Exciting guest post…

Today, my blog has been taken over by Dylan… he’s the 10 year old superstar I’m currently tutoring. We’ve been reading, sharing and writing about a book which has culminated in a cracking review written by Dylan.

Purpose: to review
Audience: parents (Dylan’s choice)
Form: online review / blog
Skills: paragraphing, expanded noun phrases, simile, metaphor, semi-colon, conjunctions, relative clauses, brackets and interesting sentence openers


Peggy is a puppy pug by Dylan Griffiths Robinson

Self portrait drawn via our online classroom (although he’s taken a creative licence with the stubble).

Book: “The Pug who wanted to be a Unicorn”
Author / illustrator: Bella Swift
Publisher: Orchard Books
Age range: 9 – 99
Pages: 154
Chapters: 8

Pug rating: 5/5


Suzanne (a shopping addict) buys Peggy because she’s a shopping addict and she thinks Peggy will make her stylish. Trying to play on her own (because Suzanne usually leaves Peggy behind), Peggy stupendously messes up the house. Very, very, very, badly. Like a squished-up, giant-eyed, wrinkly bulldozer smashing through a couch. And a ceiling. And a wall. And an armchair. And a litter tray.

Provoked, Suzanne dumps Peggy at a shelter and walks away. It’s nearly Christmas! Peggy feels indescribably heartbroken. Fortunately, she is fostered by a down-to-earth family with three children: Finn (oldest child), Chloe (middle child) and Ruby (toddler). They plan to keep her over Christmas.

Peggy being comforted by the other shelter dogs (artwork by Dylan)

Peggy is convinced that if she becomes like Sparkalina (a unicorn), they’ll keep her. She fails dramatically… that’s all I’m telling you.

The paw bits

Are you ready for a joke? Well, it’s not really a joke but it’s more a sentence that’s funny. I wish I could complain more (most people know I am a moaner) but it’s just the best book in the world so I’ve only got two complaints. First of all, there are not many pages; there’s only one hundred and (hold up, I’m counting) fifty four pages. I wish it was longer because there’s not enough Peggy-ness. Second of all, the front cover is too glitzy. Parents or guardians might only pick it up for their daughters because it’s overly feminine. The front cover is too cheesy as well but the story isn’t cheesy… it’s a balance between everything-is-perfect-wooooo and serious.

The tail wags

Peggy is as cute as a sleeping kitten, that’s as small as the palm of your hand, in a tiny green dinosaur costume, purring adorably (sorry… I’ve been stuck inside for three months and have a loooooooooooot to say). An example of her cuteness is when Chloe teases Finn about a girl and then Finn throws spaghetti at Chloe but misses; it ends up endearingly on Peggy’s head. She slurps it up like a delightful, little vacuum cleaner.

Awww (artwork by Dylan)

Oh, oh, oh. I was told by my tutor that I have to write about the boring stuff, so here it is… Because there are different age ranges, a lot of people can relate to the characters. There are teenagers, children, toddlers and adulty-adults. Furthermore, the chapter lengths were adequate because they didn’t take too much time at bedtime and are easy for your little turds to read! The illustrations (which are monochrome) do not distract because they blend into the writing; however, they are very detailed and charming. Moreover, you might want to head to the library because there are more adventures with llama bridesmaids and puppy princesses – Bella Swift has written seven more books and four of them include Peggy the pug. Apologies to the wallets of the parents reading this but all are £5.99 each on Amazon or, of course, free from your library.

Kids can learn non-fiction facts from inside fiction. For example, this book deals with dog adoption and dog fostering. Also dogs can be extraordinarily hard work and some people treat them like fashion accessories.  

No spoilers. It’s fine for all year even though it’s Christmas in the book because it doesn’t make a big ado about it being festive. The ending is incredible; I won’t spoil it but it’s heart-warming and that’s all I’m going to say.

Shhh… don’t wake the puppy (artwork by Dylan)


Overall, I thought it was the best book in the world and really compelling. It was so exceptional, I did most of the reading myself! Even Mum was impressed (and that’s normally impossible). Peggy deserves a rating of 5 puggies out of 5.

If you drive satisfaction from books such as “Middle School” by James Patterson or “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” by Jeff Kinney, you will get a buzz from Peggy’s story. Aaaaand, before you go, try the tongue twister – my heading for the blog. After extensive research, Dad was the worst tongue twister in this house.

This is life now…

We’ve accepted that we have to reach a new normal in this household. Our version of normal has always been pretty left field anyway.

Essentially, I’m not going to be able to return to my regular routine and way of working… this year. And I mean year-year, not academic year. It poses too many risks to my wife if I start hanging out in university libraries and travelling up to Sheffield to be part of student life. Certainly, not until we have a plausible vaccination. I prefer working out of the house in fit-for-purpose spaces, with nice ergonomic chairs and a sense of routine (thanks Chichester University Bognor Campus for your lovely library). I am far more productive and focused if I’m not in the house. Even a café will do. I am also petty enough that the aesthetic has to be right: I like things to match and look pretty; I can’t work in mess; the space has to be clean. It means, when working from home, I’ll get distracted by tidying up and cleaning when I should be reading fiftymillionbillion articles instead.

