Firmware (& Software)

Planning for a library expansion and renovation involves considerable time, thought and work on the “hardware” of the physical building. Including last week’s work of packing up the books and getting them put into storage. I’d blogged a little about how just prior to that we’d done a lot of weeding, and sorting out patron data on our system, as somehow the physical sorting out led to a drive for digital sort out and housekeeping.

I’ve been promising for a while that I’ll talk a little about the “digital” side of the library, but first I’d like to talk about what I’d refer to as “Firmware”


A characteristic of most international schools is the transience of its students, and often teaching staff. Naturally this includes the library.  In my current position I’m aware of the fact that I’m just one in a long line of librarians who have come and gone. I’m also extremely grateful to our permanent library staff, who keep things ticking over as teacher librarians come and go, each trying to put their mark on the physical and teaching environment.  They have institutional knowledge. They know what has been tried and worked or failed, and a pretty good idea of why.  I admire their unrelenting politeness and helpfulness as they cope with the latest “new broom” .

When you speak to other librarians, inevitably the conversation will come around to the fact that they’d like their staff to take more initiative, or upgrade their skills beyond shelving and circulation and basic queries.  But that is harder to realise than one would think. There appears to be a reluctance that sometimes is hard to fathom.  Some librarians have taken great initiatives in this direction – like the KL librarians under Robert George with their JAWs (Job Alike Workshop), and more recently the similar sessions initiated by Barb Reid in Singapore.  The problem with any professional development at any level is that there needs to be a compelling reason to take the learning and put it into action as soon as possible. But invariably the day-to-day tasks take over and there just isn’t enough space between relentless shelving and picking books for the next (18) Units to get the practise …

However in the last month, we’ve had to challenge the “read-only” part of the definition to its limits, with one staff member on maternity leave and the other on hospitalisation leave, and as a result, that once in a blue moon occurrence – a “firmware update” has become the new norm. So suddenly business as usual hasn’t been usual, and everyone has had to do everything all the time, with a lot of compromise and cobbling things together as we go along.  We haven’t had the luxury of designated tasks and roles, and suddenly we are all cataloguers, and weeders, and resource list creators.

I’d set aside a week for packing up the library. But I’d not calculated on the energy and enthusiasm of my staff and the maintenance staff, and the help of our Grade 5 students who made a “book train” from the library upstairs, so by the end of Tuesday we were pretty much done (and not dusted – boy oh boy, did we discover dirt and dust…). So I declared Wednesday to be systems and PD day, kept back 3 tables and chairs and we sat down and I taught everyone how to use Libguides.   We probably only spent about two hours on learning the basics, and that’s really all that is needed, because with everything it’s not about the theory it’s about using it.   Then back to some more boring stuff, getting images onto books in the collection.

And then more important, but still a little bit tedious – especially if you’re using Follett – checking through resource lists and updating visual search for all the UOIs.   Oh gosh, I’m embarrassed to say how many links were old or incorrect.

Next up was making resource lists for all the books related to all the countries our students came from. For Uniting Nations day I had made a cursory start by grouping books into continents as it was a “quick and dirty” way of getting lists out there for our “read around the world” challenge.  Now I wanted to dig deeper, so I took the list of all the student nationalities and we divided it up and started searching and added. We quickly saw the countries that were under-represented, or not even represented at all – books from / about Bulgaria anyone?

I also spent the better part of a day sorting out and adding books related to Social and Emotional Learning  based on the handout of Dr. Myra Bacsal after her talk. It also entailed adding nearly US$2,000 worth of books to a “to purchase” list, as I realised that while we did have many of the books recommended, we were also lacking in a few – and particularly in more diverse and more recent books.

Our final day in the library, around rapidly diminishing furniture – including at one point our desks, was spent putting the libguide PD into practice, as the 3 of us sat with a list of all units, all guides made and guides to be made and started putting libguides together!


The previous day while my staff was helping their colleagues at our other campus, I’d been sitting with the librarians, helping them extend their knowledge of libguides, and us brainstorming ways of presenting physical and digital resources in the guides in such a way that it was easy to navigate and would ensure that students could benefit from knowing what books we had and also how to access other QUALITY resources (i.e. not just google) that we were paying for but were perhaps not being well utilized.

We decided on

  • having the central idea at the top in a floating box
  • on the left – having a scrolling bookshelf of our unit books – using the Library Thing for Libraries book display unit. That way teachers and students could see all available books in a unit, even if they were distributed in a different classroom – and clicking on the link would take them to the book in the catalog – AND if they looked at the subject headings under Explore! would hopefully have a Webpath Express link to click on.
  • Putting some videos in the middle for our more visual / video liking students – also very handy for our ELL students with the paired speaking / images.
  • On the right having a tabbed box that could alternate between Brainpop (a staple in primary), Epic Books (easy to access and great free selection of nonfiction books for easy projection & assignment in class), Britannica (because Encyclopedia) and other links.



Of course nothing is simple – and even now as I look over the units, I see that some units have the UOI books around the central idea and inquiry in them and some have that plus what-ever literacy / math connection is being made (so more than half of the books are poetry for example). In the medium term all that needs to be straightened out and sorted out as well.

Also before you can add a scrolling list of books, you need a list of books … and to know how to get the books into Library things, and then into a book display widget – so I made a little screencast on how to do that!

The wonderful thing about all of this is the obvious enjoyment and pride that my staff got out of researching units and finding resources and adding them to a guide – they kept on saying “this is so interesting”, and “this is so creative”.  Of course it is not a “quick” thing, I’d say on average a very basic guide at primary level that is reasonably complete will take around 3 to 4 hours. And then one just has to hope that the units don’t change every year!

All in all, and incredibly productive week, and also my staff finally “gets” the fact that my drive for automating student update and photo import etc. etc. is not to put them out of a job, but to free them up to do more interesting and meaningful work.  After we talked about that, one staff member said “and now to automate the shelving!” amen to that!


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