Saturday, 30 May 2020

School Librarians After Lockdown - how can we build on an interest in reading?

According to a recent survey by The Reading Agency, nearly 1 in 3 people are reading more than before during lockdown. This rises to almost one in two people (45%) in the 18 – 25 year age group. Reasons given for this increase in reading include “a form of release, escapism or distraction” and many people said “having more time was a key driver”. I suspect if you looked at the statistics for younger people you would find similar increases. Many school librarians are working from home, supporting students remotely, and they have reported an increase in engagement with reading, often from students who have previously shown no interest or who have rarely visited the school library to borrow a book. Students are signing up to e-book platforms, accessing e-books from both their school and public libraries, requesting recommendations (and making them to their peers). The things that have always distracted students – such as social media, video games, TV, etc. – are still there. So why this increased interest in reading? More time may be a factor but I think that many of them have simply discovered the benefits of reading for pleasure.

The impact of reading for pleasure has been well documented. The National Literacy Trust has undertaken several studies into this, as has BookTrust, if you’d like to read further but in addition to improving vocabulary, writing skills, concentration and memory, reading for pleasure also helps to reduce stress, aids sleep and foster wellbeing. The work of school librarians during lockdown highlights this importance aspect of their role - it seems obvious to me that if we want children to read then they need access to a wide and diverse range of books, and the best person to help them find what they need is a school librarian. It should also be said that “reading for pleasure” does not simply constitute reading fiction; any sort of reading counts – fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels, comics, wordless picture books, manuals, journals. I am currently browsing through books on acrylic painting techniques in an attempt to improve my skills - I’m actually “reading for information” but am still enjoying it and find it relaxing. So we can’t assume that just because somebody is reading for information they’re not also reading for pleasure; the two are not mutually exclusive. IFLA School Library Guidelines consider that school librarians should “support the individual preferences of readers, and acknowledge their individual rights to choose what they want to read”.

So how can school librarians build on this renewed interest when students finally go back to school and the library is reopened? Many students will want to go back to physical books. Some who have discovered the delights of reading via e-books may be encouraged to try out a physical book, particularly one by an author they’ve enjoyed or in a genre they’ve connected with. But I suspect that, sadly, several may just put books and reading aside.

·         If a school library hasn’t really offered e-books before then this is certainly something that should be considered. Not to replace physical books but to offer them as an alternative format alongside audio books – and this may well have budget implications so if schools want their students to continue reading they need to fund their libraries adequately. 

·         School librarians have been able to provide a more one-to-one service with support and recommendations, promoting books, and related websites and activities. I suspect this is because they’ve been able to concentrate on putting together resources without the innumerable ad-hoc interruptions that occur during a normal day in the library. These tend to result in ideas and initiatives being pushed down the list and, eventually, forgotten or half-started and abandoned. So staffing is another factor – if schools want their librarians to continue providing these services then provision needs to be made so they have uninterrupted time in which to create them.

·         Outreach during the past few weeks has, by necessity, been online. Several schools don’t allow their school librarians to connect via social media platforms but have had to relax the rules a bit. It would be great if these connections could continue. Many students won’t go near the library during the school day as it’s not considered a “cool” place to be seen in so this online presence allows them to continue to explore reading in an anonymous way.

·         For the majority of students a period of transition will be needed. Some will have experienced bereavement; others will have experienced abuse; those who do not consider school a safe space will probably experience high levels of anxiety; and most students are likely to feel some sort of stress about returning to school. Student wellbeing needs to be a priority and the library – and reading – has a huge role to play here in supporting students and staff so try to ensure you are included in any wellbeing initiatives, and continue to engage with the students that have connected with you during lockdown.

·         I think the largest factor at play is going to be time. Students are going to be back into the usual busy routine of lessons, activities, homework, etc. plus there will be the added pressure of everyone trying to assess how much they need to do to “catch up”. When planning all of this, it would be fantastic if some time could be given to “reading for pleasure” – time to explore and talk about books, to find out what students have been reading and why, and to build on this unexpected legacy from lockdown. 

