Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Liz Gray - Thurs. Sept. 25 to Sat. Sept. 27, 2008

Not all school media specialists and teacher librarians work in public schools. Liz Gray is the Library Director at Dana Hall School in Wellesley, MA.

Liz Gray's varied work experiences include serving as a School Library Director in Rome, Italy as well as stints in both a public library and an academic library. She is a former English teacher who has taught in Switzerland and England. You can find additional information about Liz at the following website:

Liz consults on library space planning and has taught "Planning Libraries for the 21st Century" and "Good Ideas: Successful Library Programming and Instruction" at the Taft Education Center in Watertown, CT.


  1. Hello Ms. Gray. First of all, I have to say that your professional experiences are fascinating. I would definitely be interested in reading your memoir. Do you plan to publish it? As an English teacher and possibly a future librarian, I really would like to read it.

    I suppose this is an obvious question given your interests and expertise: what IS the best way to organize a library space? I know that's a multi-faceted question that depends on what one is working with, so let me narrow it down to what I am most interested in. What is the best way to structure a small library space in a small high school? Are there general best practices that should be adhered to when planning a space?

    One last question...any documentary recommendations? I admit to being a documentary junkie, too.

    Thank you!
    Brian Moline

  2. Hi, Brian and everyone else. First we can dispense with the formality--please call me Liz. I'm sure we'll get to know each other well over the next few days.

    Thanks for your interest in my memoir. I do plan to publish it but first I have to finish writing it. It's hard to fit quality writing time into a hectic work and home life. Believe me, as soon as it hits the bookstores I will spread the word as widely as possible!

    Your question about organization of a library space is a huge one, as you recognize. Sometimes a small space is actually easier to work with because your limitations demand that you rule out certain features that are simply physically impossible to accommodate. Your guiding principle when designing a space is program. What has to happen in the space in order for it to function successfully as a library in your particular school? Whenever I consult to a school, my number one recommendation is to write a library building program, no matter whether they are planning a multi-level structure or a one-room facility. If you are teaching classes round the clock and need tables for desktops or laptops, projection capability, and print reference materials, you might have to give up comfy reading space and limit the size of your circulating collection. I don't know exactly what you mean by small and I don't know the age (and size) of your patrons, but if you have a space that you can divide into areas with shelving or furniture (you can also use color and carpeting to designate zones) it make sense to do that. Variety is key in accommodating students with different learning styles and having different areas makes it easier to have several activities going on simultaneously.

    As for documentary recommendations, I could go on and on but I will just give you just a few of my recent favorites and a couple that I haven't yet seen but am anticipating eagerly. Since I work in a school for girls, I am always looking for materials related to girls' education and learning styles /issues /interests. "Long Way From Home" ( is about three 9th graders from different cultures and their experiences at two NYC independent schools and "5 Girls" (Kartemquin Films) follows five teenage girls over a period of two years as they navigate adolescence. I haven't seen the latter one but it looks amazing. Another great film for and about girls is "A Hero for Daisy," a profile of Chris Ernst, a two-time Olympic champion who led a protest against the lack of women's athletic facilities at Yale University in 1976. I'm sure you're familiar with "Born into Brothels," which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature a couple of years ago, but if you aren't, run out and rent it tonight! It's an inspiring film that, as the blurb on the DVD states well, shows "how art and education can empower children to transform their lives."

    Another area of professional interest for me is working with GLBT youth, and these next few documentaries explore those issues. The title of "Hineini: Coming Out in a Jewish High School" ( speaks for itself, "Scout's Honor" is about a 13-year-old boy scout who launched a campaign to overturn the ban on gays in the Boy Scouts, and "Transgeneration" is a five-hour Sundance documentary about four remarkable college students figuring out their sexual identities.

    Since we are in a presidential election year, I also want to recommend "Run Granny Run," a Marlo Poras film about a 90-year-old woman who walked across America to rally against the influence of big money in elections. And finally, I am very excited to see "Who Does She Think She Is?" which documents the way in which several women from diverse walks of life balance their competing roles as artists and mothers. This film is currently doing the rounds of independent film festivals and I am going to a local screening in early October. Look for it in your area!

