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Libraries and education - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Libraries and education
feylin17 asked for a rant about education, specifically from a library perspective.

Education. Everyone has different ideas about it and there are SO MANY ways the public education system is not right in this country. That or the role of parents in education, or how teachers are being fired if their students dont pass the proficency (even though the test is for what they leared the years before with different teachers.), or the whole evolution/creationism debate. Or anything really. I'm a science teacher in Ohio so I've seen pretty much all the ways things are wrong.
I'm giving you this rant because i have never had this discussion with a librarian(sp) and I know that your profession has a stake in education. I'm interested to hear what you think about all of this.

I worked at circulation in an Albuquerque library for quite a long time before I went to library school. I realize New Mexico is in the bottom ten states on education (I think it's in the bottom five), but it scarred me. Kids would come up to the desk--fifth graders, sixth graders, sometimes older--and be unable to fill out a library card form. I don't mean anything sneaky. I mean things like either not knowing how to write their addresses or not realizing that they needed to know their addresses ("I live over by the park," a child told me once, pointing vaguely toward the back of the building). Or, the one that finally broke me: "Um, on the name thing, does it have to be my whole name? 'Cause everyone calls me Bill and I don't know how to spell William."

This child was in fifth grade. Please tell me--please--why no one at any point had noticed that he couldn't spell his own name and rectified the problem.

Tell me also why I routinely meet high school students in a state that's in the top ten who don't understand that nonfiction is shelved by subject, and subject is identified by call number. Or that when looking up an author by name on the shelf, it's under the last name, not the first name. I mean, I know they've gutted school library budgets and that probably means kids aren't getting their special library classes every week (with or without the story hour), but by high school, shouldn't they have already used the system at some point? I don't mind teaching library skills--I actually really enjoy it; it's one of my favorite parts of the job--but I'm flabbergasted at how often I have to do it.

Honestly, I can't say where all of the gaps in their education are. I see them when they come in looking for help on specific things now, and what they know about other things never comes into play. But I do see students being students outside of the school setting, so here are a few random observations:

  • "You don't understand. It's an assignment. I'm not interested in it."
    That is an exact quote, delivered by a high school girl when I was trying to help her find a book that met the criteria laid down by her teacher (if I recall, it was one of those, "Read a book by a black/Hispanic/Asian-American author" assignments). I was trying to come up with a good rec for her, because the assignment was so broad, but she had no idea what she was meant to get out of the assignment, just wanted to get it out of the way, and wasn't interested in finding something interesting. And frankly, I haven't the first idea what the point of that assignment was. "Read a book by an author in category x"--regardless of what the book is--is a baffling notion to me, and apparently to the students. It would be one thing if there were an assignment attached, like, "Read a book by X author and a book by Y author, and tell me where they differ in attitude" or something. The student might still be bored, but at least s/he wouldn't be floundering around as well.

  • While I'm at it, what is the point of "Read a book by a black author" as an assignment? There are tons of good ones and tons of bad ones, and of course the vast majority of books are written by people whose picture doesn't happen to be on the back cover at all, and I'm frankly not going to make a guess as to their ethnicities. But even limiting to those whose ethnicity can be confirmed, what's the goal of the assignment? Is a porno novel by Zane an acceptable book? After all, it meets the assignment's sole criterion. What about a time traveling sci-fi mystery novel co-written by Billy Dee Williams? Or possibly something by Octavia Butler or Lion's Blood by Steven Barnes? Or are they meant to be reading authors like Richard Wright and Langston Hughes? If so, please be specific. African American writers are not a rarity which a student can browse in a five minute shelf session. Nor are Hispanic or Native American or Jewish writers.

  • "No! I need a book about how electricity is conducted through different stuff, especially shampoo! My teacher said I need a book!"
    This one, I actually get. It's the opposite of the above problem--too much specificity rather than too little. I know what the teacher means, and the teacher presumably knows what she means: Get information from a book to give background for your project. Learn about conductivity. Learn about shampoo. And use an actual book. Please. What students hear, however, is, "You must check out a book whose sole subject is the exact topic of the experiment." This causes a great deal of anxiety in kids who don't have a lot of experience yet. I can usually get them set up with useful books, but I have a feeling that they go home very, very nervous that they have not fulfilled what they perceive as the assignment, which would more often than not be impossible short of highly technical books that they aren't going to be ready for until they've already made it through the class anyway.