In a previous post, I explained that we’d made me a PhD pod within our bookshelves. It gave me the space away from the wife and man-child but it was not ok for my back. At all. It hurt to work from home! Then my student loan arrived – what little is left after I’ve paid my fees – and I realised that as I wasn’t spending money on a postal book service or on petrol and digs to stay in Sheffield, I could splurge a bit on a decent workspace. So I did. With only a small amount of guilt.

Behold… my office.

I am not delighted that it is the corner of the lounge because it means the room is now used for working as well as lounging but we live in a Victorian terrace, 2 up 2 down, so it’s tough.

The features…

A: my new, fancy, fast laptop. To be fair, I purchased this with the “spare” bit of my January student loan payment. My old, faithful laptop served me well for the MA and dissertation but it was gradually grinding to a halt. As most of my studying was via video conferencing, even pre-apocalypse, and we’d ascertained it wasn’t our internet slowing me down, I bought this slim beast with some tech guidance from clever friends.

B: two cute figurines. The Japanese doll from my brother and brother-in-law and the student-girl from my friend and ex-boss. I don’t generally do objet d’art but I love these and it’s lovely having a reminder of some of my favourite (and wise) people.

C: cable box. Yup, I hate wires and disorganisation. We’ve hidden most of them and used cable ties and blue tac to help minimise trailing mess.

D: lighting options. It’s quite a gloomy room as it only gets the sun until about 11a.m.

E: study books. Some of them are hostages from Sheffield and Chichester university libraries 😂.

F: stationery pot to stop my wife and man-child stealing my sharp pencils and good pens. My iPhone charger is hidden in here, too, for the same reason.

G: obligatory Harry Potter reference. Proclamation no.30: no music to be played during study hours. I’m 85% successful with this.

H: spiky ball thing. It’s up here to protect it from the incessant puppy. I put it between me and the wall then roll it around the top of my spine. It really helps if I’m aching. Plus, that’s where my January – March back injury stemmed from so I need to be careful.

I: laptop stand and keyboard. These help with comfort as the laptop is elevated and I can type 100mph faster on a real keyboard than on a laptop. I did already have both but they were the wrong colour for this room 😬. I did say I was fussy. It means I’ve dedicated the old stand and keyboard to my wife who’s working in the dining room. It’s really helped her back out and they coordinate with the decor in there.

J: office chair liberated from man-child’s room. It goes low enough to be useful in terms of getting my sizeable (wide not long) legs under the desk but, dang, it is uncomfy for my coccyx. Matches the aesthetic though 😂.

K: and, lo, the coccyx cushion. One of the many old-lady features of my work space. This is firm memory foam, contoured for a butt with clever designs for coccyx support. Again, I did have one in another colour but justified the spend to myself because I donated it to my wife. Her bum is chuffed. We’ve both found working from home to be more painful (spine, lower back, neck) than working from an office. We think it might be because you move less and vary your position infrequently?

L: another old lady feature… the foot rest. Only, it isn’t a foot rest as I’ve repurposed it. It was born to be a dish/plate stand; if you have small cupboards, it helps to stack dishes without the palaver of having to remove all of the items in your cupboard just to access the one plate at the bottom of the pile. I bought it as a shoe rack for our teeny understairs cupboard. It means we have a double decker approach to storing the shoes. Now, the shoes are in a tangled heap so I can lift my feet up whilst studying.

M: unfortunately, the desk is nudged up against the sofa. The dogs are delighted as they can now be right there with me as I’m working. Right there. Riiiiiight there. The added benefit is that the 8 month old puppy has stopped lying on/by/near my feet which usually results in squeals when I get up and haven’t realised she’s there.

Hi, human.

N: two coasters. One for water and one for the continuous supply of caffeine.

O: book stand. Another old-lady feature so I can read books easily.

P: pep talk from my wife.

Q: my gorgeous desk. It was actually quite cheap at £90, from Argos. Once the logical part of my brain had woken up, I realised I didn’t need a tiny desk to fit where the bookcase had been because I could turn it around 🙄. It was also a great teaching moment as I introduced the man-child to the correct way to assemble flat packed furniture: calm, organised, methodical and with copious mugs of tea.

The real Brexit…

My lovely boss asked me some Brexit questions: Brinsbury exit…

What’s your first memory of Brinsbury?

Trying to find the library. A member of the Chichester team had drawn me a map of how to get from the car park to the library doors. I spent a few minutes circling the pond, looking confused.

I could get lost in a paper bag.

What’s your funniest memory?

Ooo. This is tricky. I’ve really enjoyed involving the students and staff in #BookFaceFriday as we’ve had some hilarious outcomes (see evidence).

But the funniest moment has to be when one of our regular students realised how a library works…

Me: Shall I put these on your account to take home? Will you need a bag?

Student: (A few seconds silence). You mean I can take the books home?

Me: Yes.

Student: To my house?

Me: Errr. Yeah…

Student: (Huge gasp).

Me: (Baffled). Are you okay?

Student: (Shouting and running around the library, and the adjoining computer room, addressing everyone in her lesson. Actually, even people who were not in her group). Oh my God, guys. Guys! Guys! Did you know we can TAKE THE BOOKS HOME?! This is the BEST THING EVER.

