We caught up with Helen Swinyard who completed the MA in Children’s Literature at the NCRCL in 2003. Through the MA, Helen discovered that being a school librarian is an exciting way to pursue her love of children’s literature.
What led you to the NCRCL?
I had friends from school studying their undergraduate courses at Roehampton (it was the University of Surrey Roehampton then) and I remember visiting them a couple of times and walking past the NCRCL on campus and thinking ‘what’s that?’ I thought it sounded like an exciting place.
I had always enjoyed reading as a child and wanted to be a writer when I ‘grew up’. So even though the demands of secondary school meant I didn’t read that much, I always wanted to read English at university level. However, during my undergrad degree I had a first year set course and then had second year modules I didn’t really enjoy – the experience wasn’t what I had anticipated at all. Finally when I was completing my degree I suddenly rekindled my love of reading and analysing, and luckily had the chance to carry straight into an MA as I didn’t want it to end! The NCRCL was top of my list.
What did you most enjoy and take from the MA?
It was a real indulgence for me at the time to spend a full year immersing myself in children’s literature and surrounding myself with others who love that world as much as I do. After 3 years of studying general English literature, and having to read things that didn’t really interest me, that year helped me regain my love of reading.
I also LOVED doing a dissertation and really having the time to delve into one specific thing and really get to know it. I looked at religion in His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. No one had written that much about them at the time, although a few books emerged during that year and I know many people started to write essays and dissertations from then on. At the time I had every article about and by Pullman in my study and my head and felt like the world expert at the time! I thought maybe one day I should open a Pullman archive!
I also enjoyed being in the ‘book world’ and having the chance to meet so many people from publishing, bookshops, libraries, academia from different countries and generations… to chat with over a cup of tea of visit their archive or bookshop. It was during breaks in lectures that I chatted with various librarians who all seemed to truly love their school or public library and I started to realise that librarianship was something I could get into. I wanted to find a job I loved as much as they did!
What did the course lead to?
Once I had that seed of an idea – that school librarianship might be my vocation – I thought I had better explore that. (I had never really known what career I wanted). I worked part-time shelving in the university library during the course and the other librarians were great to work with. I figured school librarianship would be pretty niche as a chosen job and with my new MA I would sail into a position… and whilst I do think the MA helps on a CV against other applicants I had no idea at the time that librarians could have academic training too and a huge field of their own to explore. I was so naive!
I was directed to CILIP – the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals – and realised I would need a new plan. So I made a 5-year plan in my head and decided to try and get a job in any library and to specialise a bit more further down the line. My first job from there was a library assistant at a secondary school – I am sure the MA helped secure that.
How has the course influenced you and your work?
It gave me an academic grounding that I still hold onto. I read quite a lot of children’s literature for pleasure as well as to keep up to date in my field and assist students and staff wherever I work, and students seem to think I’ve read every book in the world – the MA was a crash course in not only re-reading my childhood favourites but filling in gaps with books I hadn’t read and getting me to think more deeply about new reads.
I still find myself reading a book and wondering which others I would compare it to, if I had to write an essay, which tradition it fits into or which of the 7 basic plots it has!
One of the best practical examples is that I had to set up a school library from scratch, as I started working in a brand new school. The school had been open for 1 year with just year 7 students (aged 11-12) and before I arrived had a spare classroom with around 100 books in crates for students which had been chosen by the local bookshop. Something which drew me to the job was thinking that I had the duty to make sure their new library was properly stocked with a range of genres, eras and authors to suit all tastes and reading levels. The MA range and depth of reading gave me that confidence and that knowledge to do the best for those students. My first day I sat with 20 different genre orders open and typed in what I thought was the best of the best from my head, even though that was around a decade after doing the course.
How is your life and career path still affected by the course?
I feel that the course gave me a fantastic background in my key area. And it gave me a huge stock of books in my head. I am always referring back to textbooks on reader development when thinking about initiatives, or thinking about discussions on how to market books.
I think having the course on my CV, I also stand out when applying for jobs in the education sector, as it gives more academic weight on an application compared to someone who may also know about how to run a library, but not have that academic background which school leaders like. People often tend to enter school library work from 2 angles – qualified librarian from another sector who has children or other commitments which suit the school day OR those who work in schools in other non-qualified roles and move across because they’re good with the children. These people have to accumulate book knowledge as they go, whether in stock, the book world or reader development. I came at it knowing those things already and having to pick up the technical.
I still keep in touch with a couple of other students from the course, even though they live across the world, and I think these links are immensely important not only for friendship but also as links to other parts of the book world! In 2016 I attended the ALA (American Library Association) Conference in Boston and it was all down to the persuasion of Dr Katie Posey, Children’s Literature lecturer turned school librarian whom I met on the MA, who also provided me with lovely free accommodation as well as being my guide! I really value these links and wish that I had kept better contact with others whom I spend so much time with that year grappling with stories and sharing tea. If you are a 2002-3 alumni, do please get in touch!
Helen Swinyard is a librarian currently working at a school in North London. She studied towards the MA in Children’s Literature at the NCRCL during 2002-2003. You can find her on Twitter under @HelenSwinyard, on Goodreads and on her own book review blog.
Photographs provided by Helen Swinyard.