05 July 2022 Share
This ‘in conversation with’ evening saw SLA CEO, Alison Tarrant, step in to chat to school librarian, SLA member and one of the first School Librarian of the Year (SLYA) winners, Nikki Heath, all about what the SLA means to her, how it has contributed to her work over the years, and the current school library landscape.
From pleading with her own school librarian to let her help out as a pupil, to working in her first library when she was just 15, Nikki says that being a school librarian is all she’s ever wanted to do. For Nikki, the job is all about those magic moments where you can feel the difference you’ve made in a young person’s life. It may not be visible immediately, but you never know the powerful knock-on effect that introducing a child to a particular book could have. Nikki shares the elation she’s witnessed from children who, after claiming that they’re not and never will be ‘a reader’, delight in finishing a book independently for the first time.
Not only that, but sometimes all it takes is the presence of a safe space separate from the demands of a classroom to bring out the best in children. School library staff often find themselves viewed in a different light by pupils, occupying a unique position somewhere between teacher and friend. This can have a positive impact on their wellbeing and behaviour as, in Nikki’s experience, students who are more difficult to teach are sometimes much better behaved for her - much to the disbelief of their teachers! As Nikki says, “it’s like whatever they’re fighting against doesn’t exist in the library.”
Over her career, Nikki, like so many other school library staff, has encountered her fair share of challenges. As recently highlighted in Cressida Cowell’s Life-Changing Libraries campaign, Nikki cites one of the biggest as the state of primary school libraries. Poor attitudes to reading learned at home and left unchecked at the start of a child’s school life become all the more difficult to change as they grow up.
As a secondary school librarian, Nikki faces the task of altering attitudes entrenched over those formative years. However, she speaks of having positive experiences from reaching out to parents and carers in an attempt to get them on board, as well as inviting other school staff onto the same page in order to enforce a positive reading culture that, vitally, extends beyond the walls of the school library and into classrooms and homes. Due to their own hectic timetables and heavy workload, many staff often don’t realise the importance of what goes on in the library - not just for students, but for how it can support staff too. The library’s resources can relieve some of the staff’s workload by complimenting their teaching, which will in turn help the library by raising awareness of its benefits across the curriculum. It’s by forming these sorts of cross-curricular relationships that school library staff will have more success at creating a whole school reading culture.
However, Nikki is quick to acknowledge that highs outweigh the lows. From meeting favourite author, Tim Bowler, to winning SLYA in 2008, her work as a school librarian has also been full of joy. In particular, her SLYA experience was instrumental in tackling the imposter syndrome many school library staff will know all too well, and served as a brilliant boost of confidence that led to her involvement in exciting opportunities that she assures us she would never normally have put herself forward for! Nikki shares that one of the key takeaways from her SLYA experience was the realisation that you shouldn’t compare yourself to others, because your situation and the work that results from it are always going to be entirely unique to your school and your pupils. Everyone’s journey is different, and tailoring your work to your individual context is what gives it the most impact.
That being said, school library staff often operate as individuals and this can be isolating. It’s in this area that Nikki praises SLA membership for being so useful to her over the years. Taking part in SLYA and being an SLA member gave Nikki the chance to meet other people doing the same job, which is so often a rarity in the school library sphere! Unlocking a community of school library staff gave Nikki the reassurance that she’s never alone, and that there’s actually a whole host of people in the background to cheer her on. It’s this strong sense of community and connection that's always found at the heart of the SLA.
Alison draws the evening to a close with the mind-boggling question: if money was no object, what would you do for your school library? And Nikki is quick to respond with, “build a new one!”
A good school library needs to be many things and, with an unlimited budget, it would be important to get it right. Nikki’s ideal library would be flexible, with the capability to adapt and meet the needs of the ever-changing educational landscape. She’d place particular focus on asking the students what they’d want to see in the library, given that it’s ultimately their space and this would undoubtedly result in more usage. Nikki also highlights the importance of exposing students to authors and storytelling, saying she’d get as many authors in the library as possible and hold festivals that cater to everyone’s reading interests. Lastly - and by far our favourite idea - Nikki dreams of constantly buying books to ensure that there is always stock for people to take and keep if they wish, giving pupils with no books at home the chance to finally own some.
The evening ends with a poignant reminder of the immense impact school library staff can have on children. Nikki reminds us that “libraries aren’t just quiet places full of books”. In fact, they have the power to make a real difference.
All our 'in conversation with' events are FREE to members! Make sure you join us after the summer holidays for our first 'in conversation with' of the new academic year, where Richard Gerver will be back and chatting to the Children's Commissioner Rachel de Souza.