Sum up Brinsbury in a sentence and a single word.

Sentence: Brinsbury is a melting pot of people, ideas and aspirations.

Word: family.

What will you miss about Brinsbury?

The three Ss… Stella (my boss), students and staff. But I’ll also miss the job because it’s varied, unpredictable and rewarding.

What are you looking forward to leaving behind?

Bloody dust jackets: those covers we have to put on hardback books which have a sleeve. They are so hard to do and I always seem to have an audience when I’m doing it. Also, Bert. He’s the spider who lives on one of the CCTV cameras. He walks across it most mornings, looking like a giant character from Dr Who. He gives me palpitations and makes my Apple Watch buzz: Well done! You have exercised and raised your heart rate.

How would you describe working at Brinsbury to someone who doesn’t know it?

This is tricky. Horses and ferrets and chainsaws and trees and forges and strawberries and cooking and squirrels and mud and boots and laughter.

The library is the kind of place where the same day will include: teaching a student how to save and print a Word document; coaching a student on how to improve a CV and apply for a job; helping choose a fiction book for a student’s son; teaching study skills to a class so they can research – beyond Google – for a forthcoming assignment; making a pot of coffee for a lecturer who hasn’t stopped all day and who needs a caffeine injection; showing a student how to apply for a university place; reading a book to a delightful group of 4 year olds who’ve popped in from First Steps Nursery; taking photos of plants and pets reading in various poses; teaching a Higher Access student how best to use an academic, peer-reviewed article for an assignment on conservation issues; unjamming the photocopier a few times; unjamming the photocopier a few more times; signing up students and staff for a reading challenge; setting up a microphone for a poetry event; working alongside a student volunteer; issuing headphones, books, laptops, phone chargers; visiting a GCSE English class to offer support in the build up to exams; covering the 52 books Stella has suddenly ordered; creating content for our social media platforms.

3 top tips for your replacement.

1. Get to know the students. They are great and the more you know about them, the more you’ll understand them and the more you can help them.

2. Get to know the campus. Don’t just hide away in the library. It’s true that people will come to you (the library is the heart of the college) but you’ll be missing out if you don’t go and visit the teams all across Brinsbury.

3. Wear comfy shoes/boots. Some days, I’ve walked 4 miles without leaving the tiny building.

Advice to Stella…

No advice needed. Keep doing what you’re doing because you’ve reinvented the library service and it’s dazzling. Oh, but keep the coffee jar topped up.

Advice to students…

Stop putting things off. Get that assignment done. Start that homework. Book your driving lessons or test. Organise WEX. Apply for the part time job. Do it all now so you can manage your time and responsibilities, instead of panicking when all the deadlines come at once.

What will do on your first day off (WHEN YOU SHOULD BE AT BRINSBURY?!)

Drawing up an action plan for how I’ll get enough research done by July 2020 to pass my PhD Year 1 confirmation review. Let’s not talk about that as it’s making me nervous!

Turns out the best laid plans and all that jazz… I didn’t even make it to the end of half term before I injured myself. Three intercostal tears and a 3-6 week recovery time. So, I’ve spent the first “day off” stuck in a reclining chair, taking medication and alternating between a hot water bottle and an ice pack. Joy.

Alternative acknowledgements

It’s been a bit of a hiatus for blogging, this summer, as I’ve had the small matter of a dissertation to write. I will resume now that it’s all over (freeeeeeeeeeeedom) because I have all the early summer conferences to tell you about!

I found that when writing my MA dissertation, the most satisfying section was the acknowledgements page. This is the version that was submitted…

I wish to thank the colleges and individuals who participated in this research, particularly for their generous gift of time:

  • Chichester College Group
    • Chichester College
    • Brinsbury College
    • Crawley College
    • Worthing College
  • Portsmouth College

I am grateful to Dr Briony Birdi, my supervisor, for her unwavering encouragement and sage guidance.

This study is dedicated to my wife, Helen McKenna-Aspell, whose belief in me looks on tempests and is never shaken (Shakespeare, Sonnet 116).

Quite professional, no? I was governed by my inner, nagging voice who reminded me that whatever I wrote would be there for ever. But, if I ignored that voice and wrote a less guarded (slightly swearier) version, it would go something like this…

I wish to thank the colleges and individuals who participated in this research, particularly for their generous gift of time:

  • Chichester College Group
    • Chichester College
    • Brinsbury College
    • Crawley College
    • Worthing College
  • Portsmouth College

I’m proper proud to work for Chichester College Group and having the opportunity to speak to so many people has been a privilege. I can’t believe you all took the time and energy to support me with this when you’re so busy running the world. I’m your biggest fan. Also, we have so many rock-star female leaders who are brilliant role models for their staff and students.

I am grateful to Dr Briony Birdi, my supervisor, for her unwavering encouragement and sage guidance. Other people look up to and idolise celebrities; I’m lucky to have someone appear in my life who has inspired me to be and do better. In a non-stalker fashion, I am in awe of her and want to be like her when I finally grow up.

