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Library Insights: Librarians Supporting Schools in Lockdown

“If you build it, they will come”

This quote from 80s baseball film Field of Dreams is how I feel about school libraries! My own school, a large independent secondary day school in West London, has a well-funded, well-staffed library. In the current crisis, access to quality information and to books and recreational reading has never been more important for students.

The storm before the storm

Latymer Upper had a sneak preview of lockdown: the school closed suddenly for one day on Wednesday 18th March, following our first confirmed case. The Prime Minister then announced that all schools would close indefinitely at the end of the week. By this time, some students and staff were already self-isolating at home, including half the library team. When school reopened on Thursday the 19th for its penultimate day, my graduate trainee and I wondered what the day would bring. In fact, it brought a lot of students to the library to stock up on books: we served 295 readers who borrowed 1560 books –12% of our entire physical collection – in a day! (For context, our typical daily average in the spring term is 90 loans.) I know many school librarians had similar experiences. We were so busy lending books that we couldn’t even pause to tend the shelves as large gaps appeared and books began falling down… I suddenly remembered the (now cancelled) “Blind Date with a Book” lesson my colleague had prepared for a Year 8 English class. I emptied the crate of books – all wrapped in brown paper with only a few handwritten clues as to the content inside – onto a table near the entrance. Before I could finish making a sign to explain these mysterious parcels, students of all ages were choosing them at random and checking them out, blind.

Every time I looked up, there was a queue for both of us, including many students from Year 11 (Year 11! We do a silent prayer of thanks whenever we can lure someone in at this age) and Year 13, who were still processing the news that public exams had been cancelled. They weren’t just borrowing fiction; in fact, over half (860 books) were information books on a wide range of subjects, not just textbooks for revision that was no longer a priority. One Sixth-former, struggling with the pile in her arms, said to her friend: “I haven’t been able to read what I want for seven years. So now I’m going to.” This was music to my ears as a librarian but also a powerful comment on what our education system’s narrow focus on exams really means for independent learning. So, in thinking about how school librarians support students during lockdown, that’s why I’ve deliberately started this post in the days just before school closure came. It takes time to build a collection and to build a culture of reading, but that’s exactly librarians do. Libraries represent a place of refuge but also a place to foster a love of learning. Through their collections they offer something vital: solace. The urgency I sensed in students’ borrowing that day reflected how much they already value reading – for comfort as well as for learning. They were grabbing as much of the library as they could for the uncertain days ahead.

And then the intranet crashed...

Our school, I thought, was relatively well-prepared for the transition to remote learning; our students all have a school-issued device and the school has been using Google’s G-suite software (Docs, Sheets, Google Classroom) for years. From the Library’s point of view, our catalogue is hosted externally and remotely accessible, as are almost all of our 40+ online subscription resources (we are a day school, so remote access has always been an important consideration). We had advanced contingency plans in the case of school closure.

And then on the first day of lockdown, our school intranet (also hosted externally) crashed. Unprecedented demand on the system from schools across the country meant intermittent access for two days. As our intranet is home to our links to over 40 online subscription resources, this was fairly disastrous. I had access to a spreadsheet listing all subscription details in terms of costs and usage – but not the links and logins for access. I kept these up to date on the intranet only; it never occurred to me that I might not have access to those pages. I spent the next two days repeatedly trying to access our intranet, frantically copying and pasting login details into my spreadsheet when I could. In the interim, I watched tutorials on Google Sites (some created by a teacher in-house, others shared on YouTube) and set about creating an alternative links page in Sites for our online subscriptions, to share with all staff and students in case they needed to bypass the intranet again. My page won’t win any design awards but it’s clean and it works – and it was created in just a couple days.

After that initial crisis I’d expected to have a lot more time for long-term projects; I even brought home my volumes of Dewey to attempt some cataloguing & classification of new books remotely (I’d tagged the records in our system, which is accessible online). In fact, my work has been a different kind of “reactive” and I am busier than ever, partly because the rest of the library team has since been furloughed.

Sourcing eBooks and online resources

Instead of responding to queries for physical books in the library and teaching information literacy skills, I am now mostly supporting teachers and students in sourcing eBooks and other online resources. A huge number of publishers and providers announced extended free trials or other emergency access for schools. Keeping on top of these and communicating them to staff was tricky; I felt overwhelmed myself by the number of lists flying around on Twitter, various websites and online forums, and among our staff; I decided not to try to re-create these lists or to share each one I came across. Instead, I pointed staff to a few sites where these had already been collated (including the “Ask a Librarian” page on this site). And I put in place as many of the free subscriptions as seemed relevant in the usual way for us: as links on our online resources pages on the intranet (and on my new Google Site). I was delighted to be asked to list the resources that students may find useful for our Year 11 essay competition, for which they can choose a question from any department. Here was a concrete way in which I could save Heads of Department some time while reminding staff and students just how much is accessible online in their subject area. I hoped that both teachers and students would know to come to me to ask about online access, and many have.

