With the school year drawing to a close, you are probably exhausted and exhilarated. If you had not known it before, being a school librarian is a demanding job. But before you begin assessing your first year, there are still hurdles to overcome. What you will face is more complex than the classroom routine of posting grades, collecting textbooks, and saying good-bye to classes. You must close the library while still meeting the needs of teachers and students.
With input from your principal, you must decide when to stop circulating material and whether or not to do an inventory. In addition, you need to handle issues relating to lost and overdue books, as well as end-of-year reports and final cleanup.
Bringing the year to a close
You customarily need an official date when all materials are due back in the library. Before you set it, discuss a reasonable cutoff point with your supervisor. Most likely you will be required to follow what was done in the past. In some places, you are expected to keep the library open until the last day of school. In that situation, you will probably have to put in several extra days after the end of the school year to complete the procedures. Even if you are allowed two weeks to finish, accept that the closing date is more of a guideline than a firm deadline.
As soon as the closing date is announced, students who are behind on final papers will approach you in a state of alarm, pleading for more library time to finish their work. To address these problems while keeping records accurate, have students return books by the closing date, and then recheck the books so you’ll know they have the titles in their possession.
Teachers will be equally concerned. Ask them to return what they are no longer using and confirm that they have books checked out to them. In elementary schools and many secondary ones where teachers have checked out a sizable collection of books for classroom use, some of these titles disappear because students have taken them home. Concerned teachers will make every effort to round up the missing items and will hopefully find them all, but you should, if at all possible, consider these losses as the cost of doing business.
You can start inventory even when books are still being checked out. Begin with reference, since that collection doesn’t circulate, then move on to low-demand areas to minimize inventoried items being borrowed. Maintain daily records so you know if a returned book is to be shelved in an inventoried area.
Read your manual on initiating the inventory process. Even if you understand what to do, call tech support and have them walk you through the steps. Find out what types of reports can be generated and decide which ones you want. The speed at which the job can be completed depends on understanding the process and how many volunteers and scanners you have.
The first task is to put the shelves in exact order. You can scan barcodes in any sequence and library management systems will let you know if a book is in the wrong location. However, you still have to check the shelves when students claim they returned something and your records show it missing.
If your library is not automated (and there are still some that are not), you must use a small army of volunteers. Have them work in pairs, with one holding the appropriate shelflist drawer and the other checking books. Instruct them to turn inventoried titles horizontally with spines facing up. If a book is missing, the shelflist card is turned on its side.
After a bookcase has been inventoried, you will see that most books are turned down, but one or two are still standing. The upright titles are ones for which there are no shelflist cards. Check to be sure the book has not been misshelved. If it is where it belongs, it is probably a title that had been lost for several years and the shelf list card was destroyed. Either you or a volunteer should create a temporary card with the necessary information. Place it standing up in the drawer for a later step.
When the inventory is complete, go through the cards that are standing and do a final check to be sure the books are not on the shelf. Then note in pencil that the title is lost and add the date. For those with notes and dates that indicate they have been lost for two or more years, remove and discard the shelflist card. Type and file new ones. The final task is to turn all the books upright. For once the shelves look beautiful, with all spines coming to the edge.
Overdue and lost materials
Look for paperwork on overdue and lost books from the previous year. It is helpful to have copies of letters sent home about missing items so that you know how these are worded. Many library management systems have report templates that you can run. Check your manual to see what is available.
Be prepared for complaints. Parents and students will assure you that they returned items or never checked them out in the first place. Do not lose your patience.
Be mindful of privacy when sending overdue notices to classes. Do not simply put the lists in teachers’ boxes. Use sealed envelopes with students’ names on the outside.
Find out what penalties the school imposes for unreturned books. Some places withhold report cards; others do not send next year’s schedule until all obligations are cleared. If you charge fines, is there a limit? Have amnesty days been scheduled in the past? If so, you probably should continue them because students will wait for them to avoid fines.
