Interview of the Month: Steve Smidl on Collection Development in a High School Library

There are a few people I met in graduate school that I thought, “This person is going to be awesome at whatever he/she wants to do.” Steve was one of those people. He’s a natural born leader, easy to talk to, and great at connecting with kids. All of these things led me to feel no surprise at all when Steve got a high school librarian job right out of library school last May. After talking with Steve about his job and the challenges of collection development, I’m also not surprised to learn that he’s already kicking butt at being a high school librarian. Here’s some more about Steve:

Steven Smidl graduated from University of Illinois’ Graduated School of Library and Information Science in 2013. He is currently the librarian at Grant Community High School in Fox Lake, IL.  Before he became a librarian, Steve was a high school English teacher in Champaign and the NW suburbs. When he’s not working in the library, Steve is the announcer for all soccer games and coaches Boys’ Bowling. For fun, Steve loves to cook, travel, play trivia and see theatre.

M: So how are you?

SS: Pretty good. It’s the end of the year and I’m trying to get books back. I went over the collection yesterday because we had over 700 lost titles.

M: Oh my gosh, 700?!

SS: Yeah well, no, it was a lot more. I had 26 pages of lost items and I had to go through each barcode and ask “Is this classified with a student? No? Ok, delete.” And I had to figure out what could still technically come back and the ones I realized would never come back. And then, do I want to purchase another copy of this or not?

M: Is it typical for that many books to be lost?

SS: Ok, so this is a little bit more of what I’ve been doing this past year. When I came into this job the collection had over 17,000 items and all the shelves were just jam-packed. And when I saw some of the titles I thought, “What is this? When was this purchased?” And when I went through a lot of it, it was from 1978, 1971. For example, anything in technology, social media, web access, the internet and searching, anything financial—if it’s from before 2008 it’s crap because everything has changed with the recession. Whatever you thought before, it’s gone. And some of that stuff is not even going to pertain to a high school student. And I found out that the inventory at this library hasn’t been done since 2011, or in some cases 2009 or even be before then. Some books have never even been touched. That’s been my reality when I first came in. Because that was the one part of the job I did not really have any experience in: doing inventory, weeding, and withdrawing materials from a library. That was my biggest challenge. So my first year was really focusing on clean up. Clean up and establishing that this is my house and this is how we’re going to do things from now on. We’re making strides but it’s been a lot to go into.

M: So could you describe what else your job entails beyond collection development?

SS: A big part of my job is classroom management, keeping track of the students that come into the library whether it’s from lunch or from study hall. Through the whole year we’ve had over 24,000 kids come into the library.

M: Wow.

SS: On average, it’s over 170 a day. Especially when we have major projects or end of the year finals, we will get over 200 per day. The most we’ve ever had in one day was 230. So classroom management is a very big thing, especially when I’m trying to keep track of over 40 kids in one class period and making sure they’re not goofing off.

M: Are you doing this all by yourself?

SS: I have one assistant and she is definitely the mother type. And it helps because having librarians of different sexes can be good in some cases. For example, when some of the girls are dressing inappropriately and I feel uncomfortable Sharon can just go up to them with no issues because she is a woman. She can be more frank with them than I could because if I did that it’s going to look off, at least in their minds, and I can get backed into a corner.

Hm, what else? I do all purchasing for the library. When it comes to administrative work, it’s having a budget, keeping track of what comes in and keeping track of bills. I do circulation as well. And Sharon definitely does a good portion of that. I’m also in charge of all library aids. Essentially I promote, I train them, I set their schedule and have them complete special projects. I don’t have them do original cataloging, we pay for a lot of that.

M: So you don’t do a lot of cataloging?

SS: No. And if there is any cataloging I would have Sharon do that. I really don’t work on cataloging at all.

M: So do you actually teach classes for students or do you just supervise when they come in?

SS: No, yeah that was the other part I was going to mention. There are many parts to this job! [laughs] When teachers bring a class into the library, if they’re working on a project that requires research I’ve been trying to offer my services. Like, “check out this database” and show them how to search the catalog to actually do research. And that was one thing I did—I attached our online catalog to every single database we have so it’s more like doing a search in Google. That was something I wanted to do because so many kids still will go to Google and think that’s how to do research. I’m trying to change some of that, especially when talking to our feeder schools, which would be all of our middle school libraries. What resources do they have? I’ve learned that most of the kids after leaving middle school don’t even know how to use [Microsoft] Office. They don’t know how to make PowerPoints or attach a picture, they don’t know how to send an email of their presentation. Even though they have more skills with the internet and online resources than I do. There’s job security right there with digital literacy. So that’s some of the stuff I teach them on the fly.

M: Ok, so coming back to collection development, you may have already said this, but what is most challenging for you about collection development?

SS: That’s an easy question for me because it’s been one of my struggles this past year and I think it’s going to be a struggle forever. It’s choosing content that’s going to be relevant and that will be beneficial for the students and the teachers. When I came into this position we did not have a collection development policy. There was nothing in place. When I asked the previous librarian if there was a policy she said no and pointed to her head to say “It’s all up here.” And that’s nice, but what if someone comes in and challenges a Neil Gaiman graphic novel of the Sandman, which we have? Or Maus or Persepolis? So that was my initiative my first semester, to get a collection development policy in place. So the stuff we have here is for their benefit and for the educational value. So I have some materials that address homosexuality or teen pregnancy and if someone asks me about it I would say, “We have some students here who become mothers at a young age or who are gay, and they may want to research that.”

M: Ok, so what book (or books) are you reading right now?

SS: Oh my gosh. Well, I’m in the middle of a graphic novel series called Attack on Titan, and that’s ongoing. I started reading Gone Girl, I’m in the middle of Everyday by David Levithan, I have Paper Towns on there and I’ll finish that one this summer.

One thing that I think applies to library students or new librarians is that a lot of school librarian students think that they’re going to get to read all the time. That’s not the case at all. It’s really not. It’s surprising how much babysitting or classroom management is involved. Especially if you’re really soft, because you do want everyone to be there using the library and you want to have a friendly environment, but you do have to establish some rules. And you have to enforce them.

M: I suppose it takes a certain kind of personality to do this job.

SS: Well, I guess whenever I get to talk about this it’s therapy. Because I can’t really talk to teachers about this because they don’t get it. I can’t talk to them about it the way I can talk to you. We’re in different fields because you’re an academic librarian and I’m a school librarian—

M: It’s probably not as different as you think. [laughs]

SS: But you know what I mean. But we’re both librarians so we can talk about a lot of the same issues. When I get to talk to another librarian about this stuff it’s therapy because you get to express a lot of issues and the other person can say “Yeah, I totally get that.”

M: What advice would you have for library students or new librarians entering the profession?

SS: As far as my classes at U of I [University of Illinois], I think I was most prepared by my web design experience, by my assistantship in ITD [Instructional Technology and Design], and especially with Carol [Tilley]’s class in Youth Services. As a teacher I had the instruction experience, but what I really lacked was programming experience. Like promotion—I find it hard to sell myself, but I’ve been working on that so I did National Library Week this year. And I did get some kids to come in and use the library that may not have come in before, and some of them have stuck around.

M: So it sounds like you’re doing okay.

SS: Well, the year’s come to an end …

M: You survived. We both survived!

SS: Yes! We survived. I definitely feel like I have made my mark and my signature is on this library.

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