A safe haven: Ideas for your school library

Written by: Valerie Dewhurst | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock
A wonderful article Valerie with great ideas for school librarians. Well done.

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The school library is about more than literacy and ICT – it should be a safe haven for all pupils and should cater for the whole child. Valerie Dewhurst offers some practical ideas

Over my many years working in schools, and across the many libraries I have seen and managed, I have learned that students benefit from the solace and protection – the safe space – that the library often provides throughout the day.

Allowing the library to be many things to many students can be quite challenging for the librarian, but ultimately the library can offer crucial social and emotional support.

There are many ways that my school library has become a safe space. It provides a comfortable environment with soft furnishing, colourful artwork, promotional posters and inspirational quotes.

The library space itself is often a refuge for students, a safe space where they are comfortable and free to be themselves. The library is a physical and emotional place of safety, away from tough situations and helps to overcome the stress students may have to encounter during the day.

A library can be a place to escape loneliness and bullying and the librarian is quick to notice any signs of problems and to act upon them. I try my very best to always be there for our students, to be ready to listen when they are troubled and to offer a friendly ear.

I will always remember something which my predecessor shared with me many years ago: “The librarian takes vulnerable children under their wing helping to give pupils confidence socially.”

A range of activity ideas

Reading Well: Mental health, mindfulness and the wellbeing of our students are things we all have in common. The Reading Well Books on Prescription campaign is something we have embraced and offers expert-recommended books to help students to understand and manage their health and wellbeing using self-help reading. It has often been said that reading is good for stress and relaxation, so what better way to promote this than in a library (see further information).

Read to relax: One important message I am keen to pass on to our students is to “read to relax” which is a topic close to my own heart. In this context, I would highly recommend author Nicola Morgan and her many books offering students guidance in how to relax and de-stress from their busy lives. They cover exam and peer pressure as well as body image and seek to promote a healthy and happy lifestyle for our young people. Titles include Blame my Brain, Positively Teenage, The Teenage Guide to Life Online and Body Brilliant (see further information).

School clubs: The library can be a focal point for many clubs, such as my school’s book and craft clubs, helping to encourage confidence and to develop social skills.

Birthday Book Box: This year our Birthday Book Box project has flourished. During library lessons, year 7 students had the opportunity to share their birthday with their peers and choose a book from the Birthday Book Box (they could also do this privately if they preferred).

Free bookmarks: Although a small gesture, bookmarks are very much appreciated by our library users and can really help to put a smile back on the face of an upset or worried child. Themed bookmarks work the best, even better bookmarks with inspirational quotes as there is always something for everyone.

Pupil librarians: I, like many other school librarians, am proud to have a hard-working and dedicated team of pupil librarians, who work with me during each lunch break and thoroughly enjoy the new skills they acquire while being here. I have seen many pupil librarians grow in confidence and I feel strongly that the role of a school librarian helps to nurture shy and lonely children. A number of volunteers are SEN and Pupil Premium pupils and it is satisfying to know that the library is there for them, giving them lots to do, keeping them busy but also helping them to feel included and valued.

Mindfulness: A hot topic in education, I have brought this into my own school library. During a recent INSET day, I saw how the simple act of colouring-in helped to calm students. During Book Week and working closely with PSHE teachers, we devised a colouring-in competition that proved hugely popular. Colouring-in sheets at lunchtime are now one of our favourite activities and I have gone one-step further by linking the colouring-in sheets to many books. This has had a massive effect on those pupils and students who find it difficult to settle and concentrate at the start of a lesson, including my own library lessons. The colouring-in sheets prove to be popular during rainy lunchtimes too.

Craftwork: This has played a big part this year in our school library, with the bookmark club and colouring-in sheets being just two of our successful activities. There is no end of opportunities to share craft skills at events during Book Week, Christmas, Easter, Harry Potter Book Night, National Libraries Week, National Non-Fiction Month, National Storytelling Week, Valentine’s Day and many more. I have offered and delivered sessions including colouring, card-making, bookmark-making, bunting design, cake decorating, knitting and even some crochet activities.

