Gabrielle Reid: What kind of things does your role involve?
Sue Osborne: I manage the Library budget, develop the collection, supervise staff, and run programs and classes
GR: How did you get into the industry and decide to work as a librarian?
SO: I did work experience back in Year 10 at Frankston Library with one of the youth services librarians and I loved it. He was an amazing and inspiring guy, and I just wanted to be in that environment. Even book covering was fun for me (still is, I do some at least once a week to keep my hand in and I find it calming). After that I aimed for RMIT and got there, completing my degree in 1988. Before that I toyed with wanting to be journalist and I sort of get to be one now: I write for Magpies and I have a regular column in the School Library Association of Victoria journal, Synergy. One day I hope to write something [fiction] myself. But for now, happy to be connecting kids and books. It’s my calling!
GR: How many other staff are there in the library with you?
SO: I am full time, I have one FT technician and two PT technicians who share a position. We look after about 1300 students and 150 staff. It’s always busy!
GR: It sounds it! So the collection you manage must cover everything from picture books to the literature year 12 might be reading?
SO: Absolutely. My public library collection management skills have come in very handy in this job! I was already used to maintaining and developing a collection for a wide range of users.
GR: I imagine there'd be several things that make school libraries different from public, but specifically in terms of developing a collection, what's different about the way you buy books for a school versus a public library?
SO: Well, when you are building a school library collection, curriculum is paramount. So, as far as non-fiction goes, you use your budget to buy titles that support that curriculum. Our junior school has an inquiry based curriculum, so I purchase resources that support the main areas of study. Identifying gaps in the collection is an important part of that and I rely on my staff to assist with that.
As far as fiction goes, because I am able to separate it into junior, middle and YA, I can buy just about anything, as long as I house it in the right place!
I mean, in a public library there is a bit more freedom about what you can purchase, particularly more “controversial” material, but I am always trying to push the envelope.
GR: Does the school place any restrictions on you in terms of fiction content, censorship or the like?
SO: The school doesn’t, but the kids do. They are very good at censoring themselves and will tell me if something is “too much” for them. I usually read the item in question (if I haven’t already) and then make a decision based on its content and potential audience.
Some parents, and teachers, have tried to censor parts of the collection, but I won’t wear it!
GR: So what happens if a student who is aged in the "middle" range but a voracious reader selects a more controversial book from the YA section? Do you have to inform anybody before letting them borrow it, or are they able to make that decision for themselves based on your advice?
SO: When such a student comes to me, it is usually someone I am already having conversations with about what they are reading, which is one of the best parts of my job. So we have a chat and I ask them why they are interested in the book and what they have read previously. It’s usually pretty easy to gauge if they can handle it.
Most students will listen to my advice, but if I have someone who is insistent they want to read something I think is not suitable I will usually ask their English or homeroom teacher and the three of us will have a chat about it. The best part of having a large and deep collection is that I can usually find them something equally as engaging, but with more suitable content.
After that, they can fill out a form for parents to sign but I find most students want to make these decision on their own!
For instance, a couple of years ago I had a Gr 2 student wanting to read The Book Thief. She was capable in terms of reading ability, but emotionally she would not have handled it. The teachers ended up speaking to the parents for me and we sorted it out...
GR: It sounds like a system that works well - not censoring but not freely handing out material that might be inappropriate to kids either. Can you talk me through how you purchase new fiction books? Is it a decision you make on your own or are your staff (or teachers) involved in the selection process?
SO: I tend to decide what goes into the collection, but at the front desk we have a Wishlist that students and staff can add to. I will normally purchase everything on that list. Sometimes I won’t because of cost, but I usually get them. Staff will come in and ask for things to read themselves too, you know, like the latest prize winner or bestseller. I buy a few choice ones because it’s great for the students to see their teachers borrowing and reading.
My library staff also do a lot of selecting after reading reviews or seeing something in passing.
GR: Is that how you usually choose books? Reviews, seen in passing, prizewinners, bestsellers?
SO: For sure. I also have a standing order subscription with Lamont books. They send me selected new titles each month. It saves a lot of money on retail costs. Because I write reviews for Magpies magazine, I read all the other reviews there, and I follow a lot of authors on Twitter or they are friends on Facebook, as well as other librarians and publishers, so I feel like I am across most spheres that way too. Social media is an invaluable selection tool.
GR: It sounds like the majority of what you buy will be from major publishers, would you say that's correct? (i.e. Penguin/Random, Hachette, Allen & Unwin etc rather than smaller places like Ford Street, Pantera, Odyssey or self-published print-on-demand titles on amazon).
SO: I do buy from Ford Street, Paul and I go way back. And I do buy from Magabala the indigenous publisher as well. The others not so much. I would love to buy more from Amazon, but two things stop me: I do not have access to a school credit card (a constant bugbear) and I am not completely convinced about the quality of product in the self-published realm. I have author friends who have self published, like Ellie Marney, so I have bought from her, but I have seen a lot come past my desk over the years in public and school libraries and many have been found wanting…
GR: That's fair enough, without the "gatekeepers" of the traditional publishing industry it's tricky to separate the wheat from the chaff in a flooded self-pub market! Is buying for a library like buying for an individual - mostly from retail - or like buying for a bookstore, where you access distributors and publishers direct?
SO: More like buying for an individual...with eclectic tastes! I do access some publishers direct, but it’s mostly via stores like Dymocks Camberwell (with whom I have a long standing connection) or locals like Ulysses in Sandringham or Benn’s Books in Bentleigh (my local). I like dealing with local bookshops because they know what you like and can make recommendations based on that. They also give good discounts and can be involved in some school events like Book Week as an exclusive supplier.
GR: You mentioned Magabala... do you particularly seek out Australian and/or Indigenous writers when selecting books for the school, or is it more of a happy bonus?
SO: After attending Reading Matters 2017, I was inspired by the idea of a “diversity audit”, which I will implement later this term, once exams start because it’s not as hectic. The idea is to interrogate your collection for bias or gaps in representation, so I will be interested to see how I think the collection measures up. I certainly feel like I am doing my best with it so far. I always choose an Aussie author over an overseas one when recommending to students or selecting for the collection. I think we have some of the best authors in the world here, particularly for young people. Of course I have the other authors too, it’s always #readlocal with me if I can manage it!
GR: Is that the same for your own non-work-related reading?
SO: I am pretty much an #OzYA junkie. I do read other things too. Stephen King, Richard Flanagan, and some biography and nonfiction, but mostly OzYA and international YA. John Green’s new one is in my TBR pile and I recently finished The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. Work and pleasure reading are intertwined - even more so for me as I am currently studying a Grad Dip in Children’s Lit via Deakin Online. I read for that too, as well as for my reviewing work!
I usually have 3 or 4 books on the go at once!
GR: I can relate to that! Do you have one amazing book that you're recommending to everybody at the moment?
SO: I have been pushing Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman’s Illuminae series pretty hard, as well as Fleur Ferris’s books. I had a group of Year 7 and 8 boys absolutely tear through Ready Player One (a personal favourite of mine) last term. In fact, that group of boys has begged me to get more sci fi for the collection, so I will be looking to get some more in before my budget closes!
I also just finished a lovely book called George by Alex Gino, which is about a transgender boy/girl. I will be recommending that highly too.
I also really like the Princeless graphic novel series and I am buying the set from All Star Comics, so I’ll be riding that one hard too!
So, no, not just one!
GR: That's okay, every bookworm I know hates being asked to pick one! Thanks so much for your time today.
SO: Happy to have the chat and look forward to reading the others!
Sue tweets as @LibraryMonitor and has a website at http://librarymonitor.net