Tuesday, 28 April 2020

Grief, Anger and Loss - School Librarians and Furloughing

We are living through strange times. A worldwide pandemic, social distancing, lockdown. For many this means working from home; however there are quite a few school librarians who have been furloughed.  You might be forgiven for thinking they’d consider that’s a great idea; they can do all those projects they never had time for or they can sit and read all day.

But the reality is, for many, very different. Furloughing is temporary suspension. The problem is that nobody knows how temporary, there’s a huge unknown quantity to this situation – when will schools reopen, will this be partial, will some people still have to social distance? And this unknown element makes everything feel as though we’re in limbo, swimming through murky waters without any sense of direction. It makes it difficult to actually start any of those projects. Personally I’ve found it very hard to focus on anything that requires even a minimum level of concentration; I’ve lost count of the amount of knitting I’ve had to unpick because I’ve gone wrong and the reading I’m doing has dropped dramatically!

Furloughing can feel a bit like redundancy. I’m a freelance consultant and yes, all my outside work has been cancelled but I also work a lot from home as well as being involved with several committees so part of this feels “normal” to me. However, I have previously been made redundant and have also off sick with work-related stress and anxiety (another aspect which has a huge unknown element to it) so I know very much from a personal aspect what it can feel like to be told of a decision that requires a significant adjustment and change to your life. 

When you are told that you’re going to be furloughed yet see other staff continue to work, the immediate response is often one of shock and shame - isn’t my job worthwhile, doesn’t the work I’ve been doing for the past “however many” years count, why me, what’s going to happen to the students, to the library? So many school librarians put their heart and soul into their libraries (and note the use of the word “their” it really does become a very personal space), they work above and beyond their contracted hours supporting students and staff. They love their jobs – to most it’s more of a vocation. And being told you’re being furloughed can result in a definite loss of self-esteem.

You know that you can continue to provide a service to students and staff, you see librarians in other schools doing this – the internet is currently awash with online resources and activities created by librarians – and yet your school doesn’t want you to do this. Even though logically you tell yourself this is a business decision it still hurts. You feel guilty for being at home, doing nothing and still being paid, when others are working. You feel as though the school doesn’t value you or your work – and this has an emotional impact leading to feelings of loss, grief and isolation. 

And the big question going round in your head, the elephant in the room, is – if the school copes without a librarian or library for several weeks will they decide they can continue to do so? Will I actually have a job to go back to?

One thing that struck me when thinking about all this was that if the job was “just” about books then it would be easy to move everything online. But it isn’t and never has been. A huge part of the role is one-to-one personal interaction with students – knowing their reading habits, likes and interests so you can give them individual recommendations; taking ad-hoc opportunities to deliver digital literacy skills when they ask about resources for their work; just being there as a trusted person to talk to in a safe space. All these are hard to do remotely. And it occurred to me that perhaps the reason for some librarians being furloughed was because those making this decision have decided that the lack of students in school means this aspect of the job, the personal side, couldn't physically happen. I know there's a huge amount of things we can do to support students online not to mention the never-ending admin work but few people see that side of the job. This personal aspect is why librarians are important and why I think schools will need them when this is all over – more so than ever as there’ll be huge discrepancies in home education to balance out plus an impact on children’s and young people’s mental health and wellbeing that we’ll all need to support.

But there’s no doubt that the feelings generated by being furloughed, together with any worry about at risk or vulnerable family and friends, are creating a lot of stress and anxiety, and impacting on people’s mental health. So I would say to any librarians who have been furloughed and are struggling, the first thing you need to prioritise is your own wellbeing. Stress and anxiety result in physical reactions – they vary but can include tiredness, a lack of motivation, sleep disturbances, headaches, changes in appetite – so it’s important to maintain a programme of self-care: a healthy diet, enough sleep, exercise, continued contact with family and friends, carry on with hobbies and interests, incorporate relaxation and mindfulness into your routine. Mental Health UK has some ideas and downloadable resources that might help but a search for “wellbeing” will give you lots more.

