Ask Me Anything, Fair Use edition

“‘Is that Fair Use?’: Copyright in Schools, Conferences, and Publications” with librarian Alyssa Mandel and editorial operations specialist Erin Ryan, on March 8 at 4:00 PM Eastern/1:00 PM Pacific.

This is an Ask Me Anything, as the kids say, approach to copyright and fair use. Well, not me exactly. On March 8, I will be co-presenting a webinar with Erin Ryan, whose position as editorial operations specialist for ABC-CLIO (publisher of School Library Connection, among other things) includes permission acquisition, on the subject of copyright and fair use specifically geared for situations in which librarians may find themselves. It will also be a great source of help for you to use when working with faculty and students, too.  As a member of the AISL Publications Committee, I have been fortunate enough to have published three articles in School Library Connection and have another forthcoming in April. The committee helps AISL members find publication opportunities individually or as groups and identifies trends in the professional literature that merit our attention. Headed by Cathy Leverkus (, the Committee also includes:

  • Darla Magana:
  • Debbie Abilock:
  • Tasha Bergson-Michelson:
  • Nora Murphy: NMurphy@fsha@org
  • Christina Karvounis:
  • Sara Kelley-Mudie:

My charge to you  is to leave in the comments either direct questions you may have, or real-life examples in which issues of fair use and copyright have played a major part. I recognize that can be sticky – you may not want to directly identify elements that could open you or your institution up to negative attention, but if there is something you can share for the sake of illumination, please do so. Erin and I will be using these examples to help guide our webinar and make it as targeted as possible so it serves the greater good. 

I’ll go first! The upcoming webinar grew out of a learning experience I had when I presented a webinar in October of 2020 about incorporating art research into library skills curriculum. I created a slide presentation to illustrate my webinar: I captured screenshots of museum websites and found images of paintings and sculptures that were clearly marked as being in the public domain, and thought I was home free. Readers, I was not. The artwork itself may be in the public domain, and we were careful to give a credit line for each work based on the museums’ own guidelines, but it turns out that the explanatory text accompanying the art is copyrighted, and even though the museum websites themselves are clearly meant for free public consumption, the museums have a vested interest in ensuring the sites are presented in a positive light. Furthermore, although I was giving the webinar as a form of education its sponsor is a commercial press. What I learned from that experience is that the rules for fair use and copyright are completely different under those circumstances. Erin gave me expert guidance and opened my eyes in such a way that I exclaimed at the time I think I learned more as a presenter than I might have taught to attendees, and thus was born the upcoming webinar on copyright and fair use for librarians.

By now you may be thinking, “Uh, we already went through this – as the pandemic took root we all started navigating whether we can and cannot share read-alouds over Zoom and on YouTube; we know the Internet Archive is a wilderness; we’re only presenting stuff in the classroom only or behind the wall of our learning management systems, so what’s the fuss?”

Not so fast, y’all. 

Just this week I was presented with several scenarios in which the guidance of someone like Erin would have been invaluable. Try these on and see if they sound familiar:

•Our middle school students are recording podcasts for the NPR Student Podcast Challenge. Right now, those podcasts are within school confines only, and they are being created under educational auspices. However, should one or more of our students be among the lucky winners, their work would then be shared with a wider audience. Any music, sounds, or other elements created by someone other than the students would be subject to copyright laws. The official rules spell this out on the website:

 “Entries will be disqualified if they contain materials that appear to infringe copyrights, trademarks, or other intellectual property rights of others. Songs or chants made up by Entrants are acceptable as long as they are performed live on the recording and Entrant notes in Entrant’s submission form that the song/chant was composed by Entrant. By submitting an entry, you affirm that you own all the rights to any and all musical content in your submission, including but not limited to: the right to reproduce, distribute, and publicly perform.”

•A librarian friend at another school asked about whether music played in schools needs to be (or could be) licensed in the same way that Swank licenses movies for situations like on-campus movie nights that are more social than educational. Friend specifically asked about music used in dance classes and played in classrooms. The information I found suggests only music played in public places like a reception area would need to be licensed, but I am asking for Erin’s help in addressing this during the webinar.

