Leadership and the school librarian: Take Control of Your Space

When I was in college getting my undergraduate degree – a B.S. in Commercial Music Recording and Production – I took a class through the psychology department simply titled “Leadership.” The professor was a woman who chose to guide the class with The Tao of Leadership  by John Heider. If you go to http://www.amazon.com and look up the title you will find this description: “The Tao of Leadership is an invaluable tool for anyone in a position of leadership. This book provides the simplest and clearest advice on how to be the very best kind of leader: be faithful, trust the process, pay attention, and inspire others to become their own leaders. Heider’s book is a blend of practical insight and profound wisdom, offering inspiration and advice. This book is used as a Management/Leadership training text by many Fortune 500 corporations, including IBM, Mitsubishi, and Prudential.” (http://www.amazon.com/Tao-Leadership-Tzus-Ching-Adapted/dp/0893340790/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1305638259&sr=1-1; accessed 5/17/2011). 

I have owned that book since 1991 and I still refer to it 20 years later. Not because it is a “how to” type of book but because it is timeless in its wisdom. It isn’t about how to run a company and it isn’t about how to take control of a group. It is, however, a guidebook for the personal journey to that place in ourselves that is confident (not arrogant), joyful (not ignorant), and intelligent (not elitist). I think it should be required reading for the school librarian. Why? Because I  consistently hear from colleagues who complain that teachers “won’t collaborate,” administrators “don’t get it,” and legislators and lawmakers think “we’re expendable.” All true. But I rarely, if ever, hear those same colleagues talk about where they are making changes within themselves or their programs to address these issues. Rarely do I see that there is an acceptance of some personal responsibility for this state of affairs. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist and I’ll even go out on a limb and say that those who are making the effort to read this blog are not the librarians to whom I am referring. But if you’re reading this blog, you know I am speaking the truth. We are surrounded by those that blame “the other” before ever taking a critical look at their own contribution to the problem.

In the May/June issue of School Library Monthly there is an article titled “Success is an Attitude” by Kara Fribley. This article is part of the magazine’s “Taking the Lead” series and, in my humble opinion, a must read. Ms. Fribley opens her article by saying “School librarians can be leaders who positively impact the tone for the entire school” (p. 34). The article is about how Ms. Fribley looked critically at the physical space of her library and made changes that altered the feel and usability of it. Isolated seating areas were opened up and made more accessible. Individual study carrels were removed and open tables with flexible seating were put in their place to foster collaborative learning. In some areas the changes cost absolutely nothing but a little sweat worked up by moving some furniture around. According to Ms. Fribley, “…it ultimately falls to the librarian to encourage or discourage patron usage of the library” (p. 35). Truer words are rarely spoken. The words spoke to me directly because I am putting thought into action by changing my library space, too. I am taking on the leadership needed to improve my space and it is already paying off.

For starters, I painted a rainbow of colors on the cinderblock columns that surround the collection space. Suddenly, the beige and cream color scheme (if you can really call beige and cream a color scheme) was brightened up and brought a little joy to the library. What did it cost? About $60 for paint, brushes, and painter’s tape and a couple of my days during the summer. Then I looked at the entrance – more beige and cream, nothing inviting students in, nothing that said I welcomed them. So, I came up with a quote and stenciled it on the walls of the entry way in the same rainbow colors I used on the columns. As you walk in you see the first part of the quote “Enter with Curiosity…” and as you leave you see the second part, “Exit with Knowledge.” It looks professional but was beyond easy and anyone who wants to know how I did it can send me an email and I’ll explain. I am a creative problem-solver, not an artist!

Next, I tackled my Reference collection. Surrounded by overstuffed shelves and no teaching space I had to think critically about how to rearrange that area. I did some very necessary weeding and opened up some of the shelving. I had the county come in and remove the tall shelves that took up one entire wall – those were distributed to grateful teachers for classroom use. I then did some serious negotiating with our county warehouse and found a dry-erase board sitting unused that they were willing to install on that wide open wall. Now my reference collection is updated and the area is more like a small classroom. How much did it cost? Nothing (although I did offer our warehouse manager a plate of brownies for his help – he declined).

Finally, I looked at the flow of traffic in my media center and did not like what I saw. This school is only 10 years old and there are still many “opening items” here that had to go. I had rows of shelves that had never held any books and, quite frankly, it did not make sense to just fill them up because they were there. I began looking at the emptiness and began thinking in terms of efficiency. My clerk, my intern, and I began rearranging the collection. No shelf is stuffed but the Dewey categories are now closer together. By tweaking the shelving arrangement I ended up with 16 double-sided bookshelves that were completely empty right in the center of the collection. I asked the county to come and pick them up (they did), I asked teachers to let me know if they wanted any of them (they did), and asked the rest to be taken to the county warehouse for storage (done). Now I have this open area with a couch and 2 chairs, 4 beanbag chairs, and a round table with 4 chairs where those empty shelves used to be. And you know what? That area is full of students every morning and has been since the shelves were removed. I didn’t advertise, I didn’t make a big deal about it – but they came and they sat together and they read books and worked on projects together. And they seemed happy! I have a lot more transformative projects up my sleeve and I will let you know when (notice I did not say “if”) they happen. You can click on the pictures below to get a better view of what I’ve done.

The Tao of Leadership tells us that the great leader knows when to listen and when to speak. It tells us that the great leader understands that s/he becomes empowered by empowering his/her team. It tells us that leadership is sometimes quiet and evolutionary rather than vocal and demanding. It is an ebb and flow of action and assistance. It tells us that if we want to make a change we must begin with ourselves because clarity of thought and action draws others to us more powerfully than anything else. So… start rearranging!





About susangrigsby

I am the District Media Specialist on Special Assignment with Forsyth County Schools, Georgia. In August, 2017 I will become the middle and high school librarian at the United World College of Southeast Asia (East Campus) in Singapore.

Posted on May 17, 2011, in Ideas, Program administration, Reflection, Yes We CAN. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Excellent posting….I really enjoyed seeing how you changed your Media Center. Am always looking for ideas to change up my Media Center. I love moving things around to keep things interesting.

  2. I love this article. You are a wise librarian. It is so true that we determine how the library is used. The changes you made were both simple and dramatic and it shows that it doesn’t have to cost anything.

  3. What a wonderful article! You have great wisdom. It IS the school librarian’s attitude and leadership that determines the use of the space. What you did is inspiring and shows that it doesn’t have to cost a lot of money.

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