Writing a New Chapter: Head Librarian Wins Award in a First

Striving continually to evolve and innovate everything from the materials and resources offered, to the furniture chosen, to the design and layout of the space it resides in. Much of the Odette Library at St. Michael’s College School (SMCS) has had a consistent fingerprint attached to it --- since 2008 --- that of Sandy Gray.

The Head Librarian at SMCS now adds a new personal accomplishment to her efforts.

“It was an unexpected honour but one that I treasure deeply,” Gray says. 

Head Librarian, Sandy Gray speaks to a student in the Odette Library at SMCS.

Sandy Gray is the Head Librarian at St. Michael’s College School. She has been honoured with an award from the Association of Independent School Librarians (AISL).

Gray recently became the first Canadian librarian to win a prestigious award granted by the Association of Independent School Librarians (AISL). 

“Each year the AISL awards its highest honour, The Marky Award, to a member who has displayed exemplary service to our association,” says Renee Chevallier, Head Librarian and Archivist at the Ursuline Academy of Dallas and AISL Treasurer. “AISL has benefitted greatly from Sandy’s vision and drive. I have counted her among the professionals that I view as mentors in my own career.”

The Marky Award given to Ms. Sandy Gray, Head Librarian at SMCS

The Marky Award was awarded to Sandy Gray, Head Librarian at St. Michael's College School in 2020.

Named after a founding member of the organization, the award “has been given annually, since 2002, honouring AISL members who have made a significant contribution to the organization over a long period of time,” according to the organization’s website.

“It has been one of the highlights of my library career to serve as a member of the AISL board in a range of capacities over a 10-year period,” says Gray. “To have earned the respect and admiration of amazing library peers at independent schools across North America is both humbling and thrilling!”

The award was to be have been handed out in-person during the AISL’s annual conference in Dallas in April. It changed to a presentation via video conference due to COVID-19 for Gray, now in her 12th year at SMCS.

“Her commitment to transforming learning spaces and developing competencies in research and inquiry-based learning has been exemplary,” says Fr. Andrew Leung, CSB, President of SMCS. “She has been a progressive voice at our leadership tables and has always presented as a critical thinker looking to improve the experience of students always.”

The AISL represents 700 librarians from across North America, including 42 from Canada, representing around two dozen schools.

“I joined the association in 2003, and in 2008 was a member of the organizing committee to host the conference here in Toronto --- the first time it was held outside of the U.S.,” Gray recounts. “In 2010, I joined the AISL board as a member at large, moved on to secretary, then was asked to assume the role of president-elect.”

“My two years as president were both challenging and rewarding,” she says. “I helped to expand AISL's membership in Canada --- especially among the Conference of Independent Schools (CIS) in Ontario --- as well as re-focus the membership on independent school librarians and create a channel for retired AISL librarians to continue to contribute their expertise to the association.”.

Head Librarian, Sandy Gray speaks to a student in the Odette Library at SMCS.

As for being the first winner of the Marky Award from Canada, Gray says, “It's an honour! When I attended my first AISL conference in 2004 in Dallas, the hosts clapped when I walked in, thrilled that the association was expanding beyond the U.S. to become ‘international’.”

“When we hosted the conference in Toronto in 2008, our American colleagues had the chance to visit many of our excellent CIS independent schools, and the result was an increase in cross-border collaboration,” she says.

Gray describes why it was important to have SMCS become part of AISL back in 2003.

“As we continue to navigate the ever-changing world, we need to reach out to our peers at other schools to share best practices and embrace new ideas and technologies,” she says. “There is no better association for independent school librarians than AISL. When you have a question about anything library-related, you can reach out via the listserv and have responses from talented colleagues within minutes. It is powerful and inspiring, and has made me a better school librarian --- and made the Odette Library better as a result.”

Student reading in the Odette Library at St. Michael's College School.

Married with two children, Gray recently announced she will be retiring from SMCS at the end of this academic year in June 2020. She provides her perspective on a variety of questions involving the past, present, and future:

What does SMCS need to do to be leaders among independent high school libraries?

We need to embrace and support the transition of the traditional school library to the 21st century model of the Learning Commons. To stay abreast of new developments, we need to be active members of external associations and groups that will allow us to remain lifelong learners and introduce the best new ideas in our library for the benefit of our students.

What will you miss most in retirement?  

In truth, I've just begun to consider this, as the prospect of retirement is bittersweet. I will miss being a cog in the wheel of SMCS, working with my library colleagues to provide a library service of which I am proud. Certainly, I'll miss the interaction with wonderful colleagues and students, joining in the inquiry and research that makes school librarianship such fun.

Photo of Fr. Cecil Zinger, CSB, OSM in the Odette Library at SMCS.

Favourite memory from your years at SMCS?  

Being mentored, quietly and gently, by Fr. Zinger, CSB, OSM. In my early days at SMCS, Fr. Zinger initiated me into the school culture, providing insight and guidance with great love. I will always cherish that.

Fr. Cecil Zinger, CSB, OSM, taught at SMCS for more than 50 years. He passed away in October 2017 at the age of 84.

What do you believe your legacy will be?  

Yikes! Well, I hope it will be that we've begun the transition to a Learning Commons, acknowledging that the library is not a storage area for books or students but instead a vibrant teaching and learning environment that can accommodate the varying needs of students. I also hope part of my legacy will be the inclusion of the school librarian in relevant committees where the future of education is discussed, enabling advocacy for the inquiry-based skills our students must hone to thrive as the leaders of tomorrow.

The Odette Library at St. Michael's College School.

Any advice for your successor?  

The library does not exist in isolation. It draws its mission and vision from the school, and a strong network of colleagues from all departments and areas of the school will help to advance the library's goal of preparing students to thrive in an information-rich world.

What do you plan to do in retirement?  

We are avid travellers, and plan to reschedule our celebratory camping trip to the Arctic once the curve flattens. We are lining up new volunteer opportunities to keep us engaged, and hope to simplify our lives and live more in the present.

Related links:

Association of Independent School Librarians (AISL)
Marky Award winners

Learn more about the Odette Library at St. Michael’s College School.