Be prepared for complaints. Parents and students will assure you that they returned items or never checked them out in the first place. Do not lose your patience. Allow them to check the shelves, or go with them to verify that the material is not in the library.
Once that has been established, calmly let them know your records indicate that they are the ones who checked out the books, and according to the rules, they are responsible. Some may go to the principal and complain. If you are overruled, be gracious and comment that, while you had to follow procedures, administrators can make allowances in special cases and you are glad they found a way to resolve it.
In addition to students losing materials, teachers often cannot locate what they have checked out during the year. Districts vary as to whether or not you charge faculty for lost items. If you have a choice, do not impose fees. There are many ways in which these materials might have disappeared—and they frequently are the ones that turn up after a while. Asking colleagues to pay, even if it is school policy, can have a negative impact on your relationship with them. Avoid it as much as possible.
Before you can take a well-deserved vacation, you need to complete a few more tasks that bring your program and facility to a proper close. First and foremost is the annual report.
Despite having accomplished a great deal, do not ramble in the report. Focus on the most significant achievements, identify a few problems you plan to address next year, and include as much numerical data as possible to showcase the school library program. A visual report is best. Not only does it demonstrate your technological skills, it is also more likely to be read. If you have built a positive relationship with your principal, find out when you can drop in for an informal discussion during the summer.
Typically, you will get a packet of papers detailing items that need to be completed in order for you to officially check out. Go through them carefully and ask questions if you are not sure of something. Observe all deadlines. If there are any tasks you can finish early, do so, since you need to get signatures indicating that you have done them, and lines develop as the last day approaches. You probably have to sign off that teachers have returned all items to the library. As noted earlier, this can be tricky. If necessary, you can sign out items for the summer to give them more time to locate anything that is missing.
Whether or not you are paid for it, plan on coming in during vacation. If you do not, when you come back you will be greeted with a mountain of mail to sift through, possible problems with orders that could have been straightened out before school began, and boxes everywhere. Putting in a few hours several times during the summer will let you return the next school year ready to work with students and teachers, rather than facing a multitude of backroom tasks.
Some school librarians find themselves so busy during the year that papers and books pile up. Now is the time to clear things away, file what is important, and toss the rest. Look at the library with a critical eye. Is there anything that needs repair? Make a list and submit it to administration.
Finally, walk the stacks to see if all books are standing upright with spines at the edge of the shelves and bookends in place. Make a note of any overly tight shelves. These sections will either have to be weeded or shifted to make room for new titles. With everything in order, you can confidently leave the library knowing it will be ready to welcome students and teachers when classes resume.
Before you get too relaxed, take time to reflect on the year. What worked and what did not? How did the job measure up to your expectations? Were there any surprises? Pat yourself on the back as you see how much you learned and what you were able to achieve.
Developing—or even maintaining—an active school library program and the tasks that support it is a complex and demanding job. Of course, there will be places where you made mistakes. You might have mishandled a teacher complaint or lost patience with students. Acknowledge these missteps, but let yourself off the hook. No one is perfect, not even very experienced librarians.
Look at the positives and negatives and note your strengths. You will build on them next year. Identify where you are most challenged. Look for courses or workshops that will help with these areas. Accept the fact that there will always be areas in which you can learn and grow.
Keeping your enthusiasm high
One last bit of reflection: Being a successful school librarian depends heavily on personality and attitude. The daily demands can drain your energy and make you irritable. When you allow the negatives to overwhelm your passion for what you do, your program will suffer.
Be sure you know what is most important. Avoiding jobs you do not like only gives them more weight. Asking for help is a sign of wisdom, not weakness. Look for a mentor and develop relationships with other school librarians in your district. When days seem to spin out of control, laugh at the absurdity of it.
What you do is important, but it is not life or death; do not take it too seriously. Do not let your work become the center of your life. Celebrate having a profession that allows you to make a difference in the lives of others, and look forward to growing further so that you can do even more for the students and teachers in your school.