School Librarians of Aotearoa: Colleen Shipley

Colleen Shipley has been a librarian almost all her working life, but it wasn’t until she returned to work after having children that she discovered the special role of a school librarian. She tells us about her philosophy, her reading programmes and more in this fabulous School Librarian of Aotearoa feature.

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Colleen Shipley at Marlborough Girls’ College

I have been the Librarian at Marlborough Girls’ College in Blenheim for 15 years. The role has evolved along with the increased use of technology, but what hasn’t changed is the opportunity school librarians have to develop relationships with their customers. It is these relationships and the interest we take in the reading habits of students that make the difference.

My role includes providing instruction in inquiry, referencing and helping students and staff find the resources they need, but the best part of the job is encouraging the students to read and there is nothing more rewarding than having a self-professed non-reader come up to you in the school grounds to tell you they have almost finished the book you suggested they try.

…there is nothing more rewarding than having a self-professed non-reader come up to you in the school grounds to tell you they have almost finished the book you suggested they try. 

Let them read what they want

The children and youth of today are fortunate with the wealth of literature they have at their fingertips and we have some world-class authors writing for us here in New Zealand. I remember as a child reading my first novel set in New Zealand – The Runaway Settlers by Elsie Locke – and it remains a favourite. I think it is important for our students to read books with characters they can identify with.

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Girls reading, Marlborough Girls College

I’m a great believer in letting secondary students read what they want, we don’t want to kill their love of reading by restricting them or forcing them to read things they can’t manage. I have found that young people self-censor their reading after hearing comments like ‘I skip the sex scenes’ or ‘I want a happy story.’ The important thing is the conversations they have when selecting books to read and this makes knowing your collection the most important part of a school librarian’s role.

What we need more of

Over the years I have seen genre trends come and go from vampires to dystopian, fantasy, heart-breaking realistic fiction, romance and lately mystery/adventure. I am sure other librarians will know the titles leading these popularity stakes but it would be great if the publishing world, especially in New Zealand, could keep up with the trends.

A gap in local publishing I have noted is the lack of biographies for our lower ability secondary students. The works about Jake Bailey, Parris Goebel and Sophie Pascoe are popular, but these are a challenge for many of our year nine and ten students.

I would also love to see more New Zealand novels with characters that are play sports. Our horse riders are catered for, but it is a struggle to find NZ books featuring females that play other sports.

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Sharing a book at Marlborough Girls College

A day in the life

A typical day for me will begin with answering emails and checking our booking sheet. Most days will see a junior class coming to the library for their reading programme. This year, we have revamped our wide reading and the students now create their own reading goal and journey. This involves talking with me about what books they are reading, or I will suggest titles that may suit them, so most classes come for a full hour every fortnight. Often the day may include talking to a class about useful sources (other than google) for research assignments, explaining how to evaluate sources and how to reference.

This year, we have revamped our wide reading and the students now create their own reading goal and journey.

Time is also spent putting together resources for teachers, both print and electronic to help with the standards they are teaching or for professional reading. Lunch times can be busy or quiet depending on the weather and activities at school but it is a good opportunity to have more reading discussions with students. A favourite part of the job is reading reviews and scanning websites to find a wide selection of books to purchase. I am lucky to have a part-time assistant who does the cataloguing and training of student librarians

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Marlborough Girls College School Library working space and portable non-fiction shelves

The plus side of leaky buildings

Our library is situated on the edge of campus due to having to leave our leaky Nelson block, nearly two years ago, for four prefabs slotted together. The distance from the staff room keeps me fit but it’s great saying ‘hi’ to the students I pass on the way. Our rather long rectangular building felt like a challenge at first but like a good “modern learning space” it can accommodate three classes doing a variety of things. We have tried to arrange the mobile shelves so there are plenty of spaces for students to sit with friends or on their own and the colourful cushions made by a year 10 textiles class brighten the window seats.

We found that our students liked the site of the library because it felt peaceful and looks out over the creek instead of on to buildings. It is drier and warmer (or cooler if needed) than our old library and during last year’s exam period many seniors came to enjoy the space for study. Plans are afoot to build new colleges for Marlborough Boys and Girls side by side and we hope to have a purpose built library in the middle of the two campuses when this happens.

Reading promotion

Our biggest push for reading happens during library promotion month when we run a house reading challenge. Competition is tight with only one point separating first and second over the last two years.

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This year, ten staff and four student librarians have joined me in a challenge to read our height in books. We are gluing photocopied spines on to named sheets around the walls and students are following with interest what we are reading.

Books that work

I have three ‘go to’ books when I come across a customer who shows an aversion to reading. A Child Called It, by Dave Pelzer appeals to some of my toughest clients. This autobiography about an abused child is not a pleasant read but it is compelling. A student told me once that she likes books like this because it makes her feel grateful for the life she has.

I have three ‘go to’ books when I come across a customer who shows an aversion to reading.

Another title that does well and creates empathy is I am not Esther, by Fleur Beale. In all my years of recommending this title I have come across only one student who didn’t like it.

For those who have never finished a book, Life on the refrigerator door, by Alice Kuipers is a winner. The story of a daughter and mother who has cancer is told in the notes left on the refrigerator door for each other. The layout of each note to a new page and large blank spaces make the story look achievable.

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Book week dress-ups at Marlborough Girls College (Colleen is Batwoman)

I love my job as a school Librarian and it is the interaction with young people that makes it special. I love helping them navigate the information universe but most importantly I see my role as the key promoter of reading for enjoyment in the school. I lead by example and if I can turn a non-reader into a reader and convince a student to ‘get back into the habit,’ it makes my job worthwhile. I have made a difference.

Colleen Shipley
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Colleen Shipley is a trained Librarian working at a girls’ school with about 1,000 pupils. She lives amongst the vines in sunny Marlborough. She has two adult children. Her daughter is dyslexic and great at recommending graphic novels. Both Colleen and her son have completed fiction manuscripts and are in an unofficial race to see who can get published first. .