better, don’t change anything to start. Projects can come later.
    Just my thoughts.

  4. Thank you very helpful! ☺

  5. Corey,

    You might also check out my July post which was about where TO start.

  6. Why not use your fluency is your collection as a way to have concrete resources to offer every stakeholder in your school? Why not use weeding as an inroad to building collaborative relationships? Why not start a promotional campaign to let everyone know that the library’s collection encompasses more than paper books, but also includes maker tools, digital resources, and human expertise? The collection is a big (physical, emotional, and mental) aspect of the library and librarianship. Lead with your collection, don’t try to get everyone to pretend it’s not there–let everyone know what powerful learning assets–including you–exist in the school.

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