The thing to remember if you’ve been furloughed is that while you can’t do any work directed by the school, there’s nothing to stop you undertaking self-directed CPD. This can be for personal development or to help you improve the service you deliver. An example of this is keeping up-to-date with books being published. Knowing what’s available is part of our skills as librarians. I keep lists of books on various topics with keywords and age recommendations so that when I’m asked to evaluate a collection and make recommendations to fill gaps I can do so fairly quickly. Thus there’s nothing stopping you from doing the same – so that when schools reopen, you can order new books and create new book lists. 

There’s a huge amount of CPD opportunities currently available. I won’t list them all but have a look at FutureLearn for MOOCs, investigate TED talks on the topic of library, listen to some of the 13 Must-Hear Librarian podcasts, have a look at the School Library Association website for some further ideas, read that pile of professional journals and jot down any ideas for future events and activities, investigate professional e-books you can read. Stay connected with your work colleagues – you should still be receiving school emails so that you are kept informed and up-to-date with the situation; just remember that you can’t respond to any requests for advice, etc. (and yes, I know, it’s hard not to!). Make sure you add in some leisure activities. I’m writing more letters to friends and family, and sending that physical connection helps me, I’ve added the National Theatre At Home, Cirque De Soleil and The Shows Must Go On to my viewing each week, I’ve made myself do more painting (something I’ve been promising myself for ages) instead of sitting at my desk clicking from article to article feeling like I should be doing something productive. And if you’re a member of CILIP then this is an ideal time to think about your Chartership portfolio or Revalidation. Finally, you could always think about writing up a case study for the Great School Libraries Campaign – something around a project, event or activity you do. Have a look at the website for examples and a template. 

Everyone will have different experiences and different reactions to this situation; there’s no right or wrong response. The important thing is to find what works for you and above all, stay well and stay safe.

Thursday, 19 March 2020

Help - how can I survive with the children at home!

My blogs tend to be about library and reading-related things but in these rather strange times I thought I’d pass on a few tips about coping with having children at home for an extended period, and how to help both them and you maintain your sanity and sense of perspective. I’m not going to post a list on online resources, social media is full of these (so many that my head is spinning – and thanks to everyone who is putting stuff out there for people to use), this is more of a “how to” list. It relates more to younger children but will also help those having to deal with teens as well:
* Structure your day. I know from working at home how important this is. If you don’t then the day will just wander away and everyone will get fed-up, bored and rather disheartened very quickly. Children are also used to (and like) structure; it gives them a sense of security. This is important for young children but applies to older ones as well; those that are used to “doing their own thing” in the holidays, and being out and about with friends. Don’t forget, when they are at school their day is organised.

* The easiest way to do this is to break the day down into timed slots and allocate activities for each one. They don’t have to be detailed at this stage, just an indication of whether it’s going to be learning activities, creative time, quiet time, screen time, etc. Keep it simple; if you make it too complicated you are unlikely to stick to it. Depending on the age of your children, these could be 30 minute or 1 hour slots. Or you could follow their school timings.

·        * Then – plan what you want to do for the week. This is where you allocate specific topics and ideas into each slot. If you’ve been given activities, a curriculum, etc. from school use them. Make sure you set goals and give rewards too. And mix it up a bit for variety. Planning what you want to do in advance will save you having to think “what shall we do next”. Have more activities organised than you think you’ll need – children often take less time to do things than you think they will. And if they don’t show any interest in what you’ve got planned you have a back-up.

·       *  It doesn’t all have to be “traditional education”. Children learn through play. They learn by helping you make cakes, by playing with water and different sizes of containers, by playing games. Life will still need to go on around them being home (ie: washing, cleaning, cooking) so involve them.

·        * One of the best pieces of advice I ever read (which stopped me stressing) was that if you give a child a chore to do, remember they can only do it according to their level not yours. So, for example, if you ask them to dust they may not do it quite the same way as you. Eliminate unnecessary tasks. Yes, bathrooms and kitchens need to be clean but this isn’t the time to defrost the freezer or worry about washing the windows. It can all wait!

·        * Don’t try and fit everything into one week. You may have to prioritise the core subjects and leave others on the back burner for now. It’s important for younger children to maintain literacy skills (research shows that these drop during the long summer break) so read, read, read … and then read some more. Note - reading doesn’t have to be story books – recipes, instructions, information books, it’s all good practice.

