by Carrie Marting and Julie Marie Frye
Let’s face it: there’s high turnover in support staff positions, even in school libraries. Some of our clerks enter the classrooms, others earn an MLS degree and head into their own school library, a few move to the other side of town, and some just can’t keep up with the fast pace of an exploring-making-learning-inventing-collaborating-coding-reading-celebrating school library.
No matter why your former clerk resigned, you’ll definitely want to be involved in naming the next successful candidate. One way to do that is by articulating to your principal the specific skills and attributes you need in a successful candidate. Let’s be honest: sometimes they know, and sometimes they don’t.
What characteristics can extend the outreach, and ultimately, the impact of the library? Here’s what we prioritize on our list!
- Organized: This is a no-brainer. If you’re organized, you want to work with someone else who is. If you’re not, then you need all the help you can get! As long as we do the Dewey, we are going to need our staff to help us reshelve materials or train students and volunteers to do it. People want and expect to be able to find materials on our shelves; when our staff is organized, our materials have a better chance of being organized. From shelving to seating areas to makerspaces to workrooms, we need support in keeping our busy libraries organized. In addition to being able to keep on top of managing stuff, clerks need to be organized in terms of workflow and knowing how to prioritize tasks. Clerks who can prioritize tasks and check them off the library to-do list are gems!
- Flexible and a “yes” mentality: There are days when teachers ask us to do things that compare to back flips; students need us to do things that feel like a roller coaster; and school leaders urge us to risk-taking journeys similar to hiking alone in bear country. On the days when we lack pep in our step, it helps to have a partner in the work who delivers an enthusiastic “yes!” and understands that our work is service to people, not projects. Although we all like some degree of predictability, sometimes we can’t imagine what a day in the library will look like. There are limits to what we should ask clerks to do, but they should be willing to step away from the circulation desk and shelving cart and spot us as we attempt back flips; sit next to us on the roller coaster; and ring the bell so that the bears know we are coming. Do students need help finding a book? Does the hallway need an additional adult to supervise? Would s/he even be comfortable leading story time every once in a while? Someone who is confident taking on different responsibilities and being comfortable with unpredictability is the clerk you’re looking for.
- Life-long learner: If library work can be summarized in any one word, it may be evolution. We need someone who is not only open-to-change, but also someone who asks us why we do the things we do and challenges us to explore innovative solutions and ideas. All library employees should model the behavior of curiosity and risk-taking that we want to see in our students.
- Professional and discreet: It’s so important that librarians are able to work with every single teacher and every single student in the building. When our staff is unaffiliated with cliques, they are less likely to come in with stereotypes, gossip, or grudges. They are also less likely to share what “they” think is appropriate for children based on what they allow in their house. It’s a library, folks, not a time to share personal inclinations to censor. The library is often the place where teachers and staff come to vent their frustrations, and the clerk might end up on the receiving end of this. They need to be able to listen to teachers without spreading gossip and starting drama. It’s important that everyone (including teachers) feel that the library is a safe space, which means that all the library staff members are professional and maintain confidentiality.
- Respects privacy: We have an obligation to patrons to not publicize who the period book is checked out to, who is reading our LGBTQ+ books, or what fifth-grade teacher checked out the DVD that the sixth-grade teachers swear “belongs” to their unit. According to the ALA, “rights of privacy are necessary for intellectual freedom and are fundamental to the ethics and practice of librarianship.”
- Understands the role: Nothing will ruin a professional relationship faster than a power struggle! One way to avoid this is to hire a clerk who genuinely wants to be in a support position. Some people are happy to not have to make big decisions, take on weighty responsibilities, and work weekends . . . and these are the people who will make successful clerks.
- Reflective: Schön argues that reflection IN action and reflection ON action are the most important factors in top performers. When our staff engage with us in reflective practices, our programs mature and grow strong roots in the school culture.
- Has (or can acquire) marketing, social media, and technology skills: When our staff understands that we are “selling” literacy skills and “pushing” resources, our program is more successful. Look for a candidate who can design and implement marketing strategies (displays, bulletin boards, Twitter, etc.) that wow teachers and convince students to try a new resource. There will be days when you have news/videos/content you want to feature, but you just don’t have time to log in and and post. When your staff have these skills, your message gets delivered faster. Our interaction with technology goes far beyond our circulation systems. We need clerical support who can troubleshoot GarageBand and delete frames on iMovie and even mentor students on analog technologies like cutting saws.
- Complementary skills: We’ve heard people say that they want to hire staff that feels like “family,” but finding folks like us doesn’t necessarily grow our programs. When you find a candidate with complementary skills, they help build the breadth of what the library can offer to your school community.
- Loves working with students: You still occasionally meet people who want to work in a library because they love to read. Sure, a love of literature is vital, but educating students is why we’re here and that should be the potential clerk’s first priority. They also need to believe that every student has the right to read, the right to privacy, and the right to access information. We’re here in the service of people, not stuff.
What skills, abilities, and attributes are at the top of your list? Please share the qualities that your best library clerk embodies as we support each other in our next hires.