Ros Harding is Head Librarian and Archivist at the King’s School in Chester. She received the prestigious SLA School Librarian of the Year Award in June 2019. You can follow Ros on Twitter @KSCLibrarian.
Let’s start with a difficult one: What book meant the most to you as a child? Would you recommend it to a student today?
This is quite hard as I obviously read loads as a child. I think the one I read the most often was Which Witch? by Eva Ibbotson. And I think it’s probably because I really love Cinderella and it’s almost like a different version of the Cinderella story – just with added death and rats eating each other!
I think I probably would [recommend it to a student]. I wouldn’t have thought it’s really dated because it was already set in a very different kind of place anyway.
What or who inspired your passion for books and reading?
I’m not sure there was anything, I think I just always wanted to read. Certainly in my family my two older sisters read a bit, but I used to get all their books together. One would like The Secret Seven, one would like the Famous Five. I used to wander around the house with a book constantly!
I found reading easy. I don’t remember learning to read. I just always remember being able to read, so I think that helps a bit. I remember needing to read – it was almost like a physical thing. I would have been the child who read the Cornflakes packet.
How does it feel to be School Librarian of the Year? What has been the highlight so far?
Winning was the most shocking thing ever. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was looking at the other two to see how they were going to react when one of them won. But obviously it’s really lovely. It’s the validation that what you’re doing is good. And I think especially because of the way they do the judging, it’s all about the impact that you have, so it’s not just about you being a nice person and keeping the library nice and doing lovely things. It’s about that actually having an impact on the school, the pupils and the staff.
In terms of the highlights, the actual award ceremony was just so lovely. It was such a nice celebration of school libraries as a whole. Chris Riddell did my portrait, and it doesn’t get much better than that! It was honestly the most flattering picture I’m ever going to have. It’s framed in my house. As he was doing it, he said you have to be very careful with portraits because every extra line ages someone, so I was like ‘Stop!’
It really felt like it was the three of us on the Honours List, being celebrated. Twitter went a bit crazy. I got a message from Sarah Crossan. She DM’d me to say how pleased she was. I love Sarah Crossan. I’m a proper fan girl of Sarah Crossan. So there you go, that was my highlight – Sarah Crossan being excited for me.
What attracted you to librarianship as a career?
I did a history degree and then obviously as people with history degrees do, you think, ‘What do I do with this?’ I’d always used libraries so libraries were a big part of life growing up and then at university. I knew I didn’t want to be a teacher, but I liked the idea of being in that kind of world. I think libraries appealed because you weren’t going to be set in one particular thing; you could train as a librarian and then there were quite a lot of options open to you from that. I felt like I was using my love of reading, but also what I loved most about history, which was actually the research side of it and getting into little bits and pieces. I think it was probably the variety and what I could possibly do with it afterwards.
What is it about the school environment that you particularly like working in?
I worked in a couple of different ones. I did my graduate traineeship in the London Library and then I worked in a charity library and then a bit in a public library. These were all quite brief. And then I fell into schools when we moved up to North Wales and there were no other jobs! I loved it straight away.
You get to do everything in a school library. If you’re in any other sector, you do one particular aspect, perhaps, of librarianship. You specialise in cataloguing or you become the manager. In schools, you get to do every little bit of it. One minute I’m down at the Infants giving out prizes for book bingo and then I could be talking to Upper Sixth about their history coursework and referencing and how to use JSTOR and getting the best out of that. In what kind of job do you get to do that?!
What would you say are the biggest challenges involved in your job?
Getting children to read! I think also getting the staff and the pupils to appreciate what you can do to help them. And when perhaps you’re bugging them about doing something, actually the idea is to make their life easier and not more difficult. Sometimes getting things those things started can be quite difficult but once you get them going it’s fine. We do a lot of work with History and I know that they would say we make their lives easier but I certainly know it’s a bit of a slow process to get that going in the first place. I think it’s quite easy for some teachers to forget that you’re here and you’ve got those skills. You need to push yourself out there and make people appreciate what you can do to help in terms of reading and research.
How have you established such a strong reading culture within your school? How do you get students to actually want to spend time in the library?
It’s been bit by bit. I’ve been here for 10 and a half years. When I started there was an element of a reading culture but it was much more of an academic library, more like a college. It was meant to be silent… I got rid of that within a week! I think one of the first things I started to do was to try and have fun stuff going on and actually not worrying about whether it meant people were borrowing books. We did things like Fairtrade Fortnight. We always had books on display that were related to it but it wasn’t necessarily the aim. It was just about seeing the library in a positive way.
And then it was just building it up from there, so getting other staff on board was really important. We worked really closely with the English department. For a while we had regular English lessons in here and we established different reading schemes. When those were stopped, we got together a working party of different staff from around the school. We got loads of good ideas out of it, like the ‘I’m currently reading’ signs on the door and in signature lines on emails. We started doing tutor periods in the library for Year 7s. They come in once a fortnight and do a mixture of stuff, like some really fun treasure hunts and then things like ‘how to use the library catalogue’ and ‘how to evaluate websites’. It’s making them see that the library is a really good place to be. It’s normalising reading as something that everybody does. Our book award is very much for staff as well and now for parents too. It’s the idea that everybody takes part in this.