•Recently I gave a presentation to members of a branch of the local county government about public research databases available to residents of the state of Florida. One member asked if I knew of any sources for things like bird calls and video clips of nature. I said I would look around, and then went on to say that I wasn’t sure how copyright and fair use would affect them. They’re a branch of government, and definitely a not-for-profit, but if they charge a fee to cover materials in a public program they sponsor, or use an image in an advertisement, I don’t think it’s as clear-cut as one might imagine. 

•Many of us have given, or plan to give, presentations or poster sessions at conferences. Such presentations are usually illustrated by some kind of accompanying image – a full slide presentation, or even a single drawing or short passage of text. A conference clearly seems to be an educational setting, but if the conference charges an attendance fee or the presenter receives an honorarium for his or her time, then the fair use waters become more murky. 

So drop your comments, questions, and observations below, and join Erin and me on March 8 for the lowdown on what is covered, what is not, and how to find out more information to help us all navigate this more clearly as professionals. Your students, faculty, and administrators look to you for guidance on these questions, so here’s a way to be better-prepared with answers.

The Way of the Ninja

Katsukawa Shunsho, Nakamura Sukegoro II as Aso no Matsukawa, 1768. Woodblock print. Art Institute of Chicago.

I have two sons, one who is twelve and one aged eight. “Ninja” as a term gets thrown around a lot in my house: “You are a total ninja in the kitchen, Mom.” “Get out of my room before I go ninja on you!” “When I grow up I’m going to be a pilot. Or a ninja. Or both.” You get the idea. Cluttering up the costume closet (what, you don’t have a costume closet? We’re the only ones?) are little black balaclava masks, several sets of plastic nunchaku, and at least one pair of those split-toed socks. They are not real ninjas . . . but you can be! Without, you know, all the killing.

In fact, real ninjas in medieval Japan were employed more often as information-gathering agents, or to spread disinformation where that was useful, than as assassins, although that aspect was certainly true as needed. Black pajamas are very slimming, but you don’t need those either, for the goal of the ninja was to blend into ordinary society and work from within – your cardigan sweater will do just fine.

If you have limited paid databases due to budget constraints, below are some terrific resources to help you track down requests from faculty or students without depending on the kindness of strangers. All of us at AISL are prepared to send the occasional article to one another in answer to a request on the listserv, but you’re a librarian – your superpower is in tracking down information in places that regular humans fail to consider. Remember, real ninja were collectors of intelligence, able to blend in with regular people, and that’s definitely you so you can do this. At the very least, consider it a professional challenge to try at least one or two of these. Hone your skills as sharply as a ninjato blade and prepare to cut through reference requests all day long. Some of these resources will no doubt be familiar to many of you, but other approaches might surprise you.

Unpaywall: a browser extension that will reveal whether a requested article is available for free. Once installed, the small lock icon located in a tab to the right of your screen will turn green if the article is located for free anywhere online. A lot of us overlook the value of a straight-up Google search for an article, when plenty of resources are actually out there for free, even the ones that are of a more weighty, academic type.

Remote access to public library databases: your state library system may provide remote access to databases either by detecting your IP location or with a library card barcode number. I realize that it may give you pause to use your personal access to source database articles. Some library systems may be willing to issue a library card to your school. You may also wish to encourage your students to use their own library card numbers if they have them; if their families pay taxes in the state, they are entitled to use its library collections whether it is for public school homework or private school homework.

The Library of Congress does offer free remote access to a great many periodical titles. The link provided here takes the user to a page of subject areas – pick your area of research and browse what’s available remotely. Links at right will connect to the periodical itself, and users can search by date of publication for the exact article they want.

Contact the scholar: scholars are allowed to share their articles privately with you themselves. They are generally not paid for scholarly articles that appear in peer-reviewed academic journals, and they are usually thrilled to be asked to share their work. If you have an author’s name, contact him or her directly via email or phone at his or her college or university, and ask for an offprint or digital copy of the article. You have absolutely nothing to lose by asking, and the scholar in question may send you other material that  provides you with more or better information.

A note about faculty or student requests: often it happens that a student or a colleague insists that he or she needs this exact article or the world will collapse into a heap of ashes, metaphorically speaking. Literally or otherwise, this is rarely true. Often a published scholar has written several articles on the same subject and one that you can find will do as nicely as the one you can’t. Search the resources that you do have using the author’s name and some useful keywords and see what full-text results come up. You may end up finding a nearly identical article, published with minor changes, for a different audience or perhaps an even better one.

