5 Steps to Help You Walk Away From the Shelves (and stop being the keeper of the books)

You might be a librarian if…

there are never enough hours in the day.

items on your to-do list grow at an exponentially faster rate than they are checked off of that same list.

you wish you had more time to spend on the aspects of your job that excite and inspire you.

Earlier this week I was reminded of something I was told in one of my early Master’s courses – people are going to believe that your job is what they see you doing.  I know that as a librarian, I am so much more than the keeper of books, but if every time my principal or a colleague walks into my space, I am checking in, sorting, and reshelving books, how can I convince them of that?  And as a lone librarian on a fixed schedule in a school of 700, I have a lot of books that need to be checked in, sorted, and reshelved.  I used to try and do it all myself, but over the years, and much trial and education (not necessarily “errors”), I have finally found a system that works for me.  If you’re working on trying to find your own way to be more than the books, keep reading.  Because here are five steps that can help you walk away from the shelves:

1) Recruit Student Helpers

I can hear some of you now saying “but they don’t always put things back correctly, they don’t do it the same way I do, it’s faster for me to just do it myself”, and if that’s what you’re thinking, I’m here to tell you – you’re right. You are absolutely right that sometimes books will end up in the wrong place, and sometimes a book won’t get scanned in properly, and sometimes at the beginning of the year it will take too long to sort the check-ins, and that’s ok.  I’ll say it again – that’s ok.  When I first started using student helpers to check in books, reshelve them, and make displays for me, I had a hard time letting go.  I like my space to look neat and organized and “pretty”, I have a system for sorting my books, I know which books students will immediately grab from a display.  But on one of those early days, a third grade teacher came down to pick up her class and I made an offhanded comment about my library looking a little messy.  To this day, her response sticks with me.  After I had lamented that the posters they made weren’t all hung straight and some books were piling up, she just looked at me and easily responded “I think it looks great – it looks like it belongs to the kids now”.  And in that instant, my viewpoint changed – she was right.  It did, in fact, look more like a library that belonged to my students.  Their poems and posters hung on the walls, their names were above the shelves that “belonged” to them, they were the ones walking around straightening shelves and putting books back during their lunch time while I taught other classes.  It truly was a student-centered space, created and maintained by them.  And to this day, I try to remind myself of that every time I start to think “oh my goodness, I don’t feel like training anyone right now, I should just do it myself”.  Because when the students feel like the library is their space, they are more likely to treat it that way.  And because allowing students to take ownership as the keepers of the books, allows me to use my time much more effectively.

2)  Reach Out to Parents

One of the benefits of teaching every student in my building is that I have the ability to reach out to all of their parents when I’m trying to advocate for support.  While many parents want to volunteer in their child’s classroom, all it takes is two or three reliable parent volunteers to come in and clear off entire carts of books.  How do I reach out?  I send out a Weclome Back flier at the beginning of the year, that includes a link to a google form they can fill out, I talk to them at back to school night, school events, pta meetings, book fairs.  I have found that the best way to try and get help in your library (or supplies like tissues, hand sanitizer, etc) is word of mouth!  Parents talk.  They talk a lot.  They are your best resource for reaching other parents and encouraging them to help you.  I have to be honest here though, I appreciate my student helpers more than most parent helpers I’ve had for the simple reason that students are already at school.  They won’t be late, or sick, or have something come up.

3)  Engage with Substitutes

Teachers get planning time built into their schedules, but when there is a substitute in the building that planning time often equates to free time.  Now in some schools, your administration might have tasks for them during that planning time, or a substitute may want to decompress during that time.  But I strongly encourage you to talk with your office secretaries and subs themselves, about possibly using that time to help you sort or shelve books.  Now not all substitutes know where your books go, and often there is some explanation that happens when a partnership like this begins.  But after a month or so, if you have regular substitutes (which we often do to cover teachers for meetings they need to attend), it translates into frequent support for your shelving needs.

4)  Have a Set System

Most librarians have an organizational system that works for their student population.  In an elementary school, that might mean having certain series, authors, or categories of books in specific locations or bins for students to easily access.  These should be clearly labelled for students to begin with, but that becomes especially important when students, parents, and/or substitutes are putting your books away.  If you’ve created new categories for picture book bins since a 5th grade helper was in 1st or 2nd grade, they need to be able to easily recognize that, and you need to include that information when you train them.  Likewise, you should have a set system for sorting books that have been checked in.  My library sees anywhere from 200-500 books returned each day, and they need a place to go.  I use separate labelled carts for picture books (sorted by author) and non-fiction books (sorted by whole number dewey) and then use labels on the desk near my computer to sort fiction books by genre (they’re genrefied).  This makes it easy for someone who only has 15-20 minutes to pop in and just grab a stack to put back.  It also makes it easy for me to assign students who come to help at lunch a specific shelf because I only need to show them where on the carts/desk the books that go on their shelf are located.  Even better?  All of my students know that they’re allowed to check the carts/desk for books when they’re looking during check-out time, and they know where the ones they want are, which means a lot of times my most popular titles get checked out before anyone has to reshelve them at all.

5)  Let Go

Your shelves will never be perfect.  Once in a while, you may not be able to find a book you know is in.  Your books may spend more time between check-in and being reshelved.  But…YOU WILL HAVE MORE TIME.  More time to teach students.  More time to collaborate with and support teachers.  More time to reach out and advocate to parents and community stakeholders.  More time to impress your administration with all of the wonderful things you do.  And most importantly, when your principal, colleague, parent, or community member walks into your library, they will see you as so much more than the keeper of the books.   

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