  • A corollary to this is the complex project problem. I've gone through school, have a Masters degree, etc, and I know that the whole point of a question like, "In what different ways has the youth community addressed violence in local history, and how effective has each method been?" is to look into different sources and combine the information into a new reference--one's own paper. But young students aren't aware of this yet, and panic when they discover that there's not a single book, or a section of them, which addresses the topic. Prepare them for what material they are actually likely to find, and how you expect them to make use of it. It's our job to get them where they need to be, but you're the ones they're aiming to please, and if they know you're not expecting them to come back with five references on their exact topics, but instead with five references which will then be used to address the topics, it will save a lot of anxiety.

  • While I'm on the subject of teaching students what to expect at the library, may I take a moment to strongly recommend that teachers are familiar with it as well? I'm perpetually surprised to hear teachers say that they didn't realize simple things about the library, like the fact that they can access the catalog from the web browser, or--with their library cards--access the electronic databases from anywhere and at any time. I mean, I'll grant that librarians know a lot about the library that there's no special reason for teachers to know, but things like that? That's darned useful for students, not to mention teachers! I'm actually thinking of doing a workshop specifically for teachers who'd like to know more about what the library can help them with, because even small libraries tend to have things that are huge surprises. These are your local resources, and your students'. And they're free.

  • Reading-list-wise: Aside from questions of entertainment value (talked about a few days ago), think about availability. A large urban library will have many copies of books, but "many" isn't going to cover every eleventh grader in the city from every school looking for the same book because it's the only one on the reading list that looks interesting. Or the same five books because the school has required them all. Especially if we have to wait for the students to come in with their reading lists before we get a copy. If you want to make sure every student in the class reads a particular book, then you might want to do it during the school year and provide the books in the classroom (if your school doesn't buy those little books in bulk, you can probably work with the public library on getting copies for a discrete amount of time).

Anyway, I have tons of education rants, but those are the main library-related issues.
16 comments or Leave a comment
kizmet_42 From: kizmet_42 Date: January 31st, 2005 07:13 pm (UTC) (Link)

As a homeschooler, we use the library practically on a daily basis, if you count the fact that we use library books constantly as resources and love our personal librarian (ok, so he's my husband) for the great unexpected sources he pulls up on a moment's notice. (Today's call: easy readers and books on the Panama Canal.)

I suspect if you were to offer a "use the library class" to homeschoolers, you might get a good response. My kids kinda osmosis (how's that for a completely incomprehensible statement?) the library just because we're there so much and Dad helps them find books by taking them through the whole process (catalog, stack, shelf) of finding a book.
sabrinanymph From: sabrinanymph Date: January 31st, 2005 09:57 pm (UTC) (Link)
As a home schooled (K thru 12) student who is now a librarian, I'd say osmosis is how I learned much of my basic library skills! Of course I can't remember a time when I didn't use a library much like I can't remember a time when I didn't read, so that might have something to do with it too.

I do remember my Mother teaching me basic things like title searches or author searches (although I must confess I didn't know the difference between keyword and subject searching until I was a teaching assistant at the University of Missouri, most of my call number reading and library understanding came from use.

But I know in our community home schoolers use the public library tons, and so I would guess a class like that, if offered, would be very popular.
(no subject) - feylin17 - Expand
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: January 31st, 2005 07:28 pm (UTC) (Link)
Finally, I dont ever remember speciall library classes......does anyone else??

