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Career Spotlight: What I do as High School Librarian in Australia

Career Spotlight: What I do as High School Librarian in Australia

May 27, 2020

To mark Library and Information Week (LIW) in Australia, is profiling members of the Australian librarianship community.

Alice Reid
Library Manager, Williamstown High School (middle years campus), VIC, Australia

First of all, tell us a bit about your current work and how long you’ve been at it.

I am a librarian at a high school in Melbourne, Australia. We’re a two-campus school, and I work at the middle years campus, which is grades 7 to 9. There is another librarian at the senior campus.

Because each campus library has only one staff member, we’re responsible for anything library-related! Circulation duties, acquisitions, cataloguing and processing resources, collection management, promotion of services, running library events and programs, a bit of student supervision, shelving (ugh), troubleshooting the photocopier (also ugh).

I’ve been in my current role for two years, in school libraries for five years, and the library sector for eight years.

What drove you to choose your career path and how did you go about getting your job? What kind of education and experience did you need?

I was an art and book nerd at high school, and had planned on becoming an illustrator. I spent 3 years at art school, then several more years flapping about in random temp jobs pretending to make art on the side. I started to feel a bit lost, so I went to a careers counsellor, took a long and involved personality/aptitude test, and got “Librarian” as my best-suited job. It sounded pretty perfect, kinda like, “Why didn’t I think of that earlier!? I love reading!” (rookie mistake – librarians generally don’t sit around reading all day). A year later I enrolled in a Graduate Diploma of Library and Information Management at the University of South Australia.

A lot of school library positions I see advertised in Australia don’t require a qualification, but it’s looked upon favourably. This is one of the big differences between working in a school versus an academic, specialist or public library. A love and a willingness to work with kids will take you a lot further than the qualification will. It’s also worth noting that school librarians generally do everything on the job, not just one particular library operation.

Whilst I am very, very glad I have the qualification, I learnt way more on the job than I did at uni.

What kinds of things do you do beyond what most people see? What do you actually spend the majority of your time doing?

Some days it feels like all I do is talk to kids and loan out sets of iPads. And in between that, I’m covering books in contact. School has been operating remotely for the past few months due to COVID; that has given me the opportunity to do things I didn’t have time for on campus. I’m in the process of creating an online research hub for the students, which includes research skills, bibliography help and subject guides. I overhauled the library website and have been offering remote assistance for students struggling to find something to read.

What misconceptions do people often have about your job?

That it’s obsolete! “It’s all online” isn’t a great argument when closing or de-centralising school libraries (which has happened far too often in the past two decades) – 1. the internet is chaos, and unless students are being taught to navigate it, they will struggle to find credible information; and 2. A school library is so much more than it’s book collection. A good one will build community among students, and offer them shelter if they need it.

What are your average work hours? Typical 9-5 thing or not?

More or less. I open the library at 8:15 in the morning and close at 4:30.

What personal tips and shortcuts made your job easier?

Lots of to-do lists?!

What do you do differently from your peers in the same profession?

I’m very particular about the books I buy. Collection curation is one of my favourite parts of the job, so to rely solely on standing orders from book suppliers would suck all the fun out of it. I try and get to know what the kids who use the library regularly want to read – for example, right now there’s a lot of interest in LGBT+ stories – and then I spend time developing that collection. Students recommend books a lot, too. What I buy is probably 50% student choice. When your budget isn’t huge, you want to make sure that absolutely everything you buy will be used.

What’s the worst part of the job and how do you deal with it?

Being the only librarian on campus can be isolating. I’m lucky at my current school because the teaching staff are collaborative and use the library regularly, but I’ve worked in schools where there has been very little communication between teachers and library staff.

What’s the most enjoyable part of the job?

I can make it whatever I want. Some days when I’m feeling social I’ll spend my time talking to students and playing games with them at lunch. Other days I’d rather hide in my office and mess around with metadata on the catalogue. Other days I can exercise my artistic muscles and create elaborate book displays – those 3 years at art school didn’t go to waste, haha. Also, getting school holidays off is pretty great.

Is there a way to “move up” in your field?

Unfortunately not, unless I were to do extra study.

What advice would you give to those aspiring to join your profession?

A qualification in library and information management isn’t mandatory but it helps give context to the industry you’re about to enter. Volunteer and do placements in as many library and community sector positions as you can.

Once you’re in a school, get to know the students a bit, or at least their names. Be nice to the students, because being a teenager can be tough, and it’s in the profession’s best interest to expel the crabby school librarian stereotype!

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