The challenge of implementing change

By Angela Platt

Implementing change is a process that requires time, empathy, and a shared vision between school library staff and school management teams. Angela Platt shares her experiences.

During my spare time in my school library, I was recently perusing various blogs, Pinterest, Twitter, etc – looking for any new library-related ideas, examples of best practice and developments which I should know about. One such blog that piqued my interest on this occasion was ‘Day in the life’ by Caroline Roche – the section of her blog that allows various school library professionals to ruminate about what a day’s work is like for them. It was intriguing for me to note such variety in the days of each of these individuals. Some days were jam-packed with teaching and instruction, while others were dominated by organisational and admin activities. Some mentioned library assistants, helpers, and senior management providing all-day assistance, while others made clear the challenges of being the sole librarian in a school.

I have found this variety of experience to be the subject of many conversations I have been privy to, both online and while attending Continuing Professional Development (CPD) events with other school librarians. Over my meagre four years as a school librarian, this has been on my mind a lot. I can vividly recall attending a couple of CPD events in my first year in this position in 2013. I remember feeling overwhelmed, and somewhat of a failure, when comparing what I was doing in my library with how much these other librarians were doing.

Teacher walking past bookshelves in a library

Just to elucidate — my school library was purpose-built in 2011 (before I arrived there). It is a secondary school library attached to the senior school of an independent school. This small but elegant library comprises two floors, over 15,000 books, and custom-made shelves reaching from the floor to just inches below the ceiling. (Indeed, the former Bursar told me that when he ordered these shelves, he had a moment of panic when it occurred to him that they might not actually fit into the new library that was being built at the time. They did fit, but only by inches.)

This school library, fitted with open-seating for around 40 pupils, and 13 soft brown chairs for reading, was created to provide an aura of academic rigour and quiet reading. When I arrived, the only computers in this library were the one at the librarian’s desk, and two iPads used by pupils to peruse the library catalogue. Classes were not permitted to come into the library, since there was no special area designed for classes, and, indeed, it was impractical to host them and try to maintain a silent atmosphere for the numerous sixth formers (years 12–13 students) who utilised this space throughout the day. Silence was key, and this was (and still is) strictly enforced all day.

When I compared this environment with the environments in the libraries of my library colleagues in other schools, I felt that I was failing miserably. Other librarians described having classes coming in nearly all day long, holding library lessons in the library, teaching literacy skills on a fortnightly basis, pupils coming into the library to play games and socialise around books, and sometimes even hosting fun activities in their libraries, such as scavenger hunts and role-playing games. At my library, on the other hand, these things were strictly prohibited, an imperative set by management. This was stressed to me before I even took the job. The library was to maintain its aura as a silent academic and reading safe-haven at all times. While this strict tone did discourage me in the beginning, especially when I compared myself with other librarians, I came to terms with it. In fact, I even began to appreciate and empathise with this position. Furthermore, I found ways to institute various initiatives that allowed things to change … bit by bit.

A few years ago, if another school librarian had asked me how I felt about the punctilious system at my library, I would have hung my head and admitted it was unchangeable, and that I yearned for a library more like theirs. Now, however, I admit candidly that if I were in school management I might do things differently, but I find myself more able to defend and empathise with the position of those ‘in charge’. I think this is in part from my Chartership work, which has compelled me to investigate the school’s aims and vision, and to evaluate how my school library meets these.

This is the key: change takes time. One thing I have learned above all else is that, even though I may have ideas that would be brilliant — changes that would be life-altering for my library — change often needs to be offered piecemeal, not in huge helpings.

It is also, in part, from coming to realise a few key things. I thought I would share three of these, as I am certain that I am not the only school librarian who has had this struggle!

School management teams have preconceptions too

While we as school librarians come to the table with our preconceptions of how a school library should be run, what should be prioritised, and what best practices are, we need to understand that a school management team also comes with its own preconceptions — some of which its members also understand to be best practice, learned from their own CPD sessions, colleagues, and formal training. Indeed, I have realised that the management team members’ ideas about how the library should be run stems largely from their whole-school vision.

Understand their position

I’m not saying in the first point that we give up if our views conflict — far from it. Instead, we need to learn first to understand and empathise with their position. Identify why the management team has operated the way it has in the past, and how it now feels about that. What does it feel has been successful and why? After all, as leaders of a school (especially an independent school), it has the prerogative to decide what message about the school it wants to send and advertise — including, indeed, through its school library.

In my case, I began to understand that my school wanted to send a message emphasising academic excellence and the pre-eminence of the book in learning — both things I also hold dear. I, therefore, began to empathise with the various rules that management wished to continue to implement in the library.

Change takes time

And this is the key: change takes time. One thing I have learned above all else is that, even though I may have ideas that would be brilliant — changes that would be life-altering for my library — change often needs to be offered piecemeal, not in huge helpings. This may not be the case for every librarian; some very privileged librarians may arrive in their school with a school management team that simply hands them the directive to ‘make the library great at whatever cost’. 

This is a brilliant, wonderful, and dream-worthy situation — but not the norm, I expect. Instead, we are likely to arrive in libraries, as noted above, which already have a system, preconceived notions, and a vision for their library service. If you come into this situation with ideas on how things can change, then definitely do bring them to the table — but first, gauge the atmosphere. Is the management team likely to be open to the change you wish to present? If not, is there a way you can bring in this change in smaller doses over time?

I have found this understanding to be pivotal in the changes to my library that I am proud to have been able to effect. I began to generate initiatives which respected the library’s general rules but were still engaging, fun, and promoted enthusiasm for the library. I thought of ways in which we could initiate small changes without causing disruption to the overall atmosphere — such as allowing classes to come in briefly to select books; holding competitions and events which could be completed without noise or chaos; and holding briefings on information literacy within classrooms or computer rooms adjacent to the library. I also began a pupil committee that assisted me with choosing books. It met in the library once per term.

So please do not be discouraged if you find yourself unable to create your ideal library in a heartbeat. It takes time, patience, and understanding. After all, change is often a drizzle, not a hurricane.

This article was originally published by the School Libraries Group committee of the UK’s Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), and has been republished here with permission. You can view the original article on the SLG Talking Books blog.

Angela Platt

Angela Platt

School librarian and archivist

London UK