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TL v63n3: Sarah Culp Searles
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Viewpoint: School Libraries



Adjusting Services after Losing Staff


Sarah Culp Searles

Well friends, my program lost its library secretary this year, to my intense sadness and frustration. It’s hardly the first time that’s happened to a school library, but it’s the first time it’s happened to me, so I’m indulging in some self-pity about it. I’m pretty up front (obnoxious, some might say) in my advocacy efforts, and since we haven’t lost a librarian yet, despite several years of teaching position losses at my school, I thought we were doing a pretty good job with our message. Alas, there are apparently a few important pairs of ears we’re not reaching. But this column is not to complain about that; it’s to open a discussion about how we are adjusting our services after losing a third of our staff. 

I am personally having a doubly woeful time of it, because my much-loved co-librarian will be retiring in a few short months. I’m very happy for her, but very sad for me! We will lose an enormous wealth of institutional knowledge, and I may end up doing a very different job afterward, depending on the strengths and interests of her “replacement” (please emphasize the quotation marks, because she’s impossible to replace). So that’s another rather large kink to account for in the new workflow patterns.

Clearly, two people cannot do three people’s jobs. And I refuse to try: a) I’m not willing to be a doormat, and b) if we somehow manage to take up the slack successfully, then it’s hard to argue that there was a real loss with the position. So we are having to make cuts, and to learn the word “no”—not a word I like to use, when my ability to do my job depends on people coming to me to work together, which they will only do if they think I can say “yes” if they ask for help. I hope that the relationships we have built over the last four years will be sufficient to get us past that hurdle.

When I first began to ponder these cuts, I decided that a focus on student learning, not “Stuff,” was going to be my non-negotiable. I believe my own position is most valuable to the school when it is focused on teaching kids, and I believe it is most likely that my position will continue to exist if I am viewed and valued as a teacher. It’s very easy to focus on Stuff as a librarian, because there is always so much of it to do—circulation, shelving, hall passes, answering how-do-I computer questions, running down the hall to fix teachers’ projectors, covering paperbacks, unjamming the bane-of-my-existence copy machine—but don’t we all ultimately value students over Stuff? I do. So it’s my mission that if I have to start making cuts and saying no, I will always look at which tasks are more valuable to kids’ education, then cut the chaff around that. That’s hard, when we have always done the Stuff, and especially when people are counting on us to do the Stuff, but we have to hold ourselves accountable to what is most important. 

The first thing we had to cut was our extended hours. Most school libraries’ hours are pretty narrowly defined by the school day, but when there were three of us, we could arrange some flex time to increase our hours; I arrived early and opened, my secretary came a few minutes later and did the standard day, and my co-librarian arrived late and then stayed late. With at least 60-70 kids before school every morning and 40+ in the afternoons, though, we can’t do so much flex time and leave just one person to cover each shift. Cutting the total hours means that we can spend the remaining hours in more valuable student interactions, with the ability to dedicate more attention to student needs rather than frantically trying to cover everything alone. We still have some extra time before and after school for the kids, but it’s less than it used to be, and they and their parents are definitely feeling it. I wish services could stay seamless for them, but the silver lining is that the interruption makes them ask questions, and that gives me a good opportunity to say, “Now when you’re old enough to vote, remember what cuts in services look like…”

During the day, we have made very deliberate cuts in circulation desk coverage. We used to try to keep at least two of the three of us ready at the desk at most times, and we were able to handle almost all requests very quickly. But with just two of us, there are too many meetings and appointments and emergency tech support issues to keep both of us present all the time—and that’s without even considering teaching classes, my non-negotiable! Because my cohort is retiring in November, I am trying to front-load all of my freshmen instruction workshops/projects before she goes (in case we have any gap in filling the position), and that has me in direct instruction for two out of four periods almost every day. Since there will necessarily be only one of us on the desk while I’m teaching, we decided it would be easier for our students and teachers to adjust if there was ALWAYS only one of us on the desk, even if the other person was potentially available some of the time. So we’ve added a new section on our scheduling notebook to indicate whose turn it is for desk duty, and we trade off each block now. That means we are often slower in our ability to respond to requests, but it means we are able to dedicate more of our non-desk time to purposeful professional tasks rather than responding to Stuff.

Our community was just as disappointed in our staff loss as we were, but they have been outstandingly supportive. Our teachers have had nothing but kind words to say about how much we do for the school; they have been completely understanding about the cuts we have had to make in order to focus on our students. Several teachers have volunteered their time during plan periods to help us cover our high lunch traffic when we’re stretched thin due to teaching. Our PTSO has mobilized an army of parent volunteers to help us keep up with our shelving and other clerical work. Some of our students are organizing a PR campaign to gather video comments about what the library program means to them and why it should be expanded, not reduced. And I haven’t had a single person tell me they wish I did more Stuff.


Sarah Culp Searles is a librarian at West High School in Knoxville, TN.  She can be reached at
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