WorldCat: literally a union catalog of the world and operated by the OCLC, WorldCat covers books, DVDs, CDs, and articles. It returns results ranked by proximity to a ZIP code that the user enters, so you can search a nearby library, or one in a city you plan to visit, or where you have privileges as a result of being an alumnus or some other circumstance. Almost any publicly funded library – including college libraries that receive state funds – will allow you to access electronic or print materials if you are on-site, so at the very least a researcher could scan a print article or download an electronic one.

Hathitrust: an online digital library of millions of full-text books, many of them with their illustrations intact. Because these resources are out of the public domain, which is why they are free, the material tends to be older. However, it means this is a particularly useful resources for books that may be out of print.

Directory of Open Access Journals: more than 12,000 open-access journal titles. These are high-quality, peer-reviewed, scholarly journals, and the DOAJ provides free access to the full text. These journals are valuable enough to be indexed by many major database vendors, but they are out there free of charge for anyone to use. Dive in!

These suggestions are limited to sources for periodical articles and digitized books. There are sources such as Researchgate and Humanities Commons, that I have purposely left out of this blog post, because they involve a component of networking amongst scholars that was beyond the scope of today’s topic. If you have a favorite free resource for high-quality reference material, please feel free to be the ninja I know you are and leave a link in the comments so we can all benefit from the intelligence you’ve gathered.



Well, as usual I’m a bit late with this, but I can’t say if anyone is more or less inclined to read it on the 25th than the 23rd. I sincerely hope, actually, that all my peers in school libraryland are taking a well-deserved rest and reading something unrelated to work!

If you’re not, however, this is for you. As a matter of fact, it’s about what and how librarians read and model reading behavior, sort of.

I started library school in 2003, in a graduate program at the University of South Florida that was already at that time almost 100 percent online, but required appearing in person periodically at a rate of about once every month or so. During these class meetings I noticed many of my schoolmates sorted themselves into categories with portmanteau-style titles. (In retrospect, maybe this is a form of taxonomy? Like they were giving themselves their own Dewey classes or subheadings?) It made sense that we were tracked into classes based on career goals: medical librarianship, law, business, reference, elementary school, etc. but these particular titles went well past that. Some were cute, some were puzzling, some seemed unnecessary, but it ramped up to the point where I started to see custom T-shirts. I’m not kidding. Here are some examples I spotted.

Cybrarian: I confess I flinched a bit when I heard this, as it made me think of the Borg. In 2003 this may have felt cutting-edge, but given the shape contemporary librarianship has taken I hope we are safely past the point where this is a useful designation. (Unless of course we really are all replaced by robots.)

Guybrarian: It’s true, women are a majority in this profession, but just as there are male nurses who are still just called “nurses,” I’m not sure I can condone this either. Since I’m a woman, perhaps I’m underqualified to judge. Men, opine in the comments below!

Gaybrarian: I guess it would depend on your subject specialization.

That’s just a sample, but it brings me to today’s subject, however circuitously: Mombrarian. Feel free to swap in Dadbrarian, Auntbrarian, LegalGuardianbrarian, Neighborbrarian, etc.

I have two children, both boys, aged 10 and 6. I get this a lot: “Wow, your kids must be supersmart! Do they read, like, all the time? I bet they do. Have they read all the books in the library already?”

Sigh. A year or two ago I realized my children spend way too much time staring at screens and I hate it. As I have admitted here before, I love TV. I LOVE IT. But, I also love to read (duh!) and I have found that both types of media have contributed to what I hope is my overall cultural literacy, so I don’t think television is the menace to society some people make it out to be.

When I was a child I caught my mother reading all the time, and we went to the library often. It was quite close to my house, so as I got older I was allowed to walk there by myself and bring home anything I could carry. I was a very regular patron at that library till I graduated high school, and I visited when I was home from college too. How, I wondered, could I instill that in my own children? Here are two perfect little patrons-to-be, ready to be molded into the ideal library users, and I had somehow failed them. Don’t get me wrong: we made regular visits to the public library, the older one helps me shelve in my library sometimes, we take the little one to story time. And yet, every time we’d enter the local branch, they bypassed all the books and made a beeline for the computers.

