Ten Minutes With... Agnes Guyon: Q&A with one of the SLA Board's new members.
Q Have you always wanted to be a librarian? If not how did you get into librarianship?
A I wanted to work with books when I was younger--I thought more of the publishing industry or even book selling--but then I did a degree in English, met my husband and moved to Scotland, so the obvious thing to do was to become a foreign language teacher [Agnes is French--Ed]. I taught French and German in Scotland and Kenya, and when I got back from Kenya decided that teaching was not really what I wanted to do so studied for an MSc in Librarianship and Information Science.
Q What does your librarianship pathway look like?
AMy librarianship pathway is a bit twisty, but eventually I think I found my niche. When I was doing my MSc, I did my placement at Heriot-Watt University and was employed there after graduating. My first post was almost as far from school or youth librarian as you can get; I was an Internet Librarian for an online database of engineering resources for Higher Education students! It was a JISC-funded project called EEVL (Edinburgh Engineering Virtual Library) and I created an E-Journal Search Engine.
At first I enjoyed the mental stimulation of doing something totally different and new but eventually got a bit bored and realised that it was not really 'me'. I saw an advert for a Children's Mobile Library driver/librarian in Midlothian, applied and, to my surprise, got the job despite my lack of experience in both children's librarianship and driving a 5-ton vehicle (I could just about reach the pedals!). It was a part-time job and I took a massive drop in salary but I enjoyed it. Soon I also became Midlothian's first Bookstart coordinator, which filled the rest of my week.
About ten years ago, I became East Lothian's Senior Librarian for Children and Young People and after a service review four years ago, the secondary school librarians came under my line-management.
Q What do you think are the differences (and similarities) in the role of librarian in France and the UK?
A To be honest I have only been a librarian in the UK, so can only presume from what I know. I feel that the profession in France is far more respected than here because of the reaction I get in each country when I tell people what I do for a living. In French schools there are 'teacher-librarians', who have the same status as teachers. Teaching is part of their job description and the training involves two years at a postgraduate teacher training school. They also only work in secondary schools--and school libraries are compulsory--so there is a huge discrepancy between library provision in secondary schools and in primary schools. On a practical level, though there are many similarities, teacher-librarians often work alone in the school library, are responsible for the management of the school library, buy the resources...
Q How does the school library system vary in Scotland from that in the rest of the UK?
A Again I have only experienced the Scottish system so may not be best placed to comment. The Scottish education system is different so this will obviously have repercussions. I am not sure how uniform the system is in the rest of the UK but in Scotland the landscape is very diverse, particularly in terms of the management of school librarians. In some authorities, like mine, school librarians are managed by the public library service--we already provided a service to schools, such as topic and fiction boxes as there is no SLS. In other authorities, school librarians are managed by the head teacher. And in other authorities, such as Aberdeenshire, community libraries are staffed by a qualified librarian who is both public and school librarian. SLS are very rare in Scotland, in fact I am only aware of Falkirk having a separate school library service, and their services to schools are free.
One significant development is our School Library Strategy Vibrant Libraries, Thriving Schools: A National Strategy for School Libraries in Scotland 2018--2023 which is supported by the Scottish Government. This doesn't always stop authorities from shutting down school libraries--see what is happening in the Scottish Borders--but it helps a lot to stress the importance of the school library and when talking to Headteachers and other educationalists.
Q Does this have any advantages or disadvantages?
A I often wish that the landscape was more uniform but it allows for some flexibility and doesn't leave the decision to fund a school librarian solely up to the Headteacher who might already have tough choices to make. Having a school library strategy is obviously a good thing--I wished it could have gone a step further and become compulsory rather than advisory but I understand the constraints.
Q What frustrates you most about working in the school library sector?
A Lack of funding of course and the inability to provide cover which would enable the school librarian to take part in CPD, have meetings, etc, without having to shut the library. But the worst is that lack of awareness (and sometimes, sadly, respect) amongst teaching staff and often Senior Management of the professional skills of a school librarian--they often assume they know what we do but don't really. In the worst case, I have seen teachers' attitudes towards me change when they learnt that I am a qualified teacher and they start respecting my opinion a bit more.
Q If you weren't a librarian, what would you be?
A Unemployed? Probably a primary school teacher--although in my dream I would be an editor.
Q Hobbies? Any unusual ones?
A Nothing unusual--reading of course, anything in the outdoors, walking, particularly with my dog, hillwalking, cycling, kayaking when I get the chance (I don't have a kayak). I love travelling but don't have enough time for that, and photography, but I am rubbish at it. I also like doing stained glass.
Q What prompted you to cycle to the south of France? [Three years ago Agnes cycled to the south of France with Ferelith Hordon to raise money for Book Aid International--Ed.]
A It is a journey I do so often, by plane, by car, once by train and I often wondered what it would be like to do it under my own steam. I'd wanted to do it for a long time--I like a challenge--and when I turned 50 I decided that it would be a nice challenge to mark it.
Q What's your signature dish?
A A pear and almond cake which is generally well received.
Q What's on your Spotify list?
A I listen to classical music when I am in the car. I also like Jazz and some world music (Klezmer, Latin American) as well as some old stuff and French music (Piaf, Gainsbourg), pretty eclectic...
Q The question one always has to ask a librarian--what are your favourite authors and/or books? What is your comfort read and what are you reading now?
A I have too many favourites. I love David Almond; for YA authors I like Marcus Sedgwick, Sarah Crossan, Jason Reynolds and Patrick Ness. In terms of adult books I read in French too and one of my favourite books is The Ogre by Michel Tournier. For comfort I might read a book by Fred Vargas (in French but they have been translated). At the moment I am finishing reading the Carnegie Longlist--just one title to go!
Q We met at IFLA in Lyon when I was CILIP President - how did you get to attend? What did you get out of the conference? Would you recommend it to other school librarians (assuming they can afford to go)?
A I applied for a partial grant for new attendees and was selected. My family joke that the only freebie I got was to a conference one hour from where my mother lives (and where I grew up) when I could have gone to South Africa or Singapore if I had applied a different year. I found it very valuable; first of all for the buzz that such a huge conference provides but also I learnt about some concepts which were not that common at the time, for example, I still remember a talk on transmedia which led me to research and find out more about makerspaces. I would definitely recommend it to other school librarians.
Q If you were to get a tattoo what would it be?
A I don't have a tattoo but often considered getting one - I went as far as looking up designs with my daughter. It would have to be book related--maybe something to do with The Little Prince although that's a bit cliched. I visualise something like an open book out of which come beautiful things... one day maybe.
Agnes Guyon is senior librarian for Young People's Services at East Lothian Council.
Interviewed by Barbara Band