Bibliotherapy: The June 2019 School Library Association (SLA) and Youth Libraries Group Weekend Conference for librarians – Building Identity, Building Readers – shared a variety of new ideas. One of my favourite sessions was the “Bibliotherapy” workshop – Bibliotherapy being a therapeutic approach that uses literature to support mental health. This involves using poetry, literature and song lyrics to help engage young people experiencing mental health and wellbeing issues, loneliness and isolation. I was able to take away so much from this session and indeed start to build my own bank of resources to use, share, promote and display.

Resource Box: As a learning space, my library supports all who use it, and even those who cannot due to time constraints. My Resource Box initiative put in place many years ago is still successful. A simple resource box filled with books, journals, movies and anything else to help support particular topics being studied is available for classrooms to support teaching and learning or form time use. It means the library can go to those who cannot come to us and we are actively supporting teachers and delivery of the curriculum.

The whole child

At the heart of an effective school library programme is the importance of individual understanding of each child. The rise in students dealing with mental health issues is well-documented in recent years. Boundaries between real and virtual lives have blurred and technology is now a big part of student lives much earlier.

This alone offers reason enough to think about how our school libraries are meeting the needs for a comfortable, welcoming and personalised learning environment that takes the whole child into consideration.

I feel very strongly about making our school library an available space to students during lunch time and after school, as this is a time when vulnerable students especially need a refuge or a safe place in school to get away from all the hustle and bustle during a busy school day.

I have often found creative ways to include some of our regulars, giving them the opportunity to mentor younger pupils (usually year 7) through book selection and reading aloud during lunchtimes. This activity worked extremely well during National Storytelling Week when an array of lunchtime activities took place in the school library, seeing both students and staff reading, sharing stories and having fun.

Other lunchtime library activities include an abundance of jigsaw puzzles and termly competitions and many book promotions, which all lend themselves to helping keep the library a hive of activity.

I strongly believe that a way to help to create a safe space for our students is to make them a big part of the library process. We can offer our students ownership and autonomy and help them feel part of a community – be that a world of books and resources or simply a library and a safe and comfortable space to gather their thoughts and relax.

My school library is a place for learning, collaboration and creativity for our students, staff, and the school community as a whole. If I can play my part in some small way of providing the path for students to constructively deal with the issues of isolation or other issues that often arise, then I feel this is a job well done.

We continue to work hard to see, hear and value our students and to create ways for the library to be a judgement-free, accepting space for the entire school community. We recently celebrated Diversity Week and our school was indeed awash with colour, with fun, laughter and, of course, a book display.

Great School Libraries

Author Neil Gaiman is a strong supporter of libraries and describes the library as “a place of safety, a haven from the world – it’s a place with librarians in it” (Gaiman, 2018).

He sums school libraries up so well and if you agree then why not support the Great School Libraries campaign, which is a three-year campaign launched in 2018 and spearheaded by the SLA, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) and CILIP’s School Libraries Group.

Meanwhile, the SLA, the umbrella for all school librarians, plays a big part in offering sound advice and expert help for anyone managing a school library. I would strongly recommend fellow school librarians to join this association if not already a member.

  • Valerie Dewhurst is head of library at Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School in Blackburn.

Further information & resources

Hello Sarah, in response to the Birthday Book Box - its simply a collection of books and bookmarks (mainly donations) which I hand out to Yr7 if they are in the library on their birthday. It works really well here - its something else for them to look forward to and of course chatter about the library when they are elsewhere in school. As long as we have donations we will have a Birthday Book Box.
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I'd love to hear more about what the Birthday Box actually entails?
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A great article Val. Good to hear about all these great ideas going on in your school library. I would echo many of these as working well in my school too. For me the key factor in supporting students is getting to know them as people. My issue figures are not high, but this our new Year 7 is a really keen reading year. I would hate to have a self-issue system, as a lot of my time issuing books is spent chatting to the students and getting to know them, exchanging ideas and views on what we are reading. After this I think they all feel more comfortable about coming to the library and finding it a safe haven.
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A wonderful article Valerie with great ideas for school librarians. Well done.
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Great article, and some good ideas to take away. I just wanted to echo your brief mention of jigsaws, which have been massively successful here and are a very easy resource to provide. I introduced them to give new year seven students something safe to do at break times, but they have been popular with students of all ages, and with some staff, and even with parents at a recent parents' evening.
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Good to hear from Val- plenty of good ideas and suggestions here for school librarians. Val’s library must be a real haven and joy to work in! I’m sure it reflects very well on the whole school too.
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