I’m also teaching the older one to cook, like really cook, with knives and a hot stove and all the dangerous awesome things, as my mother did with me. And one night when we were making eggplant Parmesan together, it hit me. I wasn’t modeling good library behavior, not really. I prefer to read fiction on my iPhone, but what my children see is Mommy staring at a screen. Thus, in the interest of their growth and development I have mostly taken myself back to paper books. Furthermore, I had tried introducing them to books I thought they would like – I am rather vain about my skill in matching books to readers – or things I hoped they would like, because I loved them as a girl, and I just wasn’t getting it right. Rather than base my suggestions on what I as their mother wanted them to embrace, I actually did the good old judgment-free patron interview with both of my kids. It worked. Older Boy is racing through all the James Patterson middle school books, because he loves to read things in a series just like I do, and Younger Boy has read every book in the local branch about insects and snakes because he wants to be the world’s first entomologist/herpetologist.

We’re on vacation now in Cincinnati visiting my husband’s family, and before we left I had developed a nagging question about religion I just couldn’t answer with any database to which I had access. Not only is one of the world’s finest classics libraries located at my other alma mater, the University of Cincinnati; it is also the site of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. This city is like a library jackpot for a seeker of anything related to ancient philosophy or religion. I spent two days researching in the Klau Library and I finally had my answer. And here’s a second Hanukkah miracle: the boys came to visit me there, and read some children’s books together from the fourth floor at while I worked, without asking where the computers were.

It is this Mombrarian’s hope that as they grow older they will also develop nagging questions with no easy answers, and that their first instinct will take them to whichever is the best library for the task: it may yet be full of paper books, or it may be full of helpful Cybrarians.


Summer research revisited

Many of you were kind enough to inquire individually about being able to examine one of the reports I write during the summer, about which I made a blog post here. I was able to secure permission from the company for whom I work as a freelancer, though I did have to blur out some details for privacy reasons. It was an interesting challenge to prepare it for presentation here! I am given a standard template in which to compose the reports, and it’s a Word doc, so posting it here would have been virtually impossible. I took a few weeks to mull it over and discussed the problem with our instructional technologist, Ryan Kinser.

We agreed the best approach was to save the paper as a PDF and turn the pages into JPGs. I did that, but ran into some glitches: some pages wouldn’t load, and the file sizes were too large in some cases. After several attempts, I finally decided to compress the PDF size and re-save it as JPGs, and pa-dah! That did the trick. Thus, for you, the images will not be as crisp and sharp as the ones I receive. I am given images that are so finely resolved that I can almost count the threads in the canvas, so other than the smell of the paint and wood I do not feel as though mine is not an equivalent experience to a personal examination. (After all, the person reading your X-rays isn’t looking at a patient either, and no one ever expresses surprise when a diagnosis is correctly made from a picture.)

If a PDF is more comfortable for you to read, I am posting one here:


Among the images below I offer some commentary here and there to explain my process and some quirks of art-historical writing. Just this week I was exploring discipline-specific writing with some English classes and working with my own art history students on their term papers: the oddest thing about writing about art is that it was made in the past but the viewer is seeing it now, so the way verb tenses flow in such a paper seems strange at first but makes sense when one considers that reality.

So, as promised, here it is! Of all the ones I’ve ever written, this one was my favorite. I’m a sucker for still life (especially with food!) and I love a good mystery AND a happy ending, so read on and enjoy. Let me know if you have questions or comments, and many thanks for your interest. I am blushingly gratified so many of you were curious enough to ask. Take away from this anything useful to pass on to your own paper-writers. Isn’t that why we’re here in Blogland?

We start with an introductory page, of course:








then a précis, to define the scope of the problem, followed by a short biography of the artist. I try to keep that to 3/4 of a page, unless there’s a compelling reason to do otherwise. In terms of the writing process, I like to do the biography when I’m not feeling inspired, or waiting for a book to arrive, that kind of thing. Sometimes the Muse visits, sometimes she doesn’t, but a biography requires very little other than some facts and exposition, and I tell my students that to help them organize their own workflow. Start with the grunt work, wait for a spark to ignite and you’ll be ready when it does.









Next is a visual examination of the work: front, back, details, signature, flaws like cracks or voids in the paint. I had to blur some details, as I mention above, for privacy.




























After we’ve walked through the painting (or sculpture, or print, photograph or drawing), I provide a bibliography of sources. It is a true bibliography, not a works cited, and you will notice the formatting is somewhat altered to account for the aesthetics of the report. Composed in NoodleTools, by the way. (That should be a tagline: “Good enough for million-dollar works of art, good enough for your history paper!”)