This study is dedicated to my wife, Helen McKenna-Aspell, whose belief in me looks on tempests and is never shaken (Shakespeare, Sonnet 116). The absolute shitshow she’s put up with for two years would have broken a weaker person. I’ve never understood why she chose me but I’m grateful, every day, that she did.

This research would not have translated from my brain to the page without the loyalty of Nespresso. There’s no one else I’d rather work with at 3 o’clock in the morning. Equally, without the support of the supervisor at Dunelm I would not have completed the MA. He made sure I was able to replace the study chair, which broke at the least convenient time, with immediate effect. He even loaded it into my car. Michael, my chiropractor, has been steadfast in his dedication to my back. There were days when I felt like I’d climbed a mountain, fought several bears, felled a tree and carried it home – and all I’d actually done was sit at the table for 19 hours straight. The man is a wizard. I must thank Laura and Rose, my Chichester College library compadres, for making me belly-laugh this summer – I mean, we also did some work but the laughter was the medicine I didn’t even know I needed. The estates team at Brinsbury College allowed me to break in on Saturdays so that I could work on a real computer in the peace and quiet. This has been a running theme – nobody said no to me! The yeses stacked up and made life just that little easier.

Some specific thanks…

  • Alessio Pruneddu: the person behind the Q-sorTouch system I used. Generous with his time and patient of my idiosyncrasies.
  • Savannah Kelly and Brian Young: their research into perceptions of library services inspired my whole study project and, when I reached out to them via email, they were incredibly helpful and gave much advice (Journal of Academic Librarianship, 44(2), 2018).
  • Virginia Braun and Victoria Clarke: the duo behind so much comprehensive and innovative material about thematic analysis, including several videos I’ve watched on repeat. Again, very generous with their time and guidance when asked via Twitter.
  • Sue Reed: Horticulture Demi-God at Brinsbury and my MA partner in crime for the year. It’s been so cathartic to have someone at work to chat to – a mutual cheerleading of sorts.

In fact, I am grateful for the people who live in my phone. I’ve reached out, often despairingly, on Twitter and I’ve been given advice about software, Q-methodology, statistics, thematic analysis, dissertation dos and don’ts. And that was just for the dissertation, never mind the MA assignments.

To all the coffee shops, the big chains, the independent cafés… my unending gratitude for offering a different location so that I didn’t succumb to the cabin fever. Some days the only highlight was escaping to Tesco for a Harris and Hoole caramel latte. Boston Tea Party will hold a special place in my heart for feeding me no less than 3 times in the week running up to submission – fabulous coffee and damn good cake.

Maggie, my English Springer Spaniel, who gave me cuddles and kept me company through the long nights… but definitely not her brother, Stripy. The cat that shat everywhere, on repeat, at the least convenient times. He’s old and we love him etc. etc. but I am not thankful for that contribution to my days and nights.

Merci, universe, for sending a pretty lame summer. Had the weather been glorious, it would have been so much harder to be stuck indoors. You can send the summer now; I’ve got time to enjoy it in September.

To my patient friends and family – thank you for letting me be AWOL without guilt. I can’t wait to spend September catching up with you, your spouses, your kids and your pets (not necessarily in that order).

And finally to the Badass Bibliophiles. The group of fellow distance learners who have become friends, agony aunts, therapists, proof-readers, comedians and around-the-clock supporters. You’re the best.

I can’t believe it’s all over. Now, just the brutally long wait to see how I’ve done.

CoLRiC Best Practice Award 2019

I have never written an awards entry before and I certainly didn’t think I’d win my first attempt! CoLRiC stands for the Council for Learning Resources in Colleges and it is “an independent organisation working with library and learning resources centre managers in further education, sixth form colleges and the HE in FE sector to enhance and maintain excellence in their services” (CoLRiC, 2018). Since 2013, CoLRiC has issued Best Practice Awards to college libraries for projects and activities that have demonstrably enhanced service delivery.

Chichester College Group is comprised of four colleges, two of which provide a shared library service: Chichester College and Brinsbury College. I was asked to launch and manage a Twitter account for this shared service back in November 2018. I’ve worked closely with the whole team on this enterprise but the hard work of two, in particular, has meant that the endeavour was possible. Laura Piper, Library Assistant and dog whisperer from Chichester College and Rose Hull, Business Apprentice and creative genius, also at Chichester.

Floor selfie with William the WonderDog

As winners, we received a gorgeous trophy, £150 to spend on the libraries and a place to attend CoLRiC’s annual conference. This year, the conference was held at University College Birmingham and I attended with the College Librarian.

When receiving the award, it is expected that you will showcase your submission in a five minute presentation. I’m going to share that presentation in this blog because it explains why and how we’ve used Twitter.

Why Twitter? This is a good question. We wanted to advocate and promote our services within the college to staff and the senior team. We wanted to make connections to the wider community – both geographically and in the library and FE worlds! When establishing a corporate social media presence, it was imperative we presented a clear and consistent voice. Professional, personalised and personable – our Twitter account is a literal extension of who we are in the physical libraries. This voice underpins our content, approach and tone. In terms of the content, we aim to be both informative and fun.

