Alison Kennedy, SLA School Librarian of the Year Honour List

ALISON KENNEDY is head librarian at St George's Ascot, an independent boarding and day school for girls 11-18 in Berkshire. Here, Alison tells us about what has made her work in the library stand out.

Q: What was your route into becoming a school librarian?

A: My undergraduate degree was in marketing and I worked in public relations and marketing after graduation. In 2009 the recession meant I was made redundant and it made me reconsider my options. I knew I loved working with people, research, literature, education and information so undertaking the MSc Information and Library Studies seemed like the perfect next step.

When I told friends and family they agreed that librarianship was perfect for me! I initially started a PhD but missed working with people so took a maternity cover position in a school. Throughout this time I worked in an academic library and was sure that was the right sector for me but this school position opened my eyes to the wonders of working in school libraries.

Q: Where are you now?

A: I currently work in an independent girl's boarding school in Ascot. We are a secondary school and also have day pupils alongside the boarders.

I live in the school and undertake evening and weekend boarding duties which is a fantastic pastoral dimension to my role. In addition, I am a head of house and extended project coordinator. I have also been a form tutor so I like to get involved in as many areas of the school as possible.

Q: How would you describe your library and your relationship with the students?

A: My library goes beyond the walls of the new purpose-built space which opened in 2015, the year I joined the school. I know each and every student as I feel it is so important to get to know their interests and connect with them. This means that I am able to help them in a personalised manner; offering recommendations that they'll appreciate and understanding their strengths and weaknesses in order to help with their school work.

My additional roles offer me an extended pastoral position in the school and the relationships I build with the students feed back into their relationship with the library service.

Q: And how would you describe your approach to your job?

A: I offer an innovative approach in order to continually engage students and staff in new ways because people are at the heart of what I do.

Q: What are your school's priorities for the library?

A: I am lucky to work in a school which highly values its library. They invested in a new building three years ago in order to move a small collection of books out of a classroom and make it more accessible and engaging. We are investing heavily in building the stock to reflect current interests. Much of the stock has been, and will be weeded in order to update it and keep it fresh.

The school has also invested in a new VLE and the library is at the heart of this development. We have invested in many online resources and subscriptions to complement the physical stock.

This transformation from 'classroom with books' to a full library service is a continual process and it is crucial that I ensure that all decisions show just how essential libraries are in the education context.

Q: How do you support other teachers and teaching across the curriculum?

A: I regularly work closely with individual teaching staff and heads of department to discuss their subject needs. As the collection was sparse in the previous setting, I collaborate with each department to expand subject materials based on the curriculum, reading lists, and materials that may be of wider interest.

I speak at Head of Department meetings so that staff are continually aware of what the library can offer. I also deliver INSET sessions on issues such as plagiarism and use of online databases.

I regularly work with classes on research skills and project work in the library. All Key stage 3 English classes visit the library weekly for a reading for pleasure session.

Q: What have been your biggest successes and innovations to date?

A: When I started there was no events or activities programme delivered by the library because, as mentioned, it was a room of books with a part time member of staff. Therefore, I have started up book groups, delivered initiatives such as Bookbuzz, Chatterbooks and the Berkshire Book Award, hosted author events, linked with national and international celebrations such as World Book Day, Harry Potter Night and National Storytelling Month.

For example, Harry Potter Night gave me the opportunity to open up the library for an evening of Harry Potter themed activities for the boarders. During National Storytelling week I hosted a Human Books event where staff became 'books' through oral storytelling. I have also had great success with the Book Fairies' treasure hunt and a murder mystery in the library to promote information literacy and library skills.

Q: What are the biggest challenges for you?

A: As a school we offer so many opportunities for our students and this jam-packed calendar of events means that I often have competition from other activities. A student who may want to come to a book group may also have school play rehearsals or sports practices. Over time I have learned more about the school and adapted my offerings accordingly in order to maxmise impact.

Q: What are your budgeting priorities and how creative do you need to be with your funds?

A: As it is a new service we are investing in all areas of provision but there is so much to achieve that it can't all be done at once.

Reading for pleasure is always important so investment in fiction is continual. However, I am simultaneously creating a digital presence while building subject-specific physical collections. In addition, I constantly reassess subscriptions and equipment. Furthermore, engagement with authors is crucial to show that the library is more than just the sum of its resources.

Q: How are you using technology in the library?

A: I have a strong social media presence where I engage with students, parents, staff, publishers and fellow professionals. When I started we had no digital strategy for the library but now we have access to many online resources and this year are implementing a new VLE. We are also moving to use Chromebooks in teaching and this is an exciting opportunity for me to explore some more of my technology-based ideas.

Q: What next for your library?

A: The aforementioned VLE and Chromebooks are going to provide a fantastic opportunity to deliver even more in terms of resources and innovative service delivery. That will sit side by side with the ongoing collection development.

Q: Can you share three simple things you have tried out that you'd recommend to other librarians?

A: I take inspiration from the Book Fairies organisation to hide books around the school and launch a treasure hunt. I post clues on social media as to their locations.

A library murder mystery is a good way to encourage students to learn more about how the library works and improve their information literacy.

Partnering with a local bool award (i.e. the Berkshire Book Award) is a great way of showing young people that they can take ownership of and get involved in their reading for pleasure.

Q: What’s the one thing you do that has had the greatest impact, and how do you measure its impact?

A: I think the thing that has the biggest impact is my approachability as, if students know that you have an open door policy, it shows that the librarian is a key part of school library service provision.

Without a librarian a library is just a room of books. I measure this in a more qualitative manner as I have noticed increased engagement and increased enquiries as the students learn that I am there to help.

Q: How has being a member of the SLA helped you in your career?

A: I am on my local SLA branch committee and this has been invaluable to me. In schools we work in isolation or in small teams so we often need to seek advice, support and inspiration from librarians in other schools. Our branch is fantastically supportive in terms of training opportunities and building a network of fellow professionals.

06/09/2018Alison Kennedy, SLA School Librarian of the Year Honour List
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