I am at liberty to alter the components of the report to fit the situation at hand – I wouldn’t approach a Roman sculpture the way I do a presumed 18th century painting, but here in the case of a known artist, it’s customary to explore his or her overall oeuvre to see if there are useful points of comparison – is this example typical of the artist’s known style, or not? And it must be an apples-to-apples comparison – not much value in comparing still life to landscape or landscape to portraiture. Below I include typical works by the artist in a similar genre. There are live links included in the credit line to allow the reader (alas, not as a JPG as here) to go directly to the works held in museums to see the evidence firsthand.






















And right around page 17, above right, is where things start gettin’ real, as the kids say. I point out that the works I reproduced are not quite as similar as they could be to the subject work I was examining, especially in the case of the oranges in the second painting.








So then I had to consider other options. I won’t go into too many details – this is a very long post! – but it all comes down to search terms. I typed a new combination into a Google search bar and whoa, did I get results. That’s all it took, and then it was full steam ahead after a few pretty sleepless nights. I knew it wasn’t a Melendez, but I couldn’t prove otherwise strongly enough for my own comfort until I had that last piece of evidence. (And who knew there was a Museum of Bread Culture in Germany?! I loved this piece of research.)





























The conclusion wraps up all the points of comparison based on the evidence given, not so very different from your standard five-paragraph English essay.








The last page is actually a disclaimer, which I will not reproduce here for  legal reasons, but that is one particular aspect that doesn’t usually appear in a standard sophomore essay, wink.






She doesn’t look like a librarian

It’s nearly Halloween, a holiday I greet with a delight other people reserve for Christmas eve. As such, ‘tis the season for costumes and my mind turns to the subject of dress in general: what we wear on the outside is so often a reflection of how we feel on the inside, or rather, how we ought to feel or hope that others perceive how we feel.

I’m a librarian. You’re a librarian too, or are library-oriented, let’s say. As such, you are no doubt acquainted with the standard Hollywood shorthand for “Librarian”: tweed skirt, white blouse, pearl necklace, horn-rimmed glasses, up-do, clickety-clack high-heeled shoes. I have no idea what the male equivalent is, but I’m imagining it involves a sweater vest. And then there’s the inevitable variation, Fantasy Librarian: tight tweed skirt, low-cut white blouse, just-woke-up up-do, very high-heeled shoes, et cetera. (Gentlemen, do they make low-cut sweater vests?)

I don’t dress like that, and neither do you. I have dressed like a lot of other things, but not that. At ODA we have a firmly established tradition of costumes for occasions throughout the year. During the week leading up to Homecoming, there are theme days of every stripe: Sports Day; Mythology Day; Pajama Day; Disney Character Day; Opposite Day; 70s Day; 80s Day; 90s Day. For a yearly event signaling there are 100 days left before the seniors graduate, we have a dinner with speeches, again all in themed costumes. There’s Halloween. There are days when we wear school colors, days on which we are encouraged to look like Walking Dead characters to support the science department’s zombie-related day-long project in the fall, and so on. Thus in the eight years I have been here, I have been Princess Jasmine three times:








dressed as myself during high school four or five times:







and been a Hindu goddess at least once.







I did actually come to school in a tweed skirt/eyeglasses/up-do combination one time for Nerd Day, but no one recognized it was a costume, to my crushing disappointment.



It’s not that I wouldn’t like to wear a nice skirt, pretty blouse and some fancy shoes, it’s that I can’t. We can’t – I’m speaking for you here. Frankly I’d rather be here at this desk looking like Juliette Binoche from Chocolat, but it’s not practical. Librarianship is way more physical than people envision. We all bemoan the fact that no one seems to understand what librarians really do, and as cerebral as its reputation may be, there is absolutely a physical component that most of the laity don’t recognize. Some of us have assistants, student helpers and staff members in our libraries, but many of us are solo practitioners and outside of Madam Pince, Hogwarts’ librarian, our books don’t shelve themselves, do they? Tight skirt means no bending over, white blouse is going to be dusty by mid-day, and forget those shoes. It’s flats all the way up on that library stool, or squatting down to retrieve a lost book, or chasing across campus to the next bibliography workshop.

