We all know that a good school library can inspire a lifelong love of books and learning. But visiting them – along with watching live theatre, attending football matches and wearing tight-fitting jeans – isn’t an option for many in the age of Covid-19.
Some schools have had no choice but to shut their libraries, either to reduce the risk of transmission or to repurpose the space as an additional classroom. Others are open but with heavy restrictions in place.
But as Rachel Weisz’s character in The Mummy proved: you can’t keep a good librarian down.
Coronavirus: How to make school libraries work
Here are six innovative ways to combat the challenges brought about by the pandemic:
1. Plan controlled access
To avoid closing their libraries altogether, some schools have opted to restrict access. The libraries at Blue Coat Church of England School, in Coventry, and Toot Hill School, in Bingham, Nottinghamshire, are open to Year 7 only, for example.
“We prioritised Year 7 as not all primary schools have libraries, or if they do, they are very small,” says Nicola Treadwell, library manager at Blue Coat School. “We want them to discover what we have got and how to access it.”
Another common safety measure (in addition to sanitising hands and wearing masks) is to quarantine returned books for 72 hours, ideally via a carefully positioned drop-box.
2. Reserve, click and deliver
Since lockdown, school libraries have been relying more and more on their library management systems (LMS). Students at Blue Coat, for example, have been using their school’s Reading Cloud system to reserve books, which are then delivered to them by staff.
A similar system is in place at Latymer Upper School in London, as librarian Terri McCargar explains: “When the books are available, the library team deliver them to students in a labelled paper bag. The bags help us sort the orders and also keep students’ book choices private.”
As school librarians are not as readily available to help students choose books at the moment, Toot Hill School pupils have also been emailed a book selector questionnaire form to assist them.
3. Use technology wisely
Lockdown has made many of us re-evaluate how we use technology, as well as giving us the opportunity to upskill and look at different ways of doing things. School librarians are no exception, says Treadwell.
“Reading Cloud can recommend authors to students, based on what they have already read. If a book they like is not in stock, they can register their interest, and this sends a link to the school. Reading Cloud also has a suggested reading list section, where you can curate specific reading lists.
“These functions have always been there, but until Covid we had not used all of them. One of the positives of lockdown was finding out what can be done with the available technology.”
McCargar also emphasises the importance of a good LMS. “I have always believed in teaching students how to use the library catalogue for themselves,” she says.
“It’s a vital skill for their independent learning and developing information literacy. It is also empowering for students to explore the collection without having someone else mediate their searches.”
Claire Marris and fellow school librarian Sophie Jones at Toot Hill School have embraced a range of technologies, even prior to lockdown. Since 2018, they have been hosting a regular podcast called Lounging with Books, where they discuss all things library-related.
In one episode they talk about adapting to library life during the pandemic. They also produce content for their school’s YouTube channel and provide access to a range of online learning resources.
4. Keep communicating
At Latymer Upper, electronic screens around the school are being used to promote the library, in addition to themed displays in the library window. Blue Coat School is relying more on Twitter and email, whereas Toot Hill stays in touch with pupils using its school system.
And then there are the benefits of communicating with fellow professionals. Treadwell joined the School Librarians Network (SLN) forum at the start of lockdown, and says she benefits from sharing ideas with librarians in other schools.
Marris and McCargar are both members of the School Library Association (SLA), which hosts useful information and resources on its website and provides advice and guidance.
5. Prepare for all eventualities
It is possible that a significant number of students will need to self-isolate over the months ahead and, as such, it is important to have plans in place.
Blue Coat is using the SORA app to access its OverDrive ebook collection that it bought into via Reading Cloud at the start of lockdown, which allows students to access ebooks at home or in school, or whenever they like to read.
They can also use Reading Cloud to create their own reading lists and anonymously review the books they have read.
6. Involve student assistants
Face-to-face interaction may be limited, but that doesn’t mean students can’t be actively involved with their school libraries.
At Latymer Upper, each year group has a student library ambassador who meets with McCargar virtually for training and to plan activities. They are able to suggest recommendations for displays and support their peers with using the LMS.
And all this hard work is paying off. At Latymer Upper new students in Years 7 and 12 had found the school’s LMS and reserved books in the first week of term, before they had been issued with library user guides.
McCargar was suitably impressed: “That bodes well for us – and for them!” she laughs.
Gemma Corby is a freelance writer and former special educational needs and disability coordinator