    FYI, I have all of these films (except for the last one, which has yet to be released on DVD) in my collection.


  3. Unfortunately, I don't have a library of "my own" yet, so I guess the space is make believe. I teach English at a small high school and if I do happen to find myself as an LMS in the coming years it will be in a similarly sized (450 students 9-12) school, or smaller. Your reply reflects the approach I would take - shaping the space to my personality and the needs and personality of the school. My greatest challenge, I imagine, will be funds because I will be in a small school.

    Thank you very much for your recommendations. My AP Language and Composition class recently read a Time magazine article. The title was something similar to "The Truth about Teenage Girls" - I don't have it with me at the moment. Many of your titles fit precisely into the lessons. I'll track them down and hopefully incorporate some things. They sound like the kinds of things I love to use to spark thought and discussion with my students.

    Your response brings up what I think is another important topic, similar to shaping one's space to one's programming and students. That is, developing a collection that reflects the school population. "Hot button" topics is our current discussion item and some documentaries on your list might be considered such by "conservative" teachers.

    How would you handle challenges from teachers (or even parents) about the materials in your library? You are in a private school, which has challenges and opportunities much different than my small, public, "country"
    high school. Have teachers requested these titles? If not, have you approached any to develop new units or lessons using these particular materials? In my school I'd probably be the only one eager to use these, so I'm curious about the approach and response somewhere like Dana Hall - in a traditionally more liberal area than small-town Indiana! I'm also curious about how the teachers have used these titles. A bit of "good idea poaching" on my part, I guess.

  4. Anonymous4:34 PM


    What a great and diverse background you have! Which do you think was your favorite? What would th pros and cons be of wach type? Would you lean towards one mroe than antoher? After being in America and in different countries, what would be some of the best things we have and some of the things we need to work on?

    Kelly Looper

  5. Hi Liz,
    I noticed that the middle school has a class project "explorers documentary project". Would you tell me more about that? That sounds very exciting. Is that something you brought to the school because it corresponds with your interests in documentary films?

    Also, what are some good books on school library space planning or just library space planning? Did you get to design your library where you are now?

  6. Anonymous7:24 PM

    Hi Ms. Gray,
    Thank you for taking the time to talk with our class this semester. You have mentioned in your biography that you have worked as both a school media specialist and academic librarian. I too am an academic librarian at a small jr. college. What are the Similarities /differences between both positions? I am curious because I am thinking about changing library positions.
    Thank you so much!
    Have a great night!
    Judy A. Hickman

  7. Anonymous9:41 PM


    I'm so jealous! My mother is from England. My brother, Stephen, lives in York, England. He works as a security guard at the York Minster. He's also a musician (Check out if you want to hear some wonderful music). I have never been to England. There are times when I think I would like to live there, at least for a time, at some future date. I guess the first question I want to ask is how do you teach or be a librarian in another country (particularly England)? How do those American licenses work there? What did you have to do?

    I'm thrilled to meet you!
    Sandy Brown

  8. Brian asked about hot button topics and challenges to materials in one's collection. This is a particularly timely topic as we head into Banned Books Week.

    I am extremely fortunate to live in an open-minded part of the country and to work in a school that encourages students (and faculty) to look at all sides of an issue, that allows everyone the freedom to make up their own minds, and that provides the community with access to a wide range of resources through the library. I have never had a direct challenge but I have been questioned on four different occasions (in16 years) about the suitability of specific materials in the collection. Two of these situations were with parents of middle school students and two were with administrators. In each case I had a conversation with the person and successfully convinced her of the merit of the materials and explained why I felt that they needed to remain a part of the collection.

    I do not rest on my laurels, however. I think that it is essential for every school librarian to have a collection development policy that includes a "Challenges to Materials" section and that you as SLMS have a plan (a form you can give the complainant, a procedure you will follow, and the support of your administrators) in case someone wants to make a formal complaint.

