30 Days of Back to School: It was the worst of times…

(with apologies to Charles Dickens)

It was the worst of times… it was the best of times…

Just over three years ago, I was awakened by a phone call that no librarian wants to hear: the library’s on fire.’  This wasn’t just a minor “use the fire extinguisher” fire, it was a 10-hour conflagration that left nothing uncharred.’  So, definitely the worst of times.

However, when life hands you limes, you make margaritas, right?’  The reality was (as it is for so many of us) that the building wasn’t really student-friendly, and the collection was a little on the old/needs to be heavily weeded side.’  The fire meant that we had the opportunity to do a lot of shopping, and a lot of building.

When you have a disaster, be it flood, fire, earthquake or tornado, there are many places to look for help.’  FEMA, for one (if you’re in a disaster area, not a one-off like our fire).’  Public schools can apply for a Dollar General Stores grant.’  If this isn’t an area-wide disaster, your friends, neighbors and the rest of the community will rally with donations (be careful: a professor retiring after a life in academia may not have the best materials for a collection focusing on young adults!).’ ‘ ‘  Few of us think of disaster preparation as a part of our jobs, yet it is so necessary.’  Take it from me: do not be caught unprepared.’  In June 2009, I was asked to present at an ALA Pre-Conference on just this topic.’  If this presentation or I can help, just let me know!

Hackley School is very lucky, in that we had a “spare” Chapel (the building was used perhaps 2-3 hours a week by the time of the fire).’  For three years, the Middle and Upper School Library made its home in that building – separated from the rest of the buildings, smaller than we needed (if a class came in, there was no place for other students to do their work) and a little dark, but far better than doing “library in a box” or staying in a classroom until we rebuilt.’ ‘  We moved in as news of Maricopa (AZ) County’s decision to drop Dewey was making librarians squirm.’  However, because we were staring from scratch, we were able to think about how we shelved our collection.’  As mk graciously pointed out, I have some strong opinions on the topic.’  Whether or not you’re renovating or rebuilding, I urge you to rethink your collection shelving.

By February 2008, when our Junior Research Paper started, we had nearly 7,000 books on the shelves.’  With our new shelving system, we found that students were using the biographies and reference books we offered for the first time, because they no longer needed to go to several sections of the library to find the materials. Fiction was circulating like mad, despite our distance from the main buildings. We also used this opportunity to increase our database and eBook collection, so students didn’t have to wait until school opened to do research.’  Student and teacher visits, circulation and database usage continued to grow throughout our time in the Chapel. I like to think that having a website with interesting content also helps.

Of course, no rebuilding project goes as planned, and our original move in date of January 2010 became March… then June… and finally late July/early August.

It’s now September, and school has started.’  Our information desk (one desk serving both information and circulation needs) arrived the Thursday before school opened.’  .’  And we who manage the space find ourselves worrying about the things that aren’t quite right, yet. We’re missing nearly 20 chairs from the main space.’  Molding and other finishing touches still need finishing.’  Three bookcases haven’t yet been installed, and much of our Fiction collection is on top of other bookcases.’  There are no OPACs available for the students.’  The Open Lab computers weren’t printing.’  And, of course, there was this new building to get used to: how would the noise from the student lounge affect the library?’  After all, we’re right above it, connected by an open staircase.

Know what? ‘ The students don’t notice the things that aren’t there. They’re thrilled that we have more tables and chairs than we did in the Chapel. They’re already finding books by browsing (Fiction) or asking us to look for something (Non-Fiction). The noise from the lounge?’  Not that noisy because students are aware that there’s a library overhead and are self-policing.’  And our beautiful windows have been described as “da bomb” and “kickin’.”

In August Joyce Valenza discussed the things she wished teacher librarians would unlearn.’  Of those 20 items, we’ve incorporated nearly half of them and I continue to revisit the program and my practice with an eye to what the students and teachers need, not what I want.

Recently a colleague asked how excited I was to have had the opportunity to build both a building *and* a collection.’  I know people that have done one, or the other, but rarely both and never at the same time (particularly not with a budget sufficient to allow a thorough rethinking and updating).’  So yes, the past three years of rebuilding have been the worst of times… but also, in very many ways, the best of times.

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