Laura and I produced this simplified policy after experimenting with Twitter in the autumn term and looking at best practice. In addition to the grand aims and respectable ideology of the policy, we also created a more grounded and concrete set of house style guidelines. Or, more simply put, dos and don’ts. After all, librarians love a list! The detail has helped to empower everyone to participate regardless of confidence or prior experience.

I’m going to take you on a little whistle-stop tour of some of our content and campaigns. Each was designed to support one of our three core aims: modernisation, service advocacy and promotion and engagement with the college group’s senior team, staff and the wider community. I appreciate that screenshots of Twitter might not translate brilliantly to a blog; you can of course follow us for a better look! It’s @CCGLibrary and, yes, this is a shameless plug for followers.

We linked this year’s Reading Ahead scheme to the hashtag #BooksAndBeasts, asking students and staff to catch their pets reading. Reading Ahead is a national campaign led by The Reading Agency, focused on encouraging reading for pleasure and improving adult literacy. Using animals really helped to break down barriers; as Brinsbury is a land-based college, we already have an animal-mad audience. We also used the Twitter-generated content to market the campaign around campus… pictures of animals reading popped up on photocopiers, in cafés and on toilet doors. It worked – we had a record number of participants!

Love your libraries was a month long, overarching campaign that pulled together multiple activities such as the launch of Reading Ahead and our annual student survey. It helped to promote the role that the libraries and staff can play in the student experience. The library and other spaces around campus were decorated with handmade roses and other frivolities. Students (and staff) left the library love-notes and we shared these on Twitter. A tangible impact of the campaign was an even stronger link to the GCSE English Department for Reading Ahead and other projects.

Earlier in the year, William the Wonderdog became our newest librarian. He is a qualified therapy dog and Laura is his handler. I could easily use the rest of the blog to explore how he has impacted the library and our service offer through the power of belly rubs but back to the business at hand… we used Twitter to connect William to the college group and wider community. Advertising his presence on Twitter meant staff, in turn, advertised it to students. He’s gathered quite a following both online (@WSnosidge) and on campus. His Twitter presence has also helped to promote services and stock.

The weekly Mini Writing Challenge is a bit of fun rooted in word play and literacy. Participants have included students, staff, departments, other libraries, other colleges and even writers like Michael Rosen and Michael Grant. We run a number of weekly features like this, designed to engage with communities within and beyond the college: some promote stock, some advocate reading for pleasure, some encourage debate.

On a more serious note, we also use Twitter to advertise our services. We know the students aren’t looking at Twitter but their teaching staff and personal tutors are! By surfacing stock, promoting digital resources and advertising opening hours on Twitter, it reminds the staff and the senior team of how the library can support them in delivering outstanding learning outcomes. It is no coincidence that our e-book borrowing rates are up or that our weekend footfall has increased since we launched Twitter.

We believe one of our mandates is to help students to broaden their minds and experiences; Twitter helped us to achieve this. Here’s an example. Following a staff recommendation, we purchased a poetry book written by a local poet. This led to an online dialogue with the poet, Simon Zec, that ultimately resulted in:

  • a celebration of World Poetry Day;
  • a blackout poetry competition with more than 70 entries;
  • a poetry event in the library attended by students, senior management and staff, led by Simon – who also judged the competition.

The impact of our Twitter account isn’t measured in likes, retweets, followers or engagement, although I am obsessed with them and they have all demonstrated positive upward trends.

The impact isn’t really reflected by our increased book borrowing, footfall or e-book usage, despite the fact I can evidence these.

The impact is really more qualitative and can be found in the comments others make about our service: to us, about us and in the public domain.

Things students have said to / about me this summer…

Student: Why aren’t you a teacher? You should be a teacher!

Me: Well, lovely student, funny thing… I am a teacher.

Student: Why you doing this, then?

Me: Because I love this. Because this is as worthy as teaching. Because I think I can help people doing this. More than I helped them when teaching. Because I also still get to teach in this role. Because… Michael Gove.


Student: Jo, it’s June.

Me: Yup, I know. It’s come around quickly, hasn’t it?

Student: What? Yeah. No, I mean, you haven’t changed the Riddles of the Month. Where are this month’s riddles?!

Turns out things you think aren’t gaining traction have actually taken root.


Student: Can we play [insert name of game] again?

Me: Sure. I’ve got 5 minutes.

Student: Can you let me win this time?

Me: Awwww. (Sympathetic noises). No. It’s not in my DNA.

Student: Right. We’re playing chess, then, because you don’t win that.”


Student: Is it safe to talk?

Me: (Concerned and receptive face and body language). Of course. Are you ok?

Student: Eh? Oh, yes. No, I meant have you seen episode [insert number relating to Game of Thrones season 8] yet? I need to talk about it; there’s so many things I need to get off my chest.


Student: (Walking into library) LA LA LA LA LA LA LA! (Jamming fingers into his ears) LA LA LA LA LA LA!

Me: (Yelling) What are you doing?

Student: I haven’t seen Endgame or Game of Thrones episode [insert number] yet so the library is dangerous. Don’t ruin them for me.

Me: I would never (absolute horror registered on my face and appropriately melodramatic hand gestures).