    Brian said that in his school he would "probably be the only one eager to use" the documentaries I mentioned earlier, but he might be surprised at the response he'd get if he had an opportunity to show them. I think fear often silences us. If we have valid reasons for including a book or a movie in our collection, I think we have an obligation to stand up for those reasons. I purchase items for my collection that have been positively reviewed and that members of my community (teachers and students) need access to. I am also guided by the school and library's missions and by my budget.

    With specific reference to the documentaries, some were requested by teachers for use with classes or student groups, and some I purchased because I know that they will make people think and spark discussion of important issues.

  9. I'm going to try and respond to Kelly, Judy, and Sandy together since their questions are related.

    I love working in a single-sex environment and with adolescents so right now I definitely have a dream job. The only thing that would make it better would be if I could relocate Dana Hall to another country. Living overseas is in my blood. My bio did not mention this, but I actually was born and grew up in Rome, Italy and spent my high school years in London, England (my Dad worked for the airlines).

    As long as you are willing to be flexible and don't mind giving up some of the comforts of home, it is a lot easier to get a job overseas as a librarian in an American or international school than you might think. You need your master's in library & information science, a couple of years of experience and a roll-with-the-punches attitude. You do not necessarily need to be certified. There are three major organizations that I know of that match teachers and librarians with positions in other countries: International School Services (, Search Associates (, and the Department of Defense Education Activity ( The first two organizations hold recruiting fairs, usually on both the west and east coasts but not anywhere in between, starting in January. I got both my overseas jobs through personal connections but the majority of people use one of these agencies. Many countries have limits on the number of years that nationals from other countries will be issued a visa to teach, which is why you will meet people with experience teaching all over the world in these international schools. Certain countries (like England—sorry, Sandy!) are in greater demand than others but no matter where you go you will learn so much more about that country by living and working there than you would as a tourist.

    Kelly asked what the best things we have in the US are and what we have to work on. After you spend time overseas, you realize how much we have here—everything from opportunity and freedom to space to grocery stores with variety that boggles the mind. What we don't have is time to savor it all, fresh and unprocessed food as the status quo, and the ability to see the big world picture. We are so big and so affluent (yes, even given our current financial woes) that it is often hard for us to see beyond our borders.

    My stint in an academic library was limited—I worked in an art slide library for two years in college—so I don't feel qualified to compare an academic environment with a school environment. Based on my conversations with friends who do work in academic libraries, however, I think I think that a lot depends on the institution and size of the library. I feel that my colleagues see me as an equal partner in educating students, whereas some of my friends in academic libraries feel more distanced and sometimes "less than" faculty.

  10. The middle school Explorers Documentary Project has no connection with my interest in documentaries but it is a neat project. Small groups of sixth graders work together to research the lives and journeys of their explorers and their products are mini-documentaries. The teacher who designed the project is no longer at Dana Hall so I'm not sure if it will continue.

    There are many excellent books on school library space planning; these are my current top choices. If you can only get one, buy the Erickson & Markuson book as it offers a great overview of the process and is well-written and easy to swallow.

    Bolan, Kimberly. "Teen Spaces: The Step-by-Step Library Makeover." Chicago: American Library Association, 2003.

    Bolan, Kimberly and Robert Cullin. "Technology Made Simple: An Improvement Guide for Small and Medium Libraries." Chicago: American Library Association, 2006.

    Brown, Carol R. "Interior Design for Libraries: Drawing on Function and Appeal." Chicago: American Library Association, 2002.

    "Building Libraries for the 21st Century: The Shape of Information." Ed. T.D. Webb. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2000.

    Erikson, Rolf and Carolyn Markuson. "Designing a School Library Media Center for the Future." 2nd edition. Chicago: American Library Association, 2007.

    Feinberg, Sandra, Joan Kuchner, and Sari Feldman. "Learning Environments for Young Children: Rethinking Library Spaces and Services." Chicago: American Library Association, 1998.