·        * Also remember, you’re not expected to be an expert in every subject they’re studying. It’s okay to say you don’t know something or don’t understand. Find out the answer together (one of the things I loved about being a school librarian was how I was always learning something new thanks to random questions from students). Let them explain things to you – this is a great way of reinforcing what they’ve learnt.

·        * If you have children of different ages at home it can be hard. The younger children often want to do the same as the older ones but they don’t have the equivalent skills or expertise. The temptation is to give the older children worksheets and devote time to their younger siblings. But all your children need some time and attention from you. Why not involve the older children in some of the activities? For example, they could act as “reading buddies” – reading to younger children or listening to them read. Think about activities that they can all do at their individual level or games that are based on luck rather than skill. Also, if it's possible try to give them some time-out from each other.

·        * However – stay flexible! It’s your schedule so you can change it. The idea is to give you some sort of aim and guidance for the day/week but if you’ve had a bad night, if everyone suddenly feels a little bit wobbly, take time out, cuddle up under a blanket and watch a feel-good film or read a book.

·        * Make sure you build in some break times. If it’s dry and you have a garden, get outside. If you live in an area where you can go for walks, do that. Cycling is another option. Fresh air and being outdoors is good for wellbeing. Have the break times after some desk work so the children can burn off some energy. Any sort of vigorous exercise (depending on your circumstance) is probably best in the afternoon when they will have had enough of being indoors and sitting still. Limit snacks to break times – and make sure they understand this – otherwise they’ll be asking for food all day. 

·        * Set up a workspace and use it every day. People who work from home have desks; I know when I sit at mine my brain switches into "work” mode. If I’m lounging on the sofa in PJs this doesn’t happen (or, what is more likely, making the mistake of picking up my latest book first thing in the morning before I’ve even got out of bed). Have all the necessary materials close at hand so that you’re not spending time trying to find them. Get a couple of boxes to store everything in – it will make your life easier and less stressful.

·        * If you have to work from home AND home-educate children accept that your productivity is going to be lower. This won’t work with young children; it might work with older ones but they will still need some sort of direction and input from you. Keep things in perspective. This is not going to last indefinitely; enjoy the opportunity you have to spend more time together. Remember that feeling of "it's never going to be the same again" when they started school? Now you've got a chance to grab some of that special time back. 

·        * Screen time! This is likely to be where you have your biggest arguments. It’s going to be hard but it will be better for them, for all sorts of reasons, to limit it. A lot of what is available and what the school sends for them to do will be online. During a normal school day they would not be spending this much time looking at a screen so letting them chill with the iPad or in front of Netflix wouldn’t have the same effect. However, if they are spending all day doing screen work and then spending downtime in front of screens, there will be no balance. Try to mix up screen activities with creative and practical activities. If you don’t have enough computers for all the family then sort out a rota. And make sure you don’t spend all day on your phone yourself.

·        * Finally – if you have younger children and you’ve just had enough – stick them in the bath! Mine were always so amazed at having a bath in the middle of the day that they would play for hours! Doesn’t quite work the same for older children although you could always set it up as a spa with candles, chillout music and a good book!

Tuesday, 13 August 2019


Every so often a discussion about weeding school libraries appears on social media with many respondents giving anecdotes about how they’ve had to “sneak” old books out of the library and dispose of them in the recycle bin at home. And yes, I’ve done this too – numerous times.

I’ve tried to explain to staff why these books weren’t suitable but, for some, the thought of getting rid of a book is almost heresy. And yet school libraries are not archives or depositories, most don’t have huge store rooms in which to keep shelf upon shelf of books. And quantity should not be confused with quality.