Are there any online resources that you find particularly useful?
Twitter. I’m slightly obsessed with Twitter! It’s very useful. You get the book news straight out. Somebody gets a book deal and it’s on there. You can make contact with other librarians and share ideas. I think it’s the immediacy of Twitter. Twitter is a lovely place if you only follow authors and librarians!
You recently launched a Parents’ Book Club. Can you tell us a little about the format – including how you promoted it to parents – and what you hope to achieve with it going forward.
The format is that we’re reading the books that are shortlisted for the School Book Award. We’re going to meet six times and read one book from each age category each time. I promoted it to parents simply by sending out an email. I asked them to do a survey on Survey Monkey asking what date and times they’d be available, either staying after dropping off or staying behind after picking up. We met in the library this morning, but we’re going to meet in the sports hall café. We chatted about what we thought of the books, but then also what we thought the children would think of them.
The book in the teen category – Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds – had a really interesting response. Some of the parents had never read a verse novel before because there are not really many written for adults. It’s very much a teen book thing. They said they really didn’t think they’d like it at all but absolutely loved it. There was only one person who wasn’t that keen, but she said that she’s going to try again after listening to us all raving about it. The idea was to get more parental engagement, especially in a school like this. We talked about parents modelling good reading, validating those books. I think sometimes children get these messages that they need to be moving on. Sometimes they think by the time they’re in Year 9, they should be reading all the adult stuff. So by the parents reading the teen books, they’re saying, ‘these are good’.
How do you decide which books are included in the library? How much input do the students have?
In terms of student input, we’ve always got a suggestion box out and some of them will just come up and ask for the latest one. I’m really lucky that I’ve got a good budget, so I perhaps don’t have to make such difficult decisions that other school librarians might have to make. We use Peters, we use their reviews. They’re brilliant – they don’t just say whether something is good, they’ll say things like, ‘It’s a bit naff, but it’ll be really popular!’
For non-fiction, that’s where I use ELS a lot, especially for the KS3 stuff. I don’t buy an awful lot of KS3 things myself. For the older ones, we get recommendations from staff. And book awards, things like the Royal Society Book Prize and the Wellcome Book Prize. It’s just keeping an eye out, and trying to get things that aren’t just curriculum-related.
What is the best book that a student has recommended to you?
The Storm Keeper’s Island [by Catherine Doyle].
What advice would you give to new school librarians?
If they’re completely new to the profession, get as much training as they can – use the SLA, use the School Library Service, go and shadow somebody. If they’re established librarians but new to a school, get to know the IT staff, get to know the facilities team, go to every staff meeting that you can, even if it means closing the library occasionally. You need to be seen as a member of staff. Get to know the pupils, chat to them, don’t just chat to them about books either, chat to them about anything and everything. Everybody comes into the library at some point, whether it’s for a lesson or their own thing, and you just need to see them as individuals. Make sure they see you as a human being; that way, they are much more likely to want to speak to you about other stuff.
How has being part of the Youth Libraries Group North West helped you with your role? What do you enjoy most about being part of it?
It’s funny because joining the Youth Libraries Group feels like something I’ve done for myself rather than necessarily for the school. It’s just having that contact with people from different sectors, like people from the public library service. It’s really nice to get that connection with other people. We do lots of book reviews, so that’s another way of finding new things. I love the Unconference, having discussions with people you wouldn’t normally perhaps work with. It’s being able to get out, get out of the bubble of your school and meet other people.
How are you feeling about being the new Carnegie and Kate Greenaway judge for the North West?
It’s very exciting. And really scary! I’ve talked to previous judges, so I’ve got an idea about what needs to be done. It means that anything that is being published now, I need to keep on top of, writing notes about it, and getting into that habit. Writing notes. I need to make notes! I started keeping a reading journal at the beginning of this year and that was partly thinking that I wanted to apply and that might get me into a good habit.
I thought it was something only really special people got to do, I had no idea how it even happened. I thought it was like some special club and then I found out that you just have to be a member of the Youth Libraries Group! I think I’m most excited about the Greenaway books because I don’t really deal with picture books that much. We do the Greenaway shadowing, but it’s outside of my natural area of expertise. I know I’m going to appreciate help and training with that.
Finally, how important is it to you to have access to a Schools Library Service?
It’s very, very important! It’s one of the first things I did when I came here because we hadn’t been a member of a SLS before. You get access to a different range of books which means that you can take more risks on things. The project loans are fantastic because we do a few different projects a year. For example, we do a zoo animal project for Year 7s. If we had to have those books in the library, we’d have no room for anything else! It’s fantastic to get those in for half a term and know that they’re going to be updated every year. There are always really good books coming in. And then you’ve got the training courses and networking with other people and the Cheshire Book Quiz. And the Cheshire Schools’ Book Award as well; our own book award is for the school and that one is just for our book club, so it’s nice to have a different focus on things. You always know that you’ve got somebody to go to if you need anything. It’s wonderful!
Thank you to Ros for answering our many questions!
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