    Woodward, Jeannette. "Creating the Customer-Driven Library: Building on the Bookstore Model." Chicago: American Library Association, 2005.

    I was very involved in the design of Dana Hall's current library, which opened in 1998, and that was partly because I was prepared and knew what I wanted when it was time to start working with architects. I spent my first five years at Dana Hall attending every conference on space planning and design that I could, and I also visited new school libraries and took pictures of what I liked and (just as important) didn't like about them. I assembled my photos into a big notebook, along with a statistics sheet on each library I visited so that I could compare apples with apples. Architects are visual people, and they appreciated being able to see images.

    Today, of course, you can assemble your photos digitally, and over the past two years I have posted all my library space shots (as I call them) to a free and readily available Shutterfly account. Go to and sees lots of pictures of my library and others I have visited recently. You will notice that I have many pictures of details (light fixtures, door handles); this is because I believe that the small touches are often what distinguish one space from another.

  11. Hi Liz,

    First, thank you so much for sharing your time and experience. You really have a diverse background in the library and education field. I noticed two of your professional interests include documentary films and art in libraries. Does the media center at Dana Hall contain these items in their collection? In your opinion, are these resources significant for students to have access to at school?

    Thank you very much!

  12. Hi Liz,
    I'm greatly impressed and really admire your interest in GLBT issues, especially for today's teens. I think this is an important topic that should be included in any school library collection. With Banned Books Week beginnning tomorrow, how will your school media center promote this event?

    Can you share some types of program advocacy campaigns you have used for your school library, such as school reading book clubs, developing partnerships, collaborations, and other outreach connections with members of the learning community inside and outside of the school?

    Thank you again, Liz!

  13. My first post in response to Brian's questions about documentaries gives you some examples of recent stellar additions to my library's documentary collection. If you do a subject search for "documentary film" in the Helen Temple Cooke Library catalog, you will see that I have just over 100. I think of documentaries as the visual equivalent of non-fiction. The best ones tell a story and are more than just a collection of facts.

    As for art, I am passionate about collecting cool pieces for the library. I think art personalizes a space and makes it come alive. The art work in my library includes pieces created by students or faculty (one of our Middle School classes created a large bust of the artist Camille Claudel), pieces that relate to books or words or knowledge (a student took three black and white photos of old books that I had matted and framed), and some unique pieces that fit perfectly in certain areas (a large colorful quilt made by an artist who exhibited in the school's gallery). One of my favorites is a series of framed prints of people reading in lots of different places. I saw postcard-sized versions of these prints in a public library bookstore in Portland, Oregon and contacted the artist to get larger versions. Her name is Deborah Dewit Marchant ( and she also has a book and a calendar that focus on her love of words and reading.

    Only a small percentage of the art work in my library was expensive and all of it was purchased over a 15-year period. If your budget is small or non-existent, you can either laminate or inexpensively frame posters—there are many amazing ones from which to choose, including the freebies handed out by publishers at conferences. Student art work is also often beautiful AND you can commission it; I have several pieces in my own home that I purchased from students (who are usually stunned that someone is willing to pay them for their work!).

  14. Anonymous8:28 PM


    Thanks for that great list of agencies for overseas placement!

    I have been reading over some of the other questions and responses and almost feel there's not much left to ask. Everyone is doing such a great job at discussing!

    I am curious about what a normal day/week is like for you in your current job.


  15. To get a good sense of my library's GLBT collection, take a look at the ongoing bibliography on my web page at

    My library will be celebrating Banned Books Week with two announcements explaining the week (one in the Middle school, one in the Upper School) at our regularly scheduled morning meetings. We put together a big display of all the books that were banned or challenged during the past year; this year I will be repeating a technique that has been successful in the past (I only do it every three or four years to keep it fresh)—covering the front of the display case with brown kraft paper, criss-crossing it with yellow "caution" tape, and then tearing a couple of holes in the paper so people can peek in. Luckily I have a two-sided display case that forms one wall near the entrance to the library and the books on the side of the case that faces into the library will still be visible. I always order ALA's Banned Books Week kit, laminate the posters and place them strategically, hand out copies of the flyer and the bookmark, and field questions all week long from students. Sometimes we have a contest with a banned book as the prize, and sometimes we work a banned books treasure hunt into classes that are visiting the library for orientation. It is such a great opportunity for discussion of the freedom to read and think independently.

