Beyond books and walls: What it takes to be a 21st century school librarian

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From connecting with parents and students to keeping up with the latest technologies, there is a whole lot more to the job than stamping due dates and lending books.

A few days ago, while going back home in metro, a fellow female passenger and I got talking. And in between the talk we shared what we do for a living. The moment I said I worked as librarian in a school, she smiled blissfully and remarked that I was lucky to have such a relaxed and comfortable job. Upon hearing this I asked what she meant by her remark. Lo and behold! what I heard next was just the stereotype people possess of the nature of a librarian’s job. For her all I, did was lend books to students in school and shush them when they talk. And the most painful was that I get to sit all day in a comfortable chair with tea on the side. Really!!!!

Is that how I work? Well my friend the answer is no. I do not get to sit on a chair or sip tea all day. Leave alone rest. My day does not merely involve stamping books. I do much more and I am proud of it. I did not choose this job so that I would be having an easy work to do. And yet who am I to get upset because if I stopped the next person walking by on the street and asked them what our jobs as librarians involve, I’d be willing to bet that their first answer would be stamping books. This is because the experience you all had of librarians is of the frontline, the old lady with glasses who kept books locked in cupboards and looked down upon you if your shoes so much as even squeaked. But dear friends have you ever spared a thought how the books get on to the shelves and ready for you to borrow? There is no magic behind it, but behind the scenes there are teams of librarians working to make this happen in universities and colleges. But in schools the job is carried out single handily by the librarian, or if the school infrastructure supports he/ she might have an assistant. Other than that, we ourselves do all the behind the scene from selecting the books for purchase, to processing the orders and later create the bibliographic records that make it possible for you to find the book in the library catalogue and then on the shelves.

I am not here to glorify my job or to argue. I only want you all to see us in the true light. For years, we have plodded to receive the status we enjoy now. And a lot of hands have worked towards making this job reach a level where we are not lesser than our teaching counterparts. No, I have no issues against. I have been a teacher myself, but it is disheartening to see them remark about the librarians’ job as being a job that requires no specific qualification or specialisation and can be done anyone. I was horrified when they said that it’s a job anyone can do effortlessly as there is no level expertise needed.

And the expression was priceless when I informed that we do possess degrees to qualify as a librarian. Not many of my teacher friends were aware. And that’s the level of ignorance behind one of the oldest professions. The fault lies on our part as well because many librarian do not engage themselves beyond books and thus the stereotype continues.

But for me books are only one aspect of what libraries and librarians are about. Librarianship is a people profession. Our job is to connect people with the information they are seeking, whatever format that may take. At their heart, all library jobs have a central purpose: to help people access and use information, for education, for work, or for pleasure. In all library roles, irrespective of place and institution, customer service and communication skills are important. If anyone ever thought they’d become a librarian because they liked books or reading, they would be disillusioned if they did not also like people too. Libraries of all kinds are keen to demonstrate their value to as wide an audience as possible, and to open access to all significant resources that they hold.

In the digital age, with information explosion becoming a common term and every information becoming available online, there is a proclivity to say that libraries and librarians are redundant. But this is not the case. Information available online is often of dubious origin and there is still a wealth of information behind paywalls that can only be accessed by those who have paid. I have helped many students and teachers who have used search engines for their research and projects and come to the library perplexed because they cannot find the information they want or are rather baffled by the overflow of information pertaining to a topic. If anything, the internet has added to the range of services libraries provide and in turn this has also increased the variety of roles available to librarians.

As well as being good communicators with people and dynamic adopters and exploiters of technological developments, librarians need to have detailed specialist subject knowledge to pass on to library users. Our job now includes providing training to show people how to search for information and evaluate the same. These information skills sessions are now expanding to include digital literacies such as cyber safety, the use of social media sites and online collaboration tools.

There is no standard route into librarianship: librarians have first degrees across the whole spectrum of subjects. To become a professionally qualified librarian we also need a masters qualification in librarianship or information science. An introduction to librarianship can be gained through a graduate degree.  A year as a graduate trainee can be useful but it is not a requirement for a place on a postgraduate programme.

I have a job that goes beyond the school walls as I am in constant touch with teachers and students as and when they need any help. As a librarian, my job requires that I be available to them as much as possible. Last month I gave a workshop on Referencing and Citation. This required me to do a lot of reading and research so that the information I communicated was accurate and current. After the research, I was engaged in assembling the information and resources I gathered. Presentations and handouts were prepared keeping in mind the guidelines and student friendly. It took me weeks to prepare for it, as my mistake would cause the students lose marks in their research work. And people consider my job to be cakewalk.

My intention is not to belittle the teaching profession. But friends please be considerate when you happen to meet a librarian. We are not sitting idle all day. The 21st century librarian is more like an information officer who needs to updated and always abreast with the latest in information, books and technology. And this necessitates that we read and keep ourselves up on our surrounding. Nevertheless, we keep doing our work behind the curtains, but it does hurt when people deride our work. Every profession has its share of hardships and bounty, but it is not often that we give each their due.

Yes, teachers have lesson plans to prepare, report cards to write and much more. But we, the librarian work no less. We too have classes but our teaching is not limited to curriculum. We act as aide to your teaching and assist the students study and evaluate information, build up on knowledge and open the horizons for you. Just like your work, our work also requires hours of planning and hard work. Like preparing reading lists, deciding on age appropriate resources for their projects, guiding them in selection of collaboration tools and technology best suited for their need. And this is not easy for us. It involves lot of enquiry, research and assembling of information from the ocean to find that one drop that would quench the need of the user.

We have moved beyond books and walls, and moved ahead, just as information is not limited to books anymore. Our names have changed also, we are called information officer, information specialist, teacher librarian, information and media specialist, and many more. And with the change in the names our role and duty have also changed, become more extensive. We perform research, evaluation, investigation, exploration, curation, referencing, examination. I could go on and the list would only get longer. With the transformation in education system and advancements in technology, our jobs have evolved to extend beyond books. My job is not limited to stamping alone, I am an information officer trying my best to help students search information and evaluate its authenticity and suitability for their work.

So, friends I am not just a librarian, I am the librarian who works behind the scene to ensure you get what you come looking for. The next time you visit a library do pass a smile and give a second to appreciate our work.

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