At a time when budgets are low or even non-existent (yes, you read that right – some librarians are expected to maintain their usual service, run promotions and activities, encourage and support students reading - all with no money whatsoever) the temptation is to hang onto every book on your shelves regardless of their condition or age. However, weeding is an important aspect of collection management because:

  • It will improve the appearance of your library. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve weeded a shelf of old, worn stock only to be asked if I’ve bought new books. People just don’t see the new stuff on the shelves when it’s hidden by the old.
  • Getting rid of old stock gives you more space to show off your lovely new and much better books, which usually results in an increase in loans.
  •  Most libraries have limited shelf space. Every book should earn its place on the shelf. Thus weeding out those that are no longer borrowed (for many reasons) means you can make the best use of the space available.
  •  The curriculum changes. The needs of students and staff change. Thus, if a school library is going to remain relevant, its stock must also adjust to reflect these changes.
  • If your shelves are packed full of books that are out-of-date and irrelevant to your students then it will take them twice as long to find anything useful. Weeding saves them time. It also encourages them to browse and they are more likely to find something suitable, engendering repeat visits.
  •  A school library collection should contain a diverse and inclusive range of books written by different authors and illustrators, containing a myriad of characters in various situations. Older stock is unlikely to have this representation so it is important to replace it with newer and more diverse books.
  •  A school library collection should be dynamic, attractive and useful – and the only way to achieve this is via regular weeding.

So … having decided you’re going to weed your collection, how do you do it? A tip – don’t put “weed the collection” on your to-do list, it will never get done because that’s too large a remit. Break it down into sections such as “Fiction books with author’s surnames beginning with A” or “Dewey number 200s”.

  • The first place to start is with the condition of the book. Regardless of how important you think it is - sticky, stained, mouldy and smelly books are not nice - get rid of them! Likewise books that have become discoloured or been water-damaged so they’ve gone hard and crinkly. A book in any of these conditions is unappealing and unlikely to be picked up by anyone, even your most avid readers.

    If a book is well-used it will become worn and eventually fall apart. You can sometimes do a repair job to gain a few additional loans but eventually there will come a point when you have to admit defeat and let it go. I am still scarred by an Agatha Christie book I borrowed that had the last two pages missing so I never found out “whodunit”.

  • Check how old the book is by looking at the publication date and note if there have been any revisions or new editions. The general rule is that you should not stock books over ten years old (obviously different rules apply for fiction) but there are exceptions - have you seen the images in a computer book published more than ten years ago? And it’s not just images that date; facts change over time. East and West Germany no longer exist. This seems obvious to most of us but if you are 12, 13, 14 years of age then it’s perfectly feasible that, if you read about East and West Germany in a book, you’ll accept this as the truth. After all, we have North and South Korea so why not have other divided countries.

    It’s important for school libraries to have accurate and up-to-date books. It’s not our job to check every resource each student uses – we don’t have the time apart from anything else – our job is to teach students how to find (and hopefully evaluate) information. If we have stock that is inaccurate and they use it to do their homework or revise for a test, and get it wrong, who is to blame? I think students can reasonably expect the resources they are offered in school to help with their learning to be relevant and correct.What I would say though is don’t automatically throw everything out because it’s old. Poetry books by dead poets, art books about dead artists are unlikely to change much. However, check them as their presentation and language may be off-putting and unsuitable for your age groups.

    And … you need to consider each book’s place within the overall collection. Is it the ONLY book available on that topic and is it used? Many years ago I had a cohort of students who were very enthusiastic model makers and asked me to get some books for them. The only ones I could find were second-hand, online and rather dated. But I bought them and the students loved (and used) them.

  • When was the book last borrowed? This can give an indication of its usefulness although it’s not always an accurate measure for non-fiction as many information books are used just in the library but it’s a good rationale for fiction. If a book hasn’t been borrowed in at least five years then it is unlikely to be in demand in the near future. If your fiction shelves are jam-packed and you need space for new books then consider reducing this time to 3 or 4 years. The other aspect to think about is the cover as this can date a book. Is the cover still appealing for today’s teens and young adults?

    ore you undertake this cull you need to be aware of forthcoming books, what’s on award lists, what books are being made into films as well as trends in genres and authors as all these could have an impact on your stock usage. A film-from-a-book is likely to result in the book being borrowed.There will ALWAYS be exceptions; for example, books signed by the author. And personally I find it much harder to weed fiction; especially if it’s a book I’ve read and loved but sometimes you just have to let them go...