    I am always doing library advocacy and seize every opportunity to collaborate with teachers or outside organizations that can benefit the school in some way. For example, over the past five years I have done a number of different things with poetry. One year we had a visiting poets series (I called it "Poetry Rocks!"); three published poets each came for a full day, conducted workshops with classes, and ended the day with a reading for the whole community. The poets gave me permission to reproduce two poems and I made up colorful bookmarks on card stock with the series schedule on one side and a poem on the other side. Two years ago I coordinated a version of Billy Collins' Poetry 180 ( in which a student volunteered to read a poem each week at our morning assemblies. I handed out a flyer on "How to Read a Poem Out Loud" to every reader, we posted the poems of the week on a bulletin board outside the library; and some English teachers awarded extra credit to students who read. This year I am working with our AP English teacher and her students; every month two students will focus on a living American woman poet and introduce her to the whole school.

    Another great collaboration has been my relationship with the children's/YA buyer for a local independent bookstore. She notifies me of visiting authors who are promoting a new book and who have time to visit a school for a full or half day. They do workshops or readings with classes and the bookstore sells copies of their books afterwards. In recent years we have had authors like Sarah Dessen, Libba Bray, and Gabrielle Zevin--all for free! Next month we will have a visit by John Green, author of "An Abundance of Catherines," "Looking for Alaska," and the forthcoming "Paper Towns."

  16. Thank you Liz for sharing that valuable insite about how to make the libray center more appealing to students, especially by using their own artwork and ideas. I think this a fantastic example of helping YAs feel more "at home" and comfortable in the media center and to view it as a place that is also their's. I've done a little reading on facility design and layout, and know how important it is to recognize the need of your students and the types of issues they consider when wanting to spend time in the library for reading or research.
    And, I think it's really great to hear you purchase some of your students' pieces of art. What a great way to connect with them and make them feel more involved in their academic learning environment.

    Thank you again, Liz!

  17. Your advocacy and promotional programs for the media center are fantastic! Especially covering the "banned book" with brown kraft paper, adding the caution tape and placing some tears in the cover to entice and attract students' attentions and curiousity. Very original and something I would love to do someday myself as a school librarian!

    I'm printing out the GLBT list you mentioned so I can become more aware and current on what YAs are searching for through the books they choose to read. I applaud your dedication and continued effort in making all topics available for students and not refusing to purchase something simply because of political or religious agendas or bias.

    The collaboration and other programs sound cool for both the students, yourself, and the community. The degree and depth of collaboration especially with the childrens/YA book buyer, and the benefits of having author visits and workshops are fun examples to keep students returning to the library.

    Again, thank you for sharing all of these interesting and stimulating examples of how to connect with our juvenile/YA audience!


  18. Liz,
    I am so jealous. I would love to have all of those authors come to my school, especially John Green and Sarah Dessen, two of my favorites! I will certainly be looking into some sort of collaboration with our local bookstores.

    I was wondering about your website. I love the layout and design. Did you do that? If so, where did you learn how to do that??

    Thank you so much for the book titles for space planning, the poetry ideas, and the picture links.

    Your answers are so insightful and thought provoking!

  19. The shape of my week is influenced by the fact that my school is a boarding and day school, with a library that is open every day (even on holidays!) for a total of 70 hours a week, and by the good fortune of having a great staff: three SLMSs (including me), a .75 FTE library assistant (who is in library school), and a .5 FTE archivist. We also have a 14 parent volunteers and a dozen paid student pages.

