School Librarians of Aotearoa: Zac McCallum

Zac McCallum is the School Librarian at Halswell School in Christchurch, but many of you will know of him from his years in the Children’s & YA team at Christchurch City Libraries. He also writes at ‘My Best Friends are Books’, where he reviews books & interviews authors. Here is what being a School Librarian means for Zac.

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Why I do what I do

I’m the School Librarian at Halswell School in Christchurch. Halswell was hit really badly in the 2011 earthquakes so it was completely rebuilt, set up for the modern learning environment and including a fresh, new library. I followed a much-loved librarian who had passed away earlier that year, so it was an interesting environment to come in to. I was very conscious of not wanting to change too much too quickly. That was quite tricky though, as I was suddenly the master of my own domain and was bursting with ideas.

I had been at Christchurch City Libraries for 7 years, where I had started my library career, but I knew that someday I wanted to be a school librarian. My favourite part of working in libraries has always been talking to kids about books, but you just don’t get enough opportunities to do that in a public library. I felt like I wanted to have more of an impact on kids’ reading and a school library is the place to do this. The position at Halswell School came along at just the right time and I am absolutely in my element.

I felt like I wanted to have more of an impact on kids’ reading and a school library is the place to do this. 

I’m here for the magic of books

Recently there have been some really interesting articles by authors such as Kate DiCamillo, talking about how important it is for children’s books to be a little bit sad. They highlight the fact that readers experience the world through books, both good and bad, happiness and sadness.

There are so many great books written for children. Kids will always find the popular, mass-marketed books, either because their friends are reading them or they are face-out on the best-seller shelves in a bookshop. Then there are those heart-breaking, beautiful, suspenseful, magical books that kids don’t find as easily. These are the ones that can have a real impact on them, changing how they think, feel and look at the world. These are the books that I can get in to the hands of kids as a school librarian.

Whether I have one kid ask me ‘what do I read next?’, or I’m talking to an assembly full of kids, I always shout out about these books and show my students how they have affected me. As I’ve said many times, if a book makes you cry it is an incredible book.

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Looking across the library with dioramas of landmarks from around the world.

What I do and what my library looks like

There is no typical day in a school library. You get to do all the circulation tasks (issues, returns and shelving) that you do in a public library but you also get to do so many other things, including book talking, train student librarians, plan library events, beg for prizes from lovely publishers and booksellers, hunt for books and eResources for staff, run book clubs and buy books.

I’m always looking at the configuration of the shelves and thinking about what might work better for our collections. I have quite a few different shelving styles in my library. When the new library was built the wooden shelving along the walls was chosen as the best shelving for the space. If I had the budget for it I would want to take it all out and put metal shelving in instead, with browser bin shelves.

My biggest change in the organisation of the library recently has been finding a larger area for our graphic novels. I’m a huge advocate for graphic novels as I love reading them myself so I have been adding to our collection since I started at Halswell. The graphic novel collection has now become one of the most popular sections of the library and I’ve needed to hunt for and source more and more to satisfy the needs of my readers.

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Fiction wall at Halswell School

Promoting reading from the top down

Last year I was able to add a Parent Library with thanks to our PTA, which is stocked with parenting books for families to borrow. I also wanted to try having a small Adult Library (that was separate from the rest of the collection) for the parents to borrow and swap books. It hasn’t really taken off though and there has been the issue of keeping this separate from the students so that they are not taking them home. It was worth trying but I’m in the process of removing this collection.

I really like to engage both the children and their parents with books and authors so I run a family event each term in the evening. My most successful event was a Girl’s Night at the Library that I ran in Term 1 last year. I was inspired to run the event by the fantastic Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls.

I really like to engage both the children and their parents with books and authors so I run a family event each term in the evening. 

I wanted to run an event that promoted the book to the girls and women in their lives and I wanted them to hear from an inspiring woman, so I invited Soraya Nicholas (the author of the Starlight Stables series) along to speak. Soraya had visited us the previous year and the girls especially were captivated by her talk, so she was the perfect author for the event.

The event also gave me the chance to promote a heap of great books for girls that we had in the library. On the night we had giveaways, goody bags and snacks and it was an absolute hit. I had 90 girls and their mums and aunties in the library that night.

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The warm and inviting picture book section of the library.

What we need more of in New Zealand publishing

One thing I’d like to see more of in the New Zealand publishing environment is more fiction for newly independent readers. I’m thinking of books like Kyle Mewburn and Donovan Bixley’s Dinosaur Trouble series and Sally Sutton and Kirsten Richards’ Miniwings series. These are incredibly engaging and appealing books for those kids who are just ready for chapter books. They show kids how exciting books can be and they gobble them up.

One thing I’d like to see more of in the New Zealand publishing environment is more fiction for newly independent readers. 

There are heaps of these series by Australian authors like Sally Rippin, Mac Park and Yvette Poshoglian that young readers in my library can’t get enough of. Our publishing environment is chock full of picture books and some high-quality nonfiction but it would be great to see more of these series.

The Goldfish Boy

So many books really grab me and I want to tell everyone about them but The Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompson from last year really stands out for me. It’s one of those books that is still stuck in my head and I had to tell all of my older readers about it. It features a boy called Matthew who has severe OCD and he’s one of those characters that you feel so much for. You go on this journey with him throughout the story and he’s an unforgettable character. It’s perfect for anyone 10 years and up and would be a great read aloud for Years 6-8.

The Goldfish Boy was Lisa Thompson’s debut novel and I’m going to make sure I read everything else she writes. Her latest book, The Light Jar, is due out here in NZ soon.

Zac McCallum
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Zac McCallum is a school librarian at Te Kura O Te Tauawa Halswell School in Ōtautahi, Christchurch.  Prior to becoming a school librarian, he worked in public and academic libraries and as a children’s bookseller. Zac is a huge supporter of New Zealand children’s literature and our many wonderful authors and illustrators, and his role on the Storylines Management Committee enables him to be a part of this supportive community.