  • Another aspect to consider is representation; the depiction of people, races, cultures, religions, etc. Older books sometimes portray unacceptable attitudes and ideas that are better read together, put into context and discussed. This can’t happen with individual borrowing. Do all your fiction books have female characters as sidekicks in supporting roles? Are all the heroes or villains male? Have a look at images in your books - do they always show men and women in traditional roles? I recently removed a weather book from a library that showed jobs and activities affected by the weather – all being done by men – whilst the TV weather forecaster was a smiley woman!

Weeding allows you to assess your collection for accuracy, currency, diversity, relevance and usage, and it should be done on a regular basis. Ideally it should also be linked to a policy giving guidelines on selection criteria.

I hope I’ve given you some ammunition to back up your decisions next time you are challenged on why you are removing books from the shelves. Of course, if you manage to do this you’ll have lots of shelf space to fill with newer titles. How you can do this with a minimal budget will have to wait for another blog. Meanwhile I’ll leave you with the words of the Children’s Laureate, Cressida Cowell:

We need public and school libraries where the books look modern and exciting and relevant to the children’s lives, like sweets, not brussels sprouts.”

Monday, 1 July 2019

The School Librarian of the Year Award

Last Thursday I was delighted to attend the School Librarian of the Year Award in London. It was held in the Millennium Gloucester Hotel and included afternoon tea, on an absolutely gorgeous set of “Alice” crockery (although as it was hand-wash only I felt sorry for the person having to deal with it all afterwards).

This event is one of the highlights of my calendar as it’s always such a joyous occasion although I’m pleased I don’t have to make the final decision as to the winner. School librarianship is a strange beast. Whilst you could be forgiven for thinking that every school librarian position would be the same - after all schools deal with a narrow age range of pupils all at the same stages of their lives and thus experiencing the same exams, events, etc. so surely their needs are similar? - when you actually look at what each of us do within individual schools it varies enormously depending on the ethos and priorities of the school, support from SMT and budgets. Which makes it very hard to compare like-with-like.  

This year there were three school librarians on the Honour List:

Ros Harding from The King’s School Chester (winner)

Chantal Kelleher from Herne Bay High School

Helen Cleaves from Kingston Grammar School

If you look at their profiles on the School Library Association website, you will see what an asset they all are to their respective schools. One of the features of the afternoon is a video created by each school highlighting the work of their librarian and why they were nominated. What is striking when you watch these isn’t so much the physical aspects of their libraries (wonderful that they are) or even the librarians themselves but the impact they’ve had on their students and staff.

And what this highlights is that you can have a room full of the latest books or cutting-edge technology but without that professional librarian to oversee it, the synergy between students, staff and resources just isn’t going to happen. School librarians are catalysts and facilitators, and without them the "library" will simply be a room full of “stuff”. It may be used on an ad-hoc piecemeal basis. Some teachers may take their classes in to change books. It could even be packed at breaktimes with a member of staff supervising students. But the library and its resources will certainly not be used to its full potential, you need a librarian for this – engendering reading, supporting teaching and learning, providing a safe space for all students.

Have a look at the videos and you’ll see what I mean. The most powerful parts are where students and staff are talking about their librarians. If you work in a school and are lucky enough to have a school librarian, do you really know what they do, and how they can support you and your students? Are you using them to their full potential, utilising their skills, experience and knowledge to bring value-added to all aspects of your school? And if you’re in one of those schools that don’t have a school library and/or librarian (and several don’t) maybe it’s time to ask the powers-that-be why not? Because the people losing out here are your students ….

Tuesday, 30 April 2019

MAY 2019 - Updated course/event list

An updated list – as at May 2019.  New events are in red to make them easier to spot. 

7 May, Sheffield Hallam University, 9.30am
Free event aimed at HE staff and academic study skills practitioners

CILIP Youth Libraries Group London
8 May, 6pm – 8.30pm

CILIP Youth Libraries Group North East Training Day
18 May, 10am – 3.30pm, Newcastle City Library

CILIP Youth Libraries Group London
21 May, Canada Water Library, 9.00am – 4.15pm

Herts SLA branch
22 May, Beaumont School, St Albans, 9am – 12 noon
Free for SLA members; £5 donation for non-members

Contact: Julie Vance,

School Library Association course
23 May, Ely, Cambridgeshire
Aimed at primary and secondary schools