    The school is committed to staffing the library with a librarian whenever it is open (the only exception being Saturdays, when we are open from 1:00—5:00 pm and not heavily used; Saturdays are staffed by student pages), which means that the three SLMSs and the library assistant work rotating shifts to cover all the hours. We each cover one night of the week (M—Th) and work from 1:00—9:00 pm on that day. We also each work one Sunday a month and take the preceding Friday off. It works out to about 40 hours a week and it's only about ten hours a week that we are all there at the same time.

    I also work out a desk schedule each trimester so that each of us has some face time with students and some unscheduled time off the desk to get the rest of our work done. As a general rule, I try not to put the night duty person on the desk before 4:00 pm, and I also try to give everyone one completely unscheduled day each week. Our desk time and teaching time can be hectic, so it is extremely valuable to have that one day a week in which to schedule collaboration time with teachers, make phone calls, leave the library to do something in another part of the school, or just get some uninterrupted work done. It is a great system and I feel fortunate to have it!

    All of us do reference/circulation duty, as I indicated above, and then each of us is responsible for a number of things individually. One of the SLMSs works with the Middle School, does the cataloging and maintains the web page; another teaches information literacy classes in the Upper School and handles all the AV equipment; the library assistant orders AV materials, manages periodicals, does ILL, maintains displays and supervises all the volunteers and pages (who do the processing); and I do collection development and all acquisitions, the budget, run the Birthday Book and Summer Reading Programs for students and faculty, do outreach, manage the facility and the staff, and go to lots of meetings! 3.75 FTE (the archivist works solely with archives) sounds luxurious for a school but we do a lot. Last year we were without a library assistant for the first two months of school and the rest of us almost had nervous breakdowns.

    Kathy, I'm glad you like the website. I worked with a previous SLMS to design it about five years ago. I wanted to model it on a nine-patch quilt and to have the colors mirror some of the library's colors. The other SLMS did the actual work—all with HTML. Our goals were to keep it as simple, clear and organized as possible, and to minimize the number of links. We are constantly tweaking it and this year our goal is to upgrade many of the subject links. One of the best things about our website is that the librarians control all the content and can upload new pages right away.

  20. Anonymous5:11 PM


    I am learning so much from this blog experience!

    I was wondering about something since you have worked in a number of places. Based on your experience, and outside of any school library media centers, where have you seen the most job openings and perhaps the most job security or demand? I ask this because I'm not ruling out another type of library other than a K-12 school library. Even though I'm scheduled to go back to work in my school system next fall, I don't want to rule out other options. So, while I am attending IUPUI, I want to consider what classes would make me the most marketable in the librarian profession in general.



  21. Anonymous7:18 AM

    Hi Liz,

    Your library website is informative, concise, and attractive. It is a great model for other schools. Do you maintain the site? Was it created using published software or in straight HTML?

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on library planning, documentaries, teaching abroad, and library scheduling. I look forward to exploring the documentaries and sharing them with my staff. It was a real treat to read your postings. Let me know when the memoir is finished.

    Jennifer Sigler

  22. Other than schools, I have probably seen the most job openings in public libraries. However, depending on the size of the library and the position you are filling, I wouldn't say that public libraries have the best job security. In fact, in this economy, I wouldn't say that job security is wonderful anywhere. The best way to get and maintain a good library job is to get some experience, even on a part-time basis, and prove yourself in that job—just be the best that you can be and add great value to the institution where you work. Be adaptable and reliable, innovate, and work hard. Most important of all--show up! That will earn you good references. Then work on your skill set so that you offer something that is hard to find. Market yourself but BE YOURSELF in the process. There are all kinds of opportunities for tech- and web-savvy librarians (as well as lovers of books) out there that don't fall neatly into the traditional library types of school, public, academic and special.

    I have enjoyed talking to all of you and I wish you good fortune as you finish your degrees. Don't hesitate to contact me at if you have questions further down the road. I'll let Larry know when my book is done and hopefully he'll spread the word!