School Librarians of Aotearoa: Alan Dingley

Alan Dingley, as well as being Aotearoa’s Te Awhi Rito Reading Ambassador, is the Library Manager at Freyberg High School in Palmerston North. Here he tells us about his journey to becoming a librarian, and the passion he has for sharing books and the stories they tell with our young people.

My librarian career started out through failure.

I always wanted to be a teacher. Reading was obviously my strength, my go-to, my hide-away ticket from the world, and I thought good readers must make good teachers (which I still believe to this day) so that’s the path I took.

Unfortunately, one thing I wasn’t as good at was studying. I was a procrastinator. I failed Teachers’ College through my own poor application but, as I have learnt, the universe moves in mysterious ways.

I was lucky I fell into a job as a special needs teacher aide in a low-decile school, Monrad Intermediate in Highbury, and it was awesome. The kids were so real, and the value of working with special needs children is just astounding.

When their school librarian retired, I told the principal that I could do that job. And so my course was set.

The first year I took that school’s Kids’ Lit Quiz Team to win the regional competition. The importance of that was brought home to me recently when—20 years later—one of the students from the team came up to me after a library session I facilitated, and thanked me for starting her on that reading journey. We librarians have superpowers.

Freyberg High School’s library features a wide variety of genres, from horror to poetry

Today, I find myself as the Library Manager at Freyberg High School, whom I joined after a short stint at Palmerston North City Council’s Te Pātikitiki branch library, having previously been librarian at PN Intermediate School and PNCC’s Youth Space. 

I have only been here three weeks, and am still finding my feet in a new place, but I am already loving working with this age group. Their needs are so varied, and the scope for me to learn is incredibly exciting.

After spending most of my school library career in intermediate-aged schools, it’s a great opportunity to study and understand how reading patterns and tastes are evolving, and how I can rise to meet that challenge.

Being lucky to be full-time, I open the library by 8.15am to make sure the early birds have a place to roost, and the library is open all day, including interval and lunchtime. 

I have an enthusiastic group of student librarians, from Year 10 upwards, who help keep the space ticking along. I am not much of a displays-focused librarian, so I will likely be leaning on the students for help in that area. If anything, I prefer smaller book displays, curated to whatever event or topic is current.

We must make sure our shelves reflect the readers.

Knowing what book to bait the hook is all-important in our school libraries. Just toeing the line around classics and easy fallback recommendations does us—and our readers—a disservice. Selecting for the collection will be student-driven to start with. I have been informally polling them on what it is we don’t have, and what it is that they want. I need their input to make sure I am providing a collection that they want to be, and feel, a part of. We must make sure our shelves reflect the readers. It’s their library after all.

I like to think I have no snobbery when it comes to baiting the hook. Of course, our budgets sometimes don’t allow us to fully follow our whimsies or desires, so we must make smart, and sometimes tough, choices.

I plan to focus on current trends, such as murder mystery (e.g. A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder), and sophisticated picture books, as they are my passion, and look forward to educating the staff on their myriad of applications!

Manga is also huge at the moment, which can be tricky due to either the huge number of volumes in a series, or the content within.

Content is a big conversation piece at present. Authors like Colleen Hoover are so popular, but we must take care about which of her volumes are on the shelf. Manga’s problem can arise from the hyper-violent, to the over-sexualised nature of some editions. As always, we must make educated, brave choices in stocking our shelves.

“Manga is also huge at present, which can be tricky due to either the huge number of volumes in a series, or the content within”: The books in Alan’s library are carefully curated

Ensuring NZ authors are represented is of course incredibly vital and I am already ordering books by Steph Matuku, Eileen Merriman, and Selina Tuisala Marsh, among others.

We are blessed with the amount of quality NZ content out there, and with new publishers pushing that content to the fore, it’s a pretty exciting time.

With Reading for Pleasure becoming (or supposed to be) a renewed focus in the NZ curriculum, a knowledgeable school librarian becomes even more crucial. Teachers will be encouraged to read to their students, read along with them at SSR time, have books on their desks, do anything to be a reading role model.

That is something we all should be encouraging people to be mindful of. Tell your fellow staff and the parents, but most importantly: tell the students that they are capable of being reading role models too. 

This is a message I am continuously imparting in my work as Te Awhi Rito (NZ Reading Ambassador); telling the kids that their brain is a muscle—if it isn’t exercised, it will droop.

…most importantly: tell the students that they are capable of being reading role models too. 

I believe the Ambassador role is made so much easier because of my librarian background. I can walk my talk when I am telling them about how awesome reading is, I can tell them what is awesome to read, and show them how invested and passionate I am about books. 

We all need to take seriously the responsibility of putting that right book, at the right time, in the right hands. The joy that comes from reading must be imparted. We must tell our kids that if they read for fun and enjoyment, it will be contagious and they will always be looking for the next escape, the next journey, the next connection that only books and stories can give you. 

I tell them a book is a mirror, or a doorway. You see yourself in it, or you can escape into it.

Alan Dingley
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Alan is Aotearoa’s Te Awhi Rito Reading Ambassador and is the Library Manager at Freyberg High School in Palmerston North. He has a background in theatre (part of current NZ Theatresports champions ‘SpontaneoUS’) and enjoys using his theatre skills teaching story-building workshops, where he tries to give children, young people, and even adults the confidence to tell their stories, their way. He is a lucky Dad to two gorgeous girls, Sam and Georgie, who lost their Mum Kirsty 6 years ago. Books have played a massive part in their healing process.