But it’s not all grimness and drudgery! Many librarians have real style, it’s just not the style the general public expects. Need proof? Take a look at us bloggers! What I’ve noticed almost universally amongst this group of which I am proud to be a member is that we all seem to wear pretty sensible shoes, our hairstyles are flattering but low-maintenance, and it’s in our accessories that we take the greatest pride of expression: lots of canvas bags with clever sayings and craft-show jewelry. By way of market research last year I requested photos of my AISL pals from across the land, and in the interest of preserving privacy have elected not to post them all here, but: I’m right – virtually every single shot shows someone who is dressed stylishly but ready for whatever mayhem befalls her, with a little dash of personality at the earlobes.

I’m inviting you to post your best Library Look right here in the comments (men are especially encouraged!), and maybe we can start a movement in which Hollywood portrays “Librarian” correctly. I’m not enraged about this – it isn’t a rant piece; I’m just putting a call out there to my peeps to correct some assumptions about how to recognize us in the wild, so to speak.

I’ll start:


Reaping What You Sow


Teaching, they say, is a long game – all that work, and then the payoff that eventually comes happens in college or when they’re at their first job. You have to be satisfied knowing you yourself may never actually see the results of your labor. Classroom teachers are sometimes afforded the chance to see lessons they have taught played out during exam time, or to see the light bulb go on when solving for X finally makes sense, but to a large degree teaching is a leap of faith that the seeds you sow now are going to germinate and eventually bear fruit.

This week, I harvested a basketful! As you may know, here at Out-of-Door we are on two campuses very far removed from one another. Our youngsters, PK-5, are on the beautiful island of Siesta Key, and our 6-12 graders are in the shiny new ’burbs of Lakewood Ranch, a full 17 miles inland. To ensure continuity across the program, we meet as a full faculty at least twice a year, and individual departments may meet more frequently than that to smooth out the curriculum and create a rational approach to scaffolding the learning.

At one such meeting a couple of years ago, I found myself in conversation with Sarah Bryan, the fourth and fifth grade history teacher. She was about to launch a project with her fifth grade classes about the Revolutionary War, and she wanted to instill some age-appropriate research and documentation skills in her students. I told her about the wonder that is NoodleTools and she lit up. I further told her that our site license is actually for grades 5-12, so if she wanted her students to use it, they were welcome to do so. But how to effectuate the training? She had never used it herself, and neither had the staff in the Lower School library. Dr. Kelly Rose, our media specialist, and her trusty sidekick, tech teacher Glynis Miller, have been very diligent in teaching the kids that they must find appropriate resources for their projects and cite them correctly. So that groundwork had been laid for me long ago. Asking these two busy colleagues to take on another task when their days are so crushingly full already seemed like punishment, and I absolutely wasn’t going to let Sarah sail that sea alone. And – librarians are waiting with bated breath for this – in no way was I going to pass up this golden opportunity to sing the gospel of correctly formatted Works Cited pages.

So I arranged to take some time out of my upper school schedule, and I went and taught it to fifth grade myself. I got Sarah’s rosters in advance, so I set up all the individual folders for the whole grade, plus a sense of what the project entailed. I put my laptop in my polka dot messenger bag and set off for the swaying palms of Siesta Key one day last December. The fifth graders caught onto NoodleTools right away, and all credit to Sarah – she kept them at it the whole year through. By checking my access logs I was able to see that users had logged in regularly for the rest of the school year. Totally worth the one-day investment for that fact alone, right?

But here’s the coolest part: those fifth graders became sixth graders. And that means that now they’re on my campus. Earlier this week the sixth grade science teacher asked if she could have a research lesson on some science materials in the databases, and could I teach them how to cite those too? Hahahaha, I said to myself. Watch this!

Other than a handful of newbies just joining Out-of-Door this year, every one of those one-time fifth graders from Mrs. Bryan’s class were experienced Noodlers, and after a brief refresher, they all logged right in and starting citing the sources they found from their science research.

This week (September! Mrs. Bryan is ramping up her game!) I went back to fifth grade with my polka-dot messenger bag and Noodled the Revolutionary War again, and next fall I expect exactly the same glorious result – a class full of experienced citers of sources, ready to take on the greater rigor of middle school right away. If that’s not satisfying, I don’t know what is.

