From smallpox to a desert island

1st October 2010 at 01:00
Two of the six nominees for the School Library Association's UK-wide librarian of the year competition are from Scotland. Henry Hepburn talks to each of them to find out what makes them special

Shiona Lawson, Rothesay Academy, Isle of Bute

The stereotype of a librarian as "dowdy, old, with glasses perched on nose and hair in a severe bun" has long irked Shiona Lawson.

So, to inspire pupils, she has transformed herself into a pirate, a fairy godmother of books, a palm reader and a mobile library (a costume not worn for long, given the weight of books in her pockets!).

It is Mrs Lawson's "crusade" to overturn preconceptions about her profession, but pupils' learning also influences her choice of costume. When Theresa Breslin's Whispers in the Graveyard was being studied, children found their librarian covered in red stickers. She thought the impact of smallpox, which is featured in the book, would be more memorable if she turned herself into a victim, rather than referring them to look under "S" in the encyclopaedia.

"The children think I'm mad - but in a good way," she says with a mischievous laugh.

Mrs Lawson, 53, considered becoming an English teacher after leaving school. Two years ago, when a five-year stay at Port Glasgow High was coming to an end, she again thought about training to be a teacher. But she stuck with librarianship, and extols her profession's virtues. She has a freedom to be creative that the strictures of teaching would not allow: "There are guidelines, but it's up to me what I do."

She believes pupils do not regard her as an authority figure, as they often do teachers. They feel comfortable sharing problems, and she fields some unusual requests - a pupil once asked her to mend a pair of trousers.

"The library isn't just a place where you go for books", says Mrs Lawson, who prefers the broader "learning resource centre". Equally, books are not just things to read, but jumping-off points for imaginative projects.

Seeing how children loved the Guinness World Records book, she instituted an annual school records event. Contestants stuff as many marshmallows in their mouths as possible, speed-eat cream crackers and spin prodigious numbers of hula hoops.

Mrs Lawson, who hails from Neilston in East Renfrewshire, does not neglect a librarian's more standard tasks, such as sessions on plagiarism and copyright for older pupils and introductions to reference searches for P7s (the academy shares a campus with pre-fives, Rothesay Primary and Argyll College).

But she looks for new approaches, driven by a belief that everyone can enjoy reading. Her proudest achievement has been the Round the World scheme, which gives pupils a "passport" and encourages them to tour the continents on the hunt for books that interest them, gaining a stamp each time.

The scheme has worked much better than the traditional method of offering a certificate for reading 20 books, a distant prospect for reluctant readers. But first Mrs Lawson had to spend a summer going through all 10,000 books, noting which ones related to specific countries or world regions.

It takes a certain type of person to put in that amount of graft: "You have to have not only a love of books, but a love of people - and particularly children."

Duncan Wright, Stewart's Melville College, Edinburgh

The young Duncan Wright had always enjoyed books - he used to help his grandmother in her job as a library assistant - but his interest waned in his early teens, when football took hold. Then, aged 14 or 15, he discovered Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch - and it dawned on him that there were books for everyone, on every subject.

This knowledge drives inspiring projects such as Everyone is a Reader. Mr Wright filmed a janitor reading a newspaper, the rugby team reading a rugby magazine and director of studies Gordon Johnston listening to an audio book, to show that reading could mean many things.

He has also turned the library, in a former chapel, from an austere collection of books into a colourful space where pupils might want to linger and make new discoveries. On occasion, they might stumble upon some unusual sights - such as the palm tree and builders' sand used as the backdrop for some "desert island books" talks.

The 31-year-old believes one of his best achievements has been the "information literacy ladder" for P7-S2, devised with Rebecca Christine, librarian at sister school Mary Erskine College. Having identified glaring weaknesses in children's ability to find information and assess the usefulness of sources, their step-by-step approach sharpened pupils' focus on exactly what they needed - not just "castle", for example, but "siege" too - rather than aimlessly trawling the internet.

Mr Wright's wife is an English teacher, but he has "never, ever" had an inclination to take on that role.

His job allows him "the best of both worlds": influencing children's education without endless reams of marking.

Yet he has expanded the traditional remit of the school librarian. He helps with football coaching and, unusually, is part of the school guidance system, allowing pupils to see him in a different light.

"If you're only ever in the library, you're only going to see the pupils who come to the library," Mr Wright says. A good librarian, he reasons, does not tell pupils why they should be taking a bundle of books to his desk for withdrawal - he goes to them.

The winning librarian will be revealed at a ceremony in London on October 4.

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