CILIP School Libraries Group (SLG)
31 May, details TBC

School Library Association Course
5 June, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire
Aimed at KS2 and secondary school librarians

School Library Association Course
11 June, Heath Educational Books, Surrey
Aimed at primary and secondary schools; discount for Heath’s customers

11 June, 9.30am – 3.00pm, Wirral Grammar Schools for Girls

·         AGM
CILIP Youth Libraries Group
12 June, Nosy Crow, London
Contact details: TBC – sign up for news of events at

School Library Association
19 June, 9.30am – 3.00pm, Heath Educational Books, Surrey

Brooklands Farm Primary School, Milton Keynes
19 June 3.00pm – 5.30pm
Free twilight session organised by Peters

20 – 21 June, Wellington College, Berkshire

School Library Association/Youth Library Association Weekend course
21 – 23 June, Birmingham


CILIP Youth Libraries Group, South East
26 June, 9.30am – 4pm, Bromley Library

3 – 4 July, University of Manchester

UKLA 55th International Conference
12 – 14 July, Sheffield

26 – 28 July, Olympia, London

Sunday, 31 March 2019


The School Library Association Berkshire branch recently held an Unconference. This was our second such day and, like the first, was very successful. For those who have never attended an Unconference before, they are a fairly informal CPD event where the attendees drive the topics and discussions. However, our day was a mix of formal and informal activities. We had arranged talks from Alison Tarrant, CE of the SLA; author, Mez Blume; and RISC, the Reading International Solidarity Centre plus had two informal breakout discussions.

I delivered a session on book groups – a sort of “how to” rather than a list of ideas and suggestions:


·       Book groups promote and encourage reading – this is what librarians do and running such groups are part and parcel of our arsenal! Books and reading are our USP.

·       The majority of schools provide extra-curricular activities with staff organising all sorts of things outside lessons and librarians are no exception. Book groups count as an extra-curricular activity – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

·       Reading is, by its nature, solitary; book groups allow students to share and talk about what they’re reading, they turn reading into a social event. Anyone who loves reading also tends to like talking about books!

·       An open reading group where anyone can sign up will tend to attract the same people; unsurprisingly, those who like reading.  There’s nothing wrong with this and it’s great for students to have “their” place in the school. However, book groups can be used to target specific students – low ability readers, reluctant readers, more-able students, etc. It needs collaboration with the English departments to identify students and an invitation to attend rather than a general “sign up if interested” but focused groups can work well. I’ve run several smaller groups like this with great success, for example, a group of reluctant year 9 students who read Anne Cassidy books and then went to see “Looking for JJ” performed at a local theatre. (Warning – some of her books are for older readers rather than teens).
The other option to consider is limiting it to a specific year group. This will enable you to select books that are more suitable for the ages represented plus it can be less intimidating for younger students to mix with their peers.


The automatic response to this is to try and get as many students as possible interested but too many people in a group tends to make it a bit unfocused and chaotic with little time for useful discussion and sharing. Also, if you want everyone to read the same book then you’ll need lots of copies.

There are solutions. A large group could be split into smaller groups, each of them reading the same book (the BookTrust School Library Pack is excellent for this). You could also split the group into pairs or threes but both of these options take more time and effort to organise.

Not enough participants can make the whole thing a bit flat, especially if some of them don’t come to every meeting; it’s hard to generate any sort of buzz or discussion with 2 people.  However, I always feel that if you’ve made an impact on just one student, turned just one of them into a reader then you’ve been successful.

The recommended number is around 8 – 10 so if some don’t turn up then the group still works.


The obvious answer to this is “in the library” – hopefully surrounded by a wide-ranging and curated collection so you can suggest further books along the lines of “this is similar”, “if you liked that then try this” or even “you might find this interesting, give it a go”. 
The group certainly needs to be held in a quiet place with few interruptions which can sometimes be difficult. If you can a separate room off the library, that might work but only if you have staff or responsible students running the library when you’re not there. Of course, if you have a pro-active reading group that have taken ownership on board then it’s feasible that you can leave them to get on with things themselves but, as a librarian, it’s nice to have some input, form those relationships and talk books with them.

