The perfect librarian: is it about focus?

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Philip Williams

Sometimes a day in the life of a librarian is like sitting in a swivel chair with everyone else deciding which way you turn. The day swings from tranquil moments to inundations of inspirations that need attention. I guess I am my own worst enemy since being interruptible has been a key focus of what I am about. The day to day running of library is always interruptible ensuring that our customers never feel unsure about if it is ok to come into the library spaces or to ask for assistance. The message is subtle and often unsaid but if the library has an open door that welcomes any inquirer at anytime, the library is much more likely to be seen as an extension of the classroom and a natural part of the workflow of students and teachers. This means that many times, important administrative tasks in the library are interrupted and postponed due to a need to attend to a student, teacher or parent inquiry. Most of these important administration tasks will never be seen or appreciated by library visitors and since there are no other librarians at my school, there is really no one else who understands what it takes to keep a library ticking along. Indeed, the better I do my job, the less people are actually aware of what I do because their access to the “good stuff” is seamless. Yet, this is actually how I like it but this brings me back to the title of this post. The perfect librarian: is it about focus?

I recently attended a librarian workshop (co-led by Dianne McKenzie and Gary ) and I was struck by the variety in the other librarians, each with a different skill set, different areas of expertise, different personalities, different school settings, different budgets, different frustrations, different areas of pride, different library environments, different school expectations, different school restrictions and different opportunities. In my travels it has become very clear that the role of the library and the librarian is an extremely open concept resulting in libraries that are run in a wide variety of ways. So what then does the perfect librarian look like? How do they work? What is the perfect way for them to divide their time assisting students, teaching and in administration? I never said I was going to answer this question in this post and in fact it is turning out that there are more questions than answers but maybe that is the key. The librarian can be many different things in many different schools. They often are a tech integrationist, an accountant and budget manager, a human resources manager, a curriculum designer, a teacher, a story teller, an event manager, a “store” manager, a merchandiser, a curator and confidante (often all at once).

So, as librarians, how do we manage these multiple roles successfully? What does the perfect librarian look like? I will pose one possible way of looking at the perfect librarian: focus. But not just focus, but strategic focus. What I mean by this is, it is most certainly impossible for one librarian (as I am) or even a team of librarians to be everything that a librarian can be in a school. What we can do however, is provide a service that takes into consideration the specific aspects of the context and finds a focus that strategically provides the most effective outcomes for that community of learners. The focus does not need to be narrow, it can be broad but it needs to be clear enough to assist the librarian to prioritise and manage the many many daily expectations. When you sit down at your desk and wake up your computer to wade into the pile of goals you have set yourself, what is it that decides your first click of the mouse? It is amazing how fast the hours and days can rush by treading water attending to the many goals competing for your attention. But in the end, that “treading water” can become the norm and before you know it the big goals and plans never become reality because there was always a good reason for the distractions. So focus is essential. It allows librarians to meet the many demands of the day focussing on a strategic role in the school but focus also allows us to make progress on the big goals, on change and on progress.

So what has this focus been for me? Well, actually the swivel chair metaphor still stands. A key component in doing my best to ensure our school community feels supported by the library has been to do my best to be available. Always interruptible. While it is impossible to keep everyone happy when working with all students, all teachers, all parents and all administration all the time, this level of approachability has been reassuring for people because even though I am not there all the time, I am available when needed.

The flip side of this is that when I do get those moments to myself to attend to the many other aspects of my role, I need to be even more focussed. Ruthlessly focussed at times. There have been many worthy projects I could have focussed on which has meant that choosing has not been a matter of choosing the good and discarding the bad, but rather choosing which of the good ones are going to have the most meaningful impact on our community of learners.

When I first stepped into my library at VIS in 2011, two key goals quickly rose to the top of the list: collection/resource development and the learning environment. I have continued on many other projects at VIS however these two have been the first click of my computer mouse when I sat down at my desk (and the obsession over sleepless nights and many weekend hours). There were many reasons why resources and the physical environment became number one priorities and I plan to write about those in future posts but the key here is that this focus helped the library move forward. Without this focus, our collection would still be tired, outdated and largely irrelevant. Without this focus, the learning environment would still be unwelcoming and most importantly, uninviting.

In the end, I am coming back to answering my question by saying that the perfect librarian is not one who can do everything but one who can use all their professional expertise and knowledge to find the focus they need to achieve the best outcomes for their individual context. In our various communities of learning, how can the library have greatest strategic impact?

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