When does enough become enough?

When you have what is in many respects the perfect job, and lots of people out there don’t have a job at all, it’s difficult to decide when it’s appropriate to say enough is enough, get things sorted out or I quit. However, I’m starting to think that time might have come for mine.

I got into work yesterday to discover my entire fiction stock piled in boxes and water dripping through the ceiling. For the third time, the lead on the roof had been stolen. It’s not exactly unexpected – it’s an Edwardian building and lead theft is a significant problem. A couple of years ago, we lost £2,000 worth of stock in a similar incident when gulleys got clogged with dead leaves and flooded. If we lose any more, it’s unlikely that the school insurance company will pay out.

I am enormously grateful to our school caretaker who took it upon himself to spend an hour moving all the books out of the way and drying off the shelves. If it hadn’t been for him, things would have been very much worse. However, I’m not quite so pleased that (a) nobody bothered phoning me so I found out what had happened minutes before the library was due to open and (b) nobody can promise it won’t happen again. Basically, the only way I can be certain my stock is safe is to put over 2,000 books away in waterproof boxes every time I leave work, and come in an hour early to put them back on shelves when I get in. I think that’s unacceptable. Apart from the fact that I already average 15-20 hours a week and only get paid for five of them, it means nobody can use the library stock if I’m not there. A library that’s stored in boxes for 80% of the time is hardly a library at all.

Unfortunately that isn’t the only problem with my accommodation, though if it was, that would be bad enough. The lighting is so poor that if I want to work after dark (that’s around 16.00 at this time of year), I have to use a head torch. I can’t use a lamp because there’s no power point I could use without creating a safety hazard. The only computer I have is my own laptop, which wouldn’t be insured if it was stolen, so I have to carry it with me everywhere. Over the summer holidays my kids and I computerised the entire library catalogue and weren’t paid a penny for it. Since nobody from the IT staff can find time to sit down and help me turn that file on Open Office into a useable database, I’m not sure it was worth abandoning the catalogue cards anyway.

The library is in the school reception area. This sounds fine in theory – it looks great when people come in. However, it is used as a classroom most of the time, which limits its functionality as a library, not to mention my ability to do work in there. Also, people troop through it constantly – whole classes of them. Football teams getting changed for after school activities leave their clothes all over the floor. When stuff is delivered from suppliers, it can sit there for hours or even days, right in front of my shelves. I once had to move 24 boxes of stationery with a wrist in plaster, so the kids could see the books.

Of course, I’ve asked for changes to be made. It’s like banging on a brick wall. There’s no space, there’s no money, there’s no time, it’s the same for everybody else. I stay because, despite all this, I love the job, I happen not to need the money (though that’s hardly the point) and if I worked to rule, the kids would suffer. I love the kids. Their enthusiasm, and the difference I’ve made to the reading culture of the school, is what keeps me going. Everyone is very nice, I can have time off whenever I like (though they know I won’t ask often, because if I’m not there the job doesn’t get done), it’s a nice atmosphere, etc, etc. So I don’t complain. And I’m beginning to wonder if I should. 

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8 thoughts on “When does enough become enough?

  1. It’s hard to love when the love is returned in so tenuous a fashion, isn’t it? I actually don’t think some judicious complaining would hurt; if nothing else, it could provide a valuable emotional steam release. Good luck whatever you do, and my sympathies.

  2. Preachin’ to the choir, here. I don’t think any state school would be able to function properly were it not for the number of staff who do what they do because of the kids. And the thing is, they take it for granted.

  3. So it’s more of a volunteer job than paid employment, right? Which, of course, makes it much harder to figure out mutual rights and obligations. I note that you talk about ‘taking time off’ rather than reducing hours or just not coming in, which sounds like you feel you’re obliged to do 15-20 hours a week while only being paid for 5. Unless you’ve formally agreed to volunteer the remaining 10-15 hours, you’re not obliged to seek permission not to be there!
    Many civic and public organisations wouldn’t survive without volunteers – but, as says, there is a prevalent tendency to take volunteers and the extent of their commitment for granted. If you weren’t there, who would look after the library? How long would it take you to miss them?
    Looking at it the other way, if you quit, would you miss it? Or is there something else you could be doing with those 15-20 hours per week that you’d enjoy more, or would do more good somewhere else?
    If you would miss it, then ask yourself another question: what one achievable change would make this role much more bearable? Is it possible to negotiate this? And if you do that, then you need to manage your own approach to the job from then on too. If you’ve decided to cut back on your hours, or stop doing particular things, or ask for help more, then stick to that. At times, people like you and me who are genuinely dedicated to what we do and the people we serve are our own worst enemies. I can’t really blame my employer if I feel overworked; a lot of the time it’s my own doing because I don’t say no, or not now, often enough.
    Whatever you decide, I hope you work something out that you can feel happy with.