Student: No, I know you wouldn’t. It’s all the other [naughty word, rhymes with cluckers] I don’t trust. LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA!


Me: (Helping out a series of students with chargers, Sharpies, laptops, punched pockets – also called, slippery fish – books, stapler remover, scissors, glue, every ramification of paper and a drink…)

Student: Jo’s the plug (to the room, very loudly).

Me: Eh?

Really wasn’t sure what to make of it. Initially, my mind wandered to the cute Christmas advert by Sainsbury’s… Was I like the little plug-boy, bringing joy and light to all?

That thought didn’t last long. I was suspicious but I did not want to Google it at work in case it breached our appropriate use of IT policy and set off sirens, triggered flashy lights and angered the Computer Services team. So I waited until I got home.

Apparently, it means someone in the know who can connect you to what you need. I quite liked it – seems like a pretty accurate description of librarianship. That was until I checked further sources (I am a nearly-librarian, after all) which stated the plug hooks people up to drug dealers.

No. No. No. Dislike. I also didn’t enjoy that I’ve become that old, I had to verify colloquialisms.

Just a quickie

No – not that kind. No time for that. Get your mind out of the gutter.

This is a blog about not taking my own advice: prioritisation.

Mum messaged this week to ask how I am getting on. She knows well enough to check in but not expect much in return at this time of the year 😂 Thanks for your patience, Mum.

Usually, in the spring, I balance two jobs: teaching (past) / library assistant (present) + working for an exam board. Actually, in the past, this has been multiple exam boards at the same time. I’m not allowed to say which one, which exam or what role I have. Top secret stuff. Suffice to say, it’s a very busy, high-stakes role with lots of travel and overnight visits. Those who know me well understand that I thrive under pressure and love challenge. My internal wiring is clearly weird but it might be a McKenna trait. We’re all a bit now-now-now. My spring is always hectic but I always get it done.

Anyway, last year, I decided to throw caution to the wind and tried balancing three things: library assistant + secret exam board role + studying for my MA. At least the MA assignments were submitted pretty early and I was back to just two stressful and simultaneous activities. I managed it all in the McKenna manner.

This year? Well. Here’s something I said during one of the fantastic, monthly chats for new professionals, in the Twitterverse.

*Laugh hysterically and knowingly here* Obviously, this is a not-very-subtle example of foreshadowing so, as I’m sure you predicted, I did not heed my own counsel.

2019 spring = library assistant + new work Twitter account + secret exam role + straightforward MA module assignment + MA module that requires hundreds of separate tasks and a frightening level of introspection and self-reflection which I find uncomfortable + the small matter of my dissertation research involving 6 (wonderful) FE colleges + two conferences.*

So when Mum reached out across the universe to check I was still on the planet…

Will I get it all done? Not sure. I feel like I’m at that part in the movie when the soundtrack is super tense, getting louder and faster. There are a lot of drums. It’s underpinned by that opening wail from Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song. I wish I could fast forward through a jolly montage, set to Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5, featuring me working at superhuman speed, eating ice cream, in my PJs and donning a messy bun – popping out the other side brandishing my bound dissertation for submission.

Alas, this is pure fantasy; thus, I apologise in advance to my wife, nephew, Mum, family and friends for my absence / mood / stress / forgetfulness [please delete as appropriate].

* You’re probably wondering why I’m blogging about it all instead of just getting on with it. It’s cathartic to moan, alright?!

More than a display (part 2)

No big long introduction – see part 1 for my ideological rant.

Purpose: supporting student wellbeing

The #WhaamTheExams campaign is focused on supporting students through this stressful season. It has a weekly theme, delivering freebies and help for getting organised, revision methods, health, mindfulness and fun.

We’ve also placed herbs on each table from our wonderful horticulture team. They can be touched, smelt or even eaten. Each is purported to have different benefits such as relaxation, clarity, energy and calmness.

(Related to Ranganathan’s fifth law and the College’s mantra of students first.)

Purpose: promotion of reading

Each year, The Reading Agency promotes World Book Night in colleges, prisons, public libraries, hospitals, care homes, shelters… its core aim is to improve adult literacy. I like to view it as World Book Day for grown ups, usually minus the fancy dress.

This year, we ran a staff shelfie competition to demonstrate to the students that staff read and own books. We also had an origami station, making and decorating one-minute-bookmarks. Once the student had a bookmark, they were nudged to borrow a book so that they could use it.

In 2018, we encouraged the wider college community to donate good-quality, unwanted books and magazines. From these, we created a lucky dip. Any student could take and unwrap an item as long as they promised to either read it or find it a good home if it wasn’t their cup of tea. Over the week, we gifted over 70 items.

Reading Ahead is an annual reading challenge, also organised by The Reading Agency, to encourage patrons (in our case, students) to read 6 items: books, articles, poems, quick reads. To help break down barriers to reading, and in keeping with the campus’ ethos, we branded the challenge as #BooksAndBeasts. Students, staff and our online community were challenged to send us photos of their animals reading.

These were then turned into posters and put up everywhere on campus.

The physical display included some of these images, plus an array of animal-related reading material (quick reads, picture books, novels, magazines, visual books, reference books) and many, many toy animals.