Hmm, maybe it was a New York thing. Once a week in the early grades (maybe grades 1-5?), the class would tromp off to the school library the same as we went off to art classes or music classes, and we'd get a story and then a little lesson on how to find a book we wanted and check it out and take care of it and so on.
duncatra From: duncatra Date: January 31st, 2005 07:55 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm in Michigan, and we did that weekly when I was in elementary school, and in addition to learning library stuff we were required to check out at least one book a week. That was a private school, but we did something similiar at least once a year via English class in the public high school.
likeafox From: likeafox Date: January 31st, 2005 10:43 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm in Ohio, and we did the same thing in elementary school. (Except, perhaps, kindergarten when we only had a half day and mostly stuck to those learn to read books.)
sonetka From: sonetka Date: January 31st, 2005 07:57 pm (UTC) (Link)
It was an Illinois thing, as well - I remember learning about the Dewey Decimal system in fourth or fifth grade (this was around 1989) and we'd also be taken to the school library and shown how to use the card catalogue and so forth. Not that you'll find one of those anymore except in a research library, but it was good enough preparation for using the computer systems - you know how to search by subject and that the author's last name comes first.
story645 From: story645 Date: January 31st, 2005 08:16 pm (UTC) (Link)
I agree it might be New York thing. Even in private school,two of them, we had at least one class where we all trekked to the library and were taught how to use it. High School, we get them all the time, usually combined with lessons on using the online databasese and citing properly. If anything, my school has an overabundance of research classes. You can opt to take three years of research oriented classess teaching you to write papers for Intel and the like instead of taking classes in technical drawing and a glorified woodshop. Research literacy is mandatory for freshman.
From: (Anonymous) Date: January 31st, 2005 08:17 pm (UTC) (Link)
It's a Montana thing too- we went every week at least through third grade, possibly longer as that's when I started being homeschooled. Also, every week one of the kids got to help the school librarian stamp everyone else's books. This was great fun, except for the fact that if you were like me (I always got about 5 books at once) it didn't leave you enough time to get your own books before you had to go stamp everyone else's.
I also vaguely recall learning about the Dewey Decimal system, but it never entirely clicked with me- mainly because: A) I knew where everything was at school, so I didn't need it, and B)The public library had computers. Slightly primitive computers, but usable for looking up books.
And I know we learned all about fiction and nonfiction, because I remember how offended I was when our librarian told me that Little House on the Prairie was fiction. It's not! I mean, of course it's got some made-up stuff in it, because, hello, by the time Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote it, I'm sure she couldn't remember every single thing that happened when she was young. But really, calling it fiction is a bit rich... /end rant
marycontraria From: marycontraria Date: January 31st, 2005 08:58 pm (UTC) (Link)
It was an Ontario thing as well, at least in the early 90s. Kind of died out with cutbacks during the mid-late 90s though... stupid. I wouldn't have a clue how to use a library, or really any desire to do so, had it not been for weekly library time during the younger grades.
From: sleepingfingers Date: January 31st, 2005 09:37 pm (UTC) (Link)
Well, it's a Texas thing too. Although I didn't have US education when I was a child, my brothers and sister do bring home books on certain days of the week, the day when their classes go to the library and each student is required to check out a book (minimum of two, I believe). In junior high school, my English class went to the library to check out books a few days over the course of the whole year, but since I was in ESL, I suppose my experience was bound to be different from others. In high school, we don't have any of the kind, unless we're going with our English class to check out an outside reading book (which normally will have to be done at the student's own time).

And I don't think they give any sort of lessons on using the library database either - unless you're taking one of those classes doing projects that will require you to make use of it. Normally, students are to discover how to use such thing on their own, and sometimes it amazes me how many of my friends don't know how to use it.
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falasta From: falasta Date: February 5th, 2005 12:08 am (UTC) (Link)
Obviously a Los Angeles (California) thing as well. I *loved* the library as a child. Our librarian's name was Mrs. Snodgrass (I kid you not), and she would read us a story, then we got to check out any book we wanted, then having "reading" time for half an hour or so every day back in the classroom.

I also remember that learning about card catalogies and the Dewey Decimal system was incredibly boring, somewhat confusing, but for some reason it stuck, so I must have been taught well! 'Course, now I need a course on how to find a book in the computer files . . .
sabrinanymph From: sabrinanymph Date: January 31st, 2005 10:03 pm (UTC) (Link)
Mostly this is just one big fat agreement. Sadly, many students don't know library skills even in college. I'm an academic reference librarian and I teach sessions within our research classes every quarter, so I get all sorts of insane questions.

You make such a valid point regarding looking for specific information inside more generalised sources. One of our assignments is for students to look in a subject encyclopedia (Encyclopedia of Genetics, Encyclopedia of Biodiversity, etc) for an article on their topic. It amazes me how many students will look for an 'Encyclopedia of Diabetes' (or the equivalent) rather than looking for a general Health Encyclopedia, even though I go over how they should think about the broader categories for their topic, every class period that I teach. It's hard for even college students to grasp that the specific information you need about a subject may be found in a book that deals with the subject as a whole!
author_by_night From: author_by_night Date: January 31st, 2005 10:18 pm (UTC) (Link)
I agree completely; and there's the fact that students don't even know library ettique. When I was in HS, not a library day passed where students would not be talking loudly. In fact, sometimes teachers did as well. I always wanted to find a way to complain about it without feeling like I was in first grade and telling on Johnny for throwing spitballs. Luckily, in college it's a little better. And I mean, I don't mind casual talking by the entrance - I mind it when two people will be side by side on two computers, jabbering loudly about a date they went on while I'm doing research, or just standing by the bookshelves in front of the books discussing shoes.
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