COVID-19 has brought many changes to life as we knew it, and in many ways, schools are on the front line. As a former school librarian, I decided to find out how librarians in some of our local secondary schools are managing to reach students in spite of pandemic conditions.

Getting students to read is a top priority for school librarians, and this includes sourcing and providing the most appropriate books to inspire and challenge readers of all ages and levels. It also means promoting books to those who resist reading for pleasure, as well as the keen readers. And this is what I found is still happening, often against the odds.

A common theme was that the school library cannot at present be used in the normal way, maybe because of difficulties in keeping separate children in different bubbles, or because pupils’ movement around school is now limited as much as possible. Schools are all finding their own best way through COVID-19. So, the librarians I spoke to are taking their services to the students. Some are going mobile: loading up trolleys with books, travelling out to classrooms, and allowing pupils to borrow using the normal book issue system via an iPad. This of course doesn’t work too well if you have an older school premises with several buildings on multiple floors and no lift! There are stories of book trolleys losing wheels on their travels around one school.

So Click and Collect, (or Request and Deliver) services come into play. School libraries generally have online systems allowing anyone in school to search the catalogue remotely, so students can search online for the books they want, request them (often by email), and have them delivered by the librarian to their classroom. Paper bags may be involved (for discretion!), and these apparently add an element of intrigue which is drumming up interest. Or special promotional bookmarks can add to the experience and help spread the word. It’s about creating that buzz of excitement around reading, which is invaluable in building a reading culture in a school.

One colleague I spoke to has reorganised the whole library layout, so that fiction books are “bubbled”, for specific year groups, making it easier to load up the trolleys for visits to different year groups, as well as preparing for the stage at which students will be allowed in. And others, where some students are already allowed in the library, have separated study areas used by students, to keep staff at a safe distance, and near open windows. Carefully chosen comfy seating is out – hard cleanable plastic chairs are in! Much thought, planning and heavy lifting work can be involved in all this.

Sanitising stations are now a feature around schools, and protocols and procedures adopted by the school of course need to be followed. Books returned to school libraries are generally being quarantined for 72 hours, with book return bins becoming a feature. And all the librarians I spoke to have had lengthy discussions with school management, as to what is feasible and safe, and how best to implement changes.

For the new Year 7 pupils in all our schools this year, things are new and strange, without all the visits and transition activities that usually would have happened in the summer term. All the librarians I spoke to are making particular efforts to get these new pupils on board, with regular visits to Year 7 classrooms, talking about reading and books, and what the library can offer them. Book Buzz, a Book Trust scheme that offers books to Year 7 pupils each year, is especially welcome. This has a cost to the school, but at a discounted rate books can be provided, from a select list, to give away to pupils. This is a great way to generate enthusiasm about books, and the children will each have a book of their own to take home and read.

Several colleagues have invested in e-books for the first time. It is quite a commitment to spend part of their budget on a platform which provides electronic books for students (free to use), but now, as never before, this looks like a good option. If there are difficulties in getting physical books out there, this may be a solution in the future.

Librarians have had to put a lot of hard work and ingenuity into all this – it doesn’t just happen! Risk assessments have to be written, discussions had within school, and advice sought. Many have been talking to each other and sharing ideas, often through academy networks, or on Twitter. And the Inspire Education Library Service has also been approached for advice and ideas, as well as running (now online) regular training sessions and meetings for school librarians.

Inspire ELS is a local service providing resources and advice on books, reading and libraries, to both primary and secondary schools, and has been active throughout lockdown. They were providing books for projects in schools from May onwards, and in July reopened (on a booking-only basis) to teachers, who are now able to visit and select books for loan to their schools. But they had been busy in the meantime, providing booklists on the theme of emotional wellbeing, at Key Stage 1 and 2 levels, to help teachers when children returned to school.

They also ran a successful new book award, InspiREAD, for primary age children, getting parents and carers involved during lockdown.

Many school librarians were also busy working during lockdown, often from home at first, although some paid visits to school to allow key workers’ children to access books. Several were able to carry on reading programmes with students online, using schemes such as Accelerated Reader, which they were already using with some year groups, to encourage pupils to read and take quizzes on their books. And letters were sent home to parents and carers, giving them resources and ideas to keep their children reading and learning. Other projects included producing a promotional video for Year 7 pupils who would be starting in September, using the school’s online learning platform to set activities for students (taking photos of book-themed bakes stands out!), running a Virtual Book Club, setting a Book Bingo challenge, and promoting activities around the online Hay Book Festival… the list goes on.

Plans for the future very much depend on each school’s policies and way of managing things, and life, as we all know, is unpredictable just now. Allowing more pupils into libraries and returning to some normality is everyone’s hope, although that may be some way off. But some are thinking ahead to Book Weeks and Reading Festivals they had planned, and hoping to make these work in some way, either as virtual events, or having socially distanced author visits (many children’s writers are starting to do school visits again). And few things give the reading culture in a school more of a boost than meeting a real live author!

School Librarians are a resourceful bunch, and if anyone can make all this work, they are the people for the job.

Carol Williams

Many thanks to the librarian colleagues who shared their experiences with me:

Claire Warren, South Nottinghamshire Academy

Mel Webster, The Becket School

Katherine Davison, Ellis Guilford School

Lisa Goodwin-King , Rushcliffe School

Lucy Georgeson, The Carlton Academy

Val Sawyer, Inspire Education Library Service

Rachel Marshall, Inspire Education Library Service