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SLYA Profile - Helen Emery

We are profiling our School Librarian of the Year Honour List - one per week until the announcement at the award ceremony on 3 October 2011 - watch the website every week for a new profile. We hope you will find reading about these exemplary librarians interesting.

Helen Emery

Librarian and Resource Centre Manager
King Edward VI School, Lichfield
(www.keslichfield.org.uk)

Helen treasures the memory of the trainee school librarian placement at John Cabot CTC in Bristol (now John Cabot Academy) that kick-started her career. “The fantastic librarian, Fleur Cannadine, taught me everything I know.”

Now she has her own graduate trainee scheme in place at King Edward VI. Her fourth assistant has just completed the scheme and the previous three have all gone on to jobs in school libraries. The scheme, she says, “does involve some extra work but it is well worth it. It keeps me reflecting on and improving my practice, and starting afresh with a new assistant every year keeps me fresh, so everyone benefits.”

Helen grew up in Wednesbury, West Midlands, left school at 16 and worked in a local authority benefits office while doing A-levels at evening classes. “The culture I was brought up in was not academic but I soon decided I did not want to be doing the job I was doing forever, and that motivated me.”

She followed a degree in English Literature at University College Worcester with an MSc in Information Library Management at the University of Central England (now Birmingham City). “I remembered going to our public library at six or seven and thinking it would be a wonderful place to work, and I knew I loved books and literature, and suddenly it seemed like a possibility.”

The placement at John Cabot was part of her course, then after graduation she covered her mentor’s maternity leave. “I had not assumed I would work in a school but once I had sampled that environment I didn’t want to do anything else. There are so many ways you can make an impact on students’ lives: through encouraging them to read, through helping them with research, through training them as library helpers or by just chatting to them and making them feel accepted.”

Helen Emery hosting a schoo library visit from The Animal Man
Helen Emery hosting a school library visit from The Animal Man

She came to King Edward V1, her first permanent post, nine years ago. It’s a 1400-pupil 11-18 mixed comprehensive and a specialist science and languages college. The school has 500 years of history and Helen has exploited Lichfield’s status as the birthplace of Samuel Johnson, famous for his Dictionary of the English Language, by publishing her own dictionary of 26 of the Learning Resource Centre’s activities.

Helen’s work on information literacy has led to her being asked to give a presentation at a Specialist Schools and Academies Trust conference. Two years ago she devised a whole-school cross-curricular programme for students doing research called BE ALERT (Before you start, Engage your brain, Ask yourself questions, Locate the sources, Evaluate the sources, Record what you need, Transform what you have found). “There are many information literacy models out there but we wanted one that fitted our school specifically. The ‘Ask yourself questions’ element tests how well students understand the task: is it too vague or too specific? What do they need to find out? What is the end product? And so on.”

The framework is central to Year 7 library skills lessons, which can be delivered by Helen or any subject teacher. She plans lessons on plagiarism and referencing to be delivered by Year 10 teachers, as she cannot cover 10 tutor groups. 

The LRC’s activities vary with student demand but always include sessions for the gifted and talented i-Club, film club and World Book Day events, when all staff participate by wearing a badge with a clue to the title of a book for students to collect.

Helen appreciates the support of her head, Kevin Maycock (she was appointed by the previous head, Duncan Meikle) and the three deputy heads that have line-managed her. “I am allowed free rein and backing to do my best. There is no way I could do what I have done without that support.  I enjoy my relationship with the students. I have to have authority, but I’m not a teacher and sometimes the library can give students a safe haven away from their troubles. I adore my library helpers and try to give them a sense of ownership and I have a great parent volunteer.”

She also nurtures her relationship with Lichfield’s “wonderful” public library. “It’s five minutes from school and the staff are a delight to work with. We put on a joint World Book Night event for sixth-formers across town which was a great success.” The public library and the Staffordshire school library service also worked with Helen on a programme to help Year 8 parents support their children’s reading, which is in its second year.

To relax, Helen runs a Sunday club for five to nine-year-olds at her Baptist church (“I get the chance to be silly and play running-around games.” She likes rock music (she listens to Kerrang! radio station), and motorbikes, having once ridden pillion on Donnington circuit with Ron Haslam. For other white-knuckle moments, she chairs the Staffordshire branch of the SLA.

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