  4. I do have core hours, though they’re very short, so technically there is an issue with “time off.” I don’t swap around my official days, partly because it confuses the kids, also there are too many other issues with accommodation to make it feasible.
    You’re right, the overtime is almost entirely self-inflicted, and not something I normally resent. In fact, I enjoy it. It’s the physical working environment that is making things so frustrating and diffficult. I enjoy the work, apart from those issues, and I think it’s valuable to the community and a worthwhile use of my time, so I do hope we can work something out.

  5. I’m a recent MLIS/School Librarian grad from the US, and at the moment I’ve just started a temp job in a tiny underfunded public library.
    I definitely feel your pain! It’s amazing how little funding many schools and libraries get. Their costs aren’t even that high, but there’s a basic level that’s required simply to exist in a useful form, and it sounds like you aren’t getting it.
    You’re obviously working your butt off for the kids, and making a difference. Unfortunately, you’re right; if there’s no money (and I have no idea how school funding works in the UK) then there isn’t much the school can do. It sounds like they’re desperately short of funds in other areas too, if the school reception area (is that like the entryway?) is used as a classroom. They can’t even manage to get some new lighting up? A few new light fixtures shouldn’t be hard to wire up, even in an old building. It has to have been rewired in the last century.
    Ideally, a school library should have a full time librarian, and a large, semi-quiet space with books, computers, tables to study at, etc. Obviously, your school hasn’t got anywhere near that, and probably can’t manage it no matter how much you ask for it.
    Is there a parent council you can go to with requests for help? Not going around the school leadership, but asking for volunteers or suggestions or fundraising? I’d try to get fundraising for a basic computerized catalog; the students NEED to learn to use one now, not once they’re adults. Your tech dept. won’t know a thing about cataloging software, but there are a bunch of open source (and therefore fairly cheap) programs available. Google “Open Source Library Catalog.”
    Have you done any actual, official cataloging before? If not, it can be pretty easy to get proper MARC records if you have access to OCLC’s database. I’m not sure if that’s what’s used in the UK, but I’m pretty sure it’s international. Basically, you type in the barcode of the book, and download the records into your local catalog, and put in your local call number, make any necessary changes (there’s where it can get complicated, but shouldn’t be too bad for a small library) and you’re set. OCLC charges a fee for access though, and I have no idea what it is. You may be able to convince another library to let you borrow their login once you get cataloging software.
    If you frame the problems with the library as a way the school is failing the students (in a way that doesn’t blame the administration), perhaps you could rally support from the community? The thing is, the school librarian should really be part supplier of books, and part research skills teacher. These kids are going to not have the skills they need in the future if they don’t have the supplies they need to learn. Dammit, I hate how hard it is to get funding!
    You may also want to check out grants; I’m about to look into some for the library I just started working at. They can be amazingly helpful, but I don’t know what’s available in the UK. Unfortunately, filling out grant applications is more work for you.
    Good luck! Sorry for being so verbose, I get wordy when I’m tired, and it’s 2am here.
    You should check out: http://community.livejournal.com/library_mofo/
    Also, this put a smile on my face: http://www.geekosystem.com/library-shelves-cleared/

  6. First, thank you so much for such a helpful and positive comment. And the link to an LJ librarian’s community. I first came to LJ through DW fandom and have been interested to find out how many of the fans of that particular show are librarians.
    Now, the funding situation has to be seen against the background of the Con/Lib coalition Government elected last year slashing public spending to pay for bailing out the banks under the last government. I am technically an employee of Manchester City Council, who are planning to shed 2000 jobs city-wide.
    Two things also affect funding at my particular school – first it is a church school, I won’t go into all the complexities of that but basically it means that the Diocese of Manchester (CoE) part fund it. Secondly, it is in a relatively privileged part of a city where there are areas of great social need, controlled by a Labour council, so we tend to come way down the priority list for extra funding of any kind.
    What this has led to is that a motivated community of parents has become accustomed to bailing out the school through fundraisers. In fact, every penny of my book budget comes straight from the PTA and can be taken off me if other needs are regarded as more pressing. They give me, officially, £1,000 a year to spend on books, and in fairness they have only pulled the plug once in the five years I have been there, when they needed the money for structural repairs to the school.
    It’s a listed building, that means planning law severely limits what we are allowed to do to alter it, and forces us sometimes to make decisions that cost more money than we’d like. The reason the library area is so vulnerable is that it was constructed as a link between two entirely separate buildings, the boys school and the girls school, so it’s a modern link between two very old buildings with steeply pitched roofs.
    As far as the cataloguing goes, we looked at various software packages and found the average cost for what we needed was around £1,500 installation plus (the real killer) £400 p/a maintenance charge. That really wasn’t affordable so in the end we decided to go for a very basic Open Office spreadsheet which is now 95 per cent complete – I am in the process of transitioning from a paper issue system to a computerised one, but another problem is that for legal reasons I cannot store personal details about the children, not even the name of who has borrowed a book.
    A lot of the problem boils down to pressures on management and getting everyone sitting down to come up with a workable plan. In my 10 years of association with the project, I’ve yet to be invited to a staff meeting. I think one reason is I started as a volunteer parent helper and that perception does linger. I think the only way I could get the lighting situation improved would be to offer to forgo my entire books budget for a year, but since given the current economic climate the PTA may well decide they’d rather spend the money on keeping a teacher in post, that only solves matters up to a point.
    If they did pull my budget and not improve the building, I think that would probably be the end of the road for me. The pressure on accomodation is not entirely due to lack of funds, but also that the school building is on a very cramped site in an area where people with young families like to live, so the school is always oversubscribed, and the surrounding land is too valuable to planners and developers for them to give up any more of it.
    Sorry, all these sound very negative, but I really appreciate your input and suggestions.