Creating helpsheets, screencasts and video tutorials

After a number of queries about accessing a specific newspaper or magazine articles that users had found online, it was clear that I needed to provide a quick overview of our existing subscriptions. Similarly, I had a lot of enquiries about eBooks. While we have some, they are available from different platforms and it had been some time since I had promoted them specifically. Over the Easter holidays, I focused on creating three new helpsheets for our intranet: how to find newspaper and journal articles online, how to access our eBooks, and how to use your local library card to access newspapers and magazines, eBooks and audiobooks. I created these as intranet pages so I could share the links easily, but each also included online demos (screencasts) which I recorded and uploaded to our YouTube channel. (Luckily for me, I’d begun dabbling with screencasts for Sixth Form library inductions earlier this year, so I had some training and experience already.) I also sought to expand our existing online library, setting up new subscriptions to the Very Short Introductions series online and a free trial to ePlatform’s collection of (mostly fiction) eBooks and audiobooks.

Promoting reading for pleasure and writing

At the same time, I was trying to encourage students to read for pleasure as a means of coping and escapism during this anxious time. (I managed to entice 25 parents to sign up for an offer to order some or all of the Carnegie-shortlisted books for their children, only for major book warehouses to close at that time, leaving us unable to fulfil requests.) After a useful CILIP webinar, I felt more confident in setting up a virtual Carnegie Shadowing book club this term. I had to accept that while I can provide eBook versions for five of the books, we may not all be able to finish them all, and that’s okay. The group is small; we meet weekly via Google Meet and have already had some very thoughtful engagement with our first book.

Having noticed that there are a lot of writing competitions open to students now, both in school and externally, I created a page on the Library Google Site where I can add links to them all. Some are specifically designed to encourage pupils to capture their feelings and reactions during lockdown. I collaborated with an English teacher who leads the creative writing club at school; she added me to the club’s Google Classroom so I could access links she’d already shared and promoted my list; the English department has also promoted it to their classes.

Only after about five weeks was I able to pause for breath and return to some of my planned work for this term, such as updating our recommended reading lists for Years 7–11 and sharing these with parents via our lovereading4schools page (password: LUS). I discovered our local independent bookshop, Kew Books, was once again able to take online orders for delivery. I wanted to explore this as an option for students in our Carnegie book club; in fact, the bookseller was so keen to support that he re-created all our recommended reading lists on a special book orders page for our school on his website to make online ordering as easy as possible for our students and parents. This is not the same as offering free lending through the library, of course, but it’s a fantastic option to promote to parents in the circumstances.

Communication and community

Communication has been one of the biggest adjustments and frustrations for me, and something I think all of us are struggling with. I miss chatting to students and staff. Where I may have resolved a question by asking a teacher in passing before, or show a student how to use an online resource, I now rely much more on email. I know our teachers must be exhausted by all the screen time and headspace that remote teaching involves. (Our school has implemented a daily staff bulletin in an attempt to cut down on staff email, and this has been helpful.) Communicating with students for me is even harder, relying on messages being delivered by tutors or on school email which is not always checked. Of course, enquiries to external suppliers are generally happening by email and taking much longer too. My line manager has been a great support to me, recognising my efforts and regularly reminding me in our meetings to be kind to myself in this new reality.

I am extremely fortunate to work at a school with a tremendous sense of community, and staff have worked hard to keep that going. Within a week, for example, we had a Common Room website, a regular staff virtual quiz with as much banter as quizzing, a lockdown newsletter (including poetry, artwork, jokes and photos of our lockdown views), a wellbeing site (for students too) and all manner of online departmental initiatives, including PE’s physical challenges, Drama’s invitation to create and share short “Kitchen Sink” dramas from home and the Music department’s tweets of lockdown listening. Furloughed staff have been encouraged to participate fully too; this has helped us all to continue to feel connected to school.

CPD and reflection

I have spent a lot more time learning from the online community of librarians than ever before too (SLN, webinars from CILIP and SLA, new Facebook groups aimed at librarians in lockdown, Twitter); whatever you want to do, inevitably you’ll find a librarian somewhere who has already answered your question, found the perfect tool for the job or created a ready-made resource that you can reuse.

My experience so far has not allowed much time for reflection; I have, however, registered for Chartership Revalidation with CILIP and also for the SLA’s Certificate of CPD engagement in order to force myself to take some time to reflect. For example, here are just some of the CPD/tech skills I’ve developed in the six weeks since lockdown:

  • Create and publish a simple Google site

  • Join, host and record video meetings with staff and students

  • Access eBooks, audiobooks, online newspapers and magazines from local public libraries

  • Download and read eBooks for myself on multiple platforms and apps: VLeBooks, ePlatform, Libby & Cloud Library

  • Create themed YouTube playlists of my Screencastify tutorials, e.g. Using Oliver (the library catalogue) for teachers, How to access our eBook collections

  • Learn how to “unlock” up to 30% of a print book through the CLA’s Education Platform for teachers to share digital copies legally with students

  • Deliver a virtual library induction for new staff including “tour” of library and demo of using the library catalogue and our online resources

  • Set up a Google Classroom to share resources with our Carnegie Shadowing book club

  • Use Wakelet to collect and share content quickly and attractively, e.g. Economics resources for the Year 11 essay competition

One of my pre-lockdown goals was to develop some bite-sized information literacy resources online; the fact that I was forced to do so at speed and from home has helped show me how I can support teaching and learning, even when the library itself is closed.

Written by Terri McCargar

Librarian, Latymer Upper School, Hammersmith, London.

Twitter: @Latymer_library

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