Essentially, because it’s an annual campaign and some of our students are with us for 2 to 4 years, it’s important to adapt the marketing materials produced by The Reading Agency by adding our own, unique hook – otherwise, it can become too familiar and not enticing. It worked as we’ve had well over 70 participants.

(Ranganathan’s laws: all of them).

Purpose: connecting the library and its students to the real world

Many of our students have never met anyone who makes a living from or has a career in writing; I’m not sure they connect the book they’re holding or article they’re being told they have to read to an actual person. This may be particularly true for those students who are on the cycle of resitting GCSE English and have, therefore, fallen out of love with words.

We celebrated World Poetry Day back in March. Whilst most students grumble that they hate poetry, as a teacher, I know it has the power to unleash creativity and, when introduced in the right way, can be accessible for everyone. After all, it has no rules. We linked the national day of celebration to our existing stock and, in fact, boosted our slim poetry collection by donating some of our own books from home, including a heavily annotated copy of Sylvia Plath’s poems (in my brother’s hand and then mine for our respective A Levels in ’96 and ’99!); a copy of “Moon Whales” signed by Ted Hughes and Chris Riddell, which I won in ’95 as the result of a national poetry competition; and “Mostly Hating Tories” written by my wife’s friend, Janine Booth – an honest, sweary and political collection of poems.

The unusual location of the display, the use of black and the hanging sign meant it display stood out and received a lot of attention. I’d also labelled the books with faux warnings about their sensitive content… which of course meant students picked them up to read. * wink *

In addition , we ran a Blackout Poetry competition inspired by Matt, a Year 6 teacher on Twitter (@5GsPlz). More on how to write Blackout Poetry here. I warn you: it’s addictive. We worked hard with the GCSE English teachers to engage the resit students – in the end, they had multiple trips to the library during their lesson time. We also had entries from many other students, staff and visitors to the campus!

The climax of the whole poetry celebration was an event called “Poetry in the Library.” We sent bespoke invitation postcards to teaching staff and senior management to encourage them to visit. Simon Zec, a local poet, was with us all day. He performed poems, took questions about writing and his process and judged the 70 competition entries! He also wrote a poem dedicated to Brinsbury. It was brilliant to watch students’ body language transform from “do we have to be here?” to “actually, this guy is talking sense.” It was literally possible to track the engagement shift in each session from leaning away / to leaning in \ . Magic.

Over the coming month, we will also display the students’ Blackout Poems in the library, meaning each student will be given a public audience.

This display related to physical stock, a competition enabling students to be creative and play with language, connections across the college and the community and an event.

(Ranganathan’s laws: all of them but especially the third law as we helped the poetry books to find readers!).

More than a display (part 1)

We’ve spent a lot of time this year working on displays in the library. My brilliant boss and I both herald from careers in the classroom so we may have a different outlook on displays from others in the library profession? Or at the very least different experiences?

I would contentiously argue that a display is pointless: in itself it has no meaning. It is merely the hook or outside shell for what you’re really trying to achieve. Any display that is purely for display’s sake will fail (of course it will… because it won’t have an aim).

Ranganathan’s five laws of librarianship were written nearly a hundred years ago in 1931 but I feel they are still relevant today. I also believe the most effective displays are related to at least one of his laws. The brackets below show how his laws can be modernised.

1. Books (information / materials) are for use.

2. Every person their book (information / material).

3. Every book (Information / material) its reader.

4. Save the time of the reader.

5. A library is a growing organism.

The best way to prove show my point is with some examples.

Purpose: showcasing the stock

As part of our push to get more students reading for pleasure, behold… Bookflix. An idea pinched from the Twitterverse. We spent a long time accruing the right books: some purchased, some donated, some pulled from existing stock, some borrowed from our other campus. It was also important that we included a range of authors, content and genres: women, LGBT, BAME, drama, fantasy and so on. This theme has worked brilliantly as a book because students have been able to talk about and recommend the books based on their viewing experiences. We plan to use it on alternate years.

Anecdotally, this display has had more stock borrowed from it than any other stock-based display; hence this update which at least amused me. Since its creation, five or six books have been consistently on loan.

As part of our Christmas display, student and staff were encouraged to write to the library elves to recommend new books for us to source. This resulted in 20+ new items, each of which has paper sash to indicate who recommended it.

(Related to Ranganathan’s laws 1 – 3).

Purpose: stakeholder engagement

A member of staff said this would be a fun regular feature so we enacted his suggestion and visitors to the library or our Twitter feed have a go. We’ve also link it to English and Maths skills some months to support the GCSE team. A monthly turnover is achievable and it’s often a talking point when the new riddles go up.

(Linked to Ranganathan’s fifth law).

Purpose: managing social use of the space

Each of these displays is focused on giving our students something to do when they have down time: break, lunch, free periods, waiting for the bus. Lots of them play games or ask me to join in (I’m very competitive and offer no free passes!). Staff have also engaged with the games, using them as lesson warm-ups or as part of personal and social sessions. Lots of the materials have come from our personal collections because my boss and I both have lofts and cupboards full of junk useful items from our teaching days and the horror that was wet play.

