Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Being a bit special...

So, I've just finished my first term managing a library in a high school. It was everything that I expected, but not without its share of surprising challenges.

Having performed this role in another high school, many of the basic functions were the same. It's a recreational and educational service for teenagers, and so I work to cultivate a safe and welcoming space that meets both of these needs.

However, there is one vital difference - size. Being in a school that is half the size of the previous school that I worked in, I now have to work with half the resources that I'm used to. That means half the size of the team, half the budget, and less than half the workroom space.

The problem is that libraries don't necessarily work that way. There's a certain minimum "critical mass" of a library that is needed to serve its clients, and it doesn't exist as a ratio of the number of library users! If one collection is a good size for 700 students, it doesn't necessarily follow that a collection half that size is good for a student population of 350 students! Furthermore, taking into account that I work in a selective government school, with a strong middle-class population, there are probably the same number of active readers here as there were in my last school. And half the number of books.

The other problem is that half the student population doesn't necessarily mean half the workload. There are still regular ongoing requests of staff in the library front 8:00am until 4:30pm, and I'm regularly in a situation where I'm trying to work on ongoing projects, but also need to be prepared to stop and drop everything every time somebody comes up to the desk with any of a wide range of reasonable requests. In my previous job, I would have had other staff to be able to roster and allocate tasks to, but now it's up to me to be able to maintain a special level of flexibility, and keep up my customer service chops at times when I'd wish people would just leave me alone and let me work.

It's a challenge, but it's a good challenge. It's very much what I imagine life in a Special Library might be like. Professionally isolated, multi-tasking, working with niche areas of interest, whilst also doing a lot of very mundane tasks. Being a solitary champion for the library, building relationships with colleagues and clients who might not exactly get what your big vision for the place is, and who will second-guess you, given the opportunity - but once you make a connection with them, and show them some value in your service, then it's a step closer to your world being your oyster.

And like Special Libraries, the idea of best practice is a fraught one. It's more about delivering the best services with what you've got, by being resourceful, personable and creative in one's practices.