  7. I’m glad you appreciate the suggestions, though given your situation it doesn’t seem like they’ll be much help!
    It’s so hard to see situations like the one you’re in, and the one at my employer, where there’s a great need but there are simply other needs that are more pressing for the community.
    It’s frightening that the PTA is funding teachers, but that’s not atypical here, even though we’re supposed to have public funding for schools; since they’re funded through property taxes, guess where the good schools are?
    It’s too bad that you can’t manage a catalog, as that would make your life a lot easier, and give you a lot of functionality you won’t have with a spreadsheet. I’d take another look for something very basic that you can run on your own server, and that’s open source as I said before. If you’re running the server, you don’t have the maintenance fees.
    When you say you can’t keep track of which student has a book checked out, I must admit my mind boggles. Don’t you check books out to students as they do in public libraries? That can’t be right; as long as you don’t share that information with others, you should be able to track who has checked out a book. As a school employee here (or even a non-paid person, as I know from student teaching) we sign confidentiality forms that cover any private information we might see, like which student checked out a book on homosexuality or something. I can’t imagine that schools in the UK don’t have to keep track of personal information like schools in the US, and library books are the least of it. Something just doesn’t match up. Surely, if you aren’t able to be privy to confidential information at the moment, someone has paperwork you can sign?
    You’re on the staff, and if you can spare the time, you should put in an appearance at staff meetings. You need to go to them because there’s probably information you should know that’s being given out at them, and problems being voiced that you may be able to solve. You should even give presentations at them or at PTA/School Board meetings, if that’s something done at your school. One of my supervisor librarians made the point to me while I was student teaching that a school librarian is often very cut off from the rest of the staff, and that means that they have to spend a good chunk of their time showing teachers and administrators how the librarian helps the students.
    One thing you may need to remind yourself is that you are in charge of the library. You’re basically the head of a department of one. The elementary schools in my (admittedly well-off) area have two or three people reporting to the librarian. You don’t have the staff or even a full-time position, but you are still the head of the library, and you need to make clear to the leadership (principal, board, diocese, whatever?) that your work is more than just an extra, it should be integral to the students’ education. It sounds like the school as a whole is ignoring you and your concerns, because you aren’t viewed as a staff member and you are only one person, rather than say the maths department or the third grade teachers, who can agitate as a group.
    I don’t blame you for being negative. I’d be extremely frustrated in your place. I’m very spoiled in my upbringing; I grew up with wonderful school libraries and a fantastic public library, and I know how useful and enjoyable a good library is. I hate seeing the way many schools and towns underfund their libraries to the point that they become easily cut completely, because “We don’t get much use out of it anyway, it never has anything we want.” Of course it doesn’t, you’re asking the cow to give milk while you’re starving it to death.
    Good luck, and feel free to complain to me in a private message if you like, we can compare underfunded library notes!
    Also, apologies if I’m being very dictatorial and telling you what your problems are, as if you probably hadn’t thought of the solutions already and discarded them as unworkable. I’ve been spending the last few days working up a list of kindly worded “suggestions” for the library I’m working at. Since I can’t say things directly to them, I’m afraid I’ve said things a bit more forcefully to you than is probably fair.

  8. As far as personal data goes, it’s something of an anomaly that there is data protection legislation covering anything digital, but the same does not apply to written records. My personal frustration is that my little IT project needs to be co-ordinated and integrated into the school’s overall IT strategy, because of course they do keep digital records on individual kids, they have to, and they have the necessary licences. Children are vulnerable and I accept the need to protect them from people with the wrong motives.
    The points you make about staff meetings are absolutely spot-on – I have never been invited to one and I’ve often asked. This is the main frustration, the perception that I’m not quite staff. I think it’s a perennial problem for people who, like me, started life as parent volunteers. Although we are underfunded, like most libraries, I think the problem goes deeper than money. A lot of things could be solved or at least improved if it wasn’t so difficult to get folk to sit down and talk about them.

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