Our Creation Station has proved that students are origami and Lego obsessed. We’ve often used the colouring in to help a student calm down or to distract them from issues. It’s also easy to make the Station reflect college or national events and holidays.

Essentially, these displays have really helped to forge healthy relationships between the library team and students but they’ve also been integral with behaviour management.

I also want to point out that only three people have beaten me at Boggle in the last year.

(Related to Ranganathan’s fifth law).

Purpose: supporting learning outcomes

Granted, this Maths and English display is not the prettiest but it is an example of how we support curriculum teams with student outcomes. It changes monthly to reflect the teaching content of GCSE English and Maths and advertises support and revision activities. We also display our revision stock and this is very specific: we choose guides that cover the monthly themes and also indicate which pages have relevant activities. I’ve recently learned that this process can be called surfacing – bringing some of the stock out of its normal place and putting it in the foreground.

(Related to Ranganathan’s fourth law).

This display was focussed on our Horticulture and Arboriculture students. The plant matter was from around campus and we coupled it with the plant and animal pamphlets specifically used for identification. Not only did it demonstrate the stock (Ranganathan’s first and third law), it also supported students with learning outcomes as this was the time of year their coursework entailed identification work.

(Ranganathan’s second and fourth laws).

Purpose: promoting services and guerrilla marketing!

There are many spaces around campus that attract students or offer them somewhere else to study; the HE room is one such space. I now visit regularly to tidy it up and display our services. The examples above include support leaflets for our digital content and what the library does over the exam season to help students.

During our Love Your Library campaign and Reading Ahead (national promotion of reading for pleasure), we delivered materials to many public areas: Costa, English classrooms, photocopier room, toilets and the post room. We also delivered paper flowers and signage to reception when the reception staff were at a meeting so that they returned to decorated desks. Slowly but surely, we’re trying to take over the campus. In a good way, not like a virus.

(Supports Ranganathan’s fifth law).

Purpose: engaging with our community.

A stunning display by my colleagues at the other campus. These books were made by students as part of their level 3 art and design course. The library then exhibited them and integrated some of our own stock. It was a brilliant way of supporting students and academic departments, at the same time as driving up footfall to the library because people came to see them.

(Ranganathan’s second, third and fifth laws).

Purpose: promotion of services

Rather than telling the staff and students all about what the library can do for them, we ran a month long campaign in February called Love Your Library. Staff and students were encouraged to participate in various ways, including by leaving us love notes! The whole library was saturated with homemade paper flowers and love hearts – it was a display that visitors couldn’t fail to notice.

(All of Ranganathan’s laws).

I’ll have some additional examples for part 2.

Strange stuff I’ve learned from students this spring

*** GRIM IMAGES at the bottom of the blog: you have been warned. ***

I fully appreciate that most of this won’t be strange or novel to many of you but here are a few of the things students have taught me over the last term.


A term to describe mammals in the horse family and this includes donkeys. Sounds like a Dr Who villain to me.


There are four types of injections: intravenous (into the vein), intramuscular (into the muscle), subcutaneous (into the tissue) and intradermal (into the skin, specifically the dermis).


Parasites that can transfer from animals to humans. They might act differently when living on or in their human host compared to their animal host. This makes me feel very itchy.


You can buy a ruler with scaled measurements already printed on it to help you with engineering, architectural drawings and landscape gardening.


You take a dog’s pulse on the inside of its thigh – or as we call it in this household, its chicken-leg. For an explanation of where the chicken-leg nickname came from, please refer to my model, Maggie: she’s posing to show you what I mean… None of these shots are the aforementioned grim photos; you still have that joy to come.


A shrub is defined as having multiple stems and being under 6 metres in height but mostly a shrub is a shrub because it’s not a tree. But a shrub can also be a tree. This is about as clear as the rules for cricket.


I cannot believe this actually has a real life purpose beyond tricky GCSE maths questions. I helped students to use tan to calculate the gradient of run-offs for garden designs. That’s quite possibly the first time I’ve used it in twenty years.

CARBURETTOR (or carburetor)

An engine gizmo but not used in modern cars because they were replaced with fuel injection systems. A carburettor mixes air with fuel – described to me as the French Shaker of a car engine. I did question the choice of metaphor given that drinking and driving is (rightly) a no-no. The response was that, just like a cocktail, the right mixing leads to magic.


The ruminant digestive system appears in creatures such as cows and deer to help them consume plant matter. They have four, yes FOUR, stomach chambers to help break down their food. Please note, I have three: food stomach, cheese stomach and chocolate stomach.


This is the proper name for those forged iron tools you use to poke and prod a fire. I like it because it sounds a little quaint.

And finally…


Self amputation. No, really. Some creatures can shed or discard an appendage to evade a predator or due to injury.

I was shown the photos of Lexie, a student’s lizard, who had dropped her tail the night before due to a miscommunication with the family dog. Dropping the tail sounds swift and accidental – the process is neither. Lexie spent some time with the tip of her tail clamped in her jaw, tearing it away from the main bulk. After this tale (you may laugh, that was a pun) and the shock of these photos, I chose to skip my lunch. This function is simultaneously genius and gross.


Are you sure?

Brace yourself…