The frequency of meetings really will depend on the type of groups you are running. If you’re shadowing a book award then it’s likely you’ll need frequent meetings in order to get through the shortlist in the time available. Monthly or half-termly meetings mean less pressure and fewer clashes with other activities but may not be frequent enough to keep the impetus going, particularly if you’re working with reluctant or less-able readers.

When really does depend on your specific circumstances. Before or after school can work and it’s often easier to close the library at that time but if you have students who are “bussed” in then it won’t be very inclusive. Break is another possibility providing you have management support to shut the library at that time or staff who can run things as normal. During tutor time? That depends on how long it is as any group will need a certain amount of time to be successful.

Basically, you have to work with what you’ve got and sort out whatever suits your situation. But there’s usually a way round problems and if the school has any sort of focus on reading or literacy then this gives you a reason to push for time to run a book group.


·       Start with refreshments and time to chat.

·       Get their immediate reaction to the book.

·       Move onto questions – What is the book about? What messages does it have? Plot/characters (the CKG criteria is good for this particularly with more-able readers)?  Favourite bit?
How much you discuss and in what depth will depend on what you want from the group. Do you just want it to be about book chat, an exchange of opinions or more of an analysis of the book?
If you do decide to use questions it’s a good idea to prepare them in advance.

·       Have you read anything similar?

·       Activities – if you have time and want to do them.
These could be linked to the book or vaguely book-related. We’ve done things like read “Mister Creecher” by Chris Priestley then researched organ transplant/cloning and discussed the ethics around these. Or created posters based on books read and used them in a library display. Or coloured in bookmarks as a mindfulness activity around exam time.


Anything and everything is the simple answer! It’s important to let the students choose although, to a certain extent, this will be determined by availability. But there are lots of things you could try:

·       Put all their suggestions into a pot and have a lucky dip or vote on them.

·       If there’s an author visit students are able to attend then link with this.

·       Likewise, if you know a film based on a book is about to be released.

·       Occasionally plays are linked to books – again, a good idea for a book choice and follow-up visit.

·       Don’t forget about picture books, graphic novels, comics, information books. You could shadow the Kate Greenaway Award (illustrations) or the Excelsior Award (graphic novels) or the SLA Information Book Award.

·       A great session I’ve run is revisiting childhood picture books. Things like Spot, Bear Hunt, Hungry Caterpillar, etc. It generated so much talk and excitement!

·       Although you’ll probably have to plan what you’re going to read in advance because of getting copies of the books and preparing questions/activities, be adaptable and open to trying something unusual.


One of the main problems with running a book group is sourcing the books. Unless you have a large budget (and are happy buying multiple copies of a book) then this is a problem for most librarians.

As mentioned previously, the BookTrust School Library Pack is excellent for use with book groups as eligible schools receive 5 copies of each title. Consider collaboration. Get together with local schools and borrow copies of their books - this also works for Carnegie titles. It’s not unusual to find, a couple of years after an award, that you have several copies of the shortlisted books on the shelves which aren’t being borrowed. Yes, it takes a bit of cooperation and helps if you plan in advance so the books can be exchanged at meetings but it’s much cheaper than buying them.

Check out the public library. Many of them have schemes whereby groups can borrow sets of books. There’s usually an annual fee and the titles will be more suitable for older readers but it’s another source of material.

If you are lucky enough to still have an SLS contact them and see if they can help.

Once you’ve sorted out your list, ask parents/staff for donations – particularly if they’re popular books. And check out local charity shops.

Finally … don’t forget the PTA! And if you’re lucky enough to get funding for multiple copies, once you’ve used the books don’t allow them to gather dust in a cupboard, let others know they are available (see above) …

NB. I haven’t mentioned e-books as this will depend on access and hardware availability but they are another possibility.


·       Make it fun. It’s their decision whether to come or not and it should be “reading for pleasure” so no testing or reviews (unless they want to).

·       Give students ownership of the group.

·       Organise social events such as an end of term party.

·       Be flexible – sometimes talk goes off at a tangent and is nothing to do with the book in question. They’re teenagers and have a lot going on so maybe that week they just need time to chill or work through a few worries.

·       Food is important …