Tales from the Front: Real Research

I write research papers for money. No, no not like that! Not one of those horrible paper mills where you can purchase your English grade with a credit card. The shame! Rather, I spend every summer vacation (er, “vacation”) authenticating art for a private company that provides expert opinions to insurance underwriters, auction houses, galleries and museums, and so forth. This is right up my alley: I have sharply honed research skills, as do you all; years of experience in art history; plus I like to write – it’s the trifecta of awesome and I know how lucky I got when I fell into this opportunity. For security reasons I can’t discuss details of individual cases here, but if you’re curious, ask away and I’ll answer what I can in the comments or in a private message. (Come on, you know you want to!) I do this on a freelance basis, and am one of several writers who work for this firm.

For all of you who have ever gotten the eye-roll combined with the “Oh my GAWD, Librarian, when am I ever going to use this again, please go back to reading your books,” this is for you. I realize that most students will not grow up to write research papers for a living, but I believe there are useful lessons here for everyone. Also, I hate mentioning this, but it does seem to matter, so . . . for some reason students are way more inclined to take me seriously when I mention that I get paid to do this, as in, “Oh, well, if it was for money I guess I would be super-careful with my notecards and bibliography and deadlines.” At which point I give them Teacher Face and say, “Is your grade worth less than money? Is your integrity worth less than a few months’ allowance?” Then I raise one eyebrow meaningfully and continue on. Practice doing this in the mirror before school starts.

A lot of my process will seem very familiar to any student or teacher in a general sense, though some aspects are peculiar to art history as a discipline. Like any student researcher, I receive my assignment, note the deadline, ask for any clarification, and then begin. Where? Say it with me, everybody: “Wikipedia.” Because as we all know, it’s a fine place to begin, in order to get correct spellings, birth and death dates, a general overview, some useful search terms, pertinent-looking sources. And then that’s enough Wikipedia!

Then, I check to see if I have adequate resources at my disposal. Art history is especially dependent on printed books, so I look in WorldCat to see what’s available nearby. On one occasion I declined a project because there was not a single book in the whole state I could use. If I were a student, I’d ask the teacher to change my subject slightly. In my case, I asked for a different task and was cheerfully given one.

Next, I open up a working document and start taking notes into it. I have really terrible handwriting but I type like a house on fire, so this way I can work fast and stay legible. I write down every little thing that occurs to me into that file. Nobody sees it but me, and I can cut and paste as much as I want. Better to leave in too much and cut later, rather than overlooking something that proves essential further out and suffer through trying to track it down. Do I document sources along the way? You bet I do!

Then, I search for relevant articles. For authentication purposes these aren’t always that useful, but sometimes articles can tell me if something was recently sold, if there has been a big shift in scholarly thinking, maybe a work was stolen or declared a forgery. I’d hate to NOT read a relevant article and miss some important piece of news like that, so at least skimming a results page in a database is worth it.

That brings me to the bibliography, which is where it gets really interesting for you and me. The bibliography isn’t just a way to prove to your teacher that you worked hard, credited your sources and didn’t plagiarize – it’s a way to give other scholars who read your work a chance to examine the same sources you used and come to the same or different conclusion. No ninth grader can imagine a circumstance in which that would happen to him or her. Well, it happened to me: Two years ago I was asked to a take over a project someone else had abandoned. I was given her notes and the same reference materials she received for the assignment, but I discovered she left absolutely no record of where she had gotten her preliminary information. Imagine my surprise (or lack of it) when I discovered the biography the previous researcher had submitted was lifted virtually in toto from a not-very-credible website. So, I cleared up the problem of plagiarism by rewriting the biography from scratch using more authoritative sources, then set about finding the right materials for the authentication report and documenting them correctly. For my bibliographies I use MLA format, since it’s widely accepted in the humanities, and I let NoodleTools do the heavy lifting.

It’s rare, but there are times when these works of art are referred to in matters of legal consequence: divorce proceedings, insurance claims, and inheritance, for example. So, it’s essential that whatever I use to prove that something is real (or not real, as is the case in about 75 percent of the reports I write) is pretty airtight. I don’t expect to ever be called to the witness stand, but if I do, I sure hope that the presiding judge doesn’t look at me and ask how I formulated my expert opinion and I stammer out, “Uh, I l-l-l- I looked it up on Wiki . . . Wikipedia, your Honor.” Nope. So, a solid bibliography, properly formatted, and everyone wins.

My final piece of advice is for the procrastinators. We’ve all heard this: “I work better when I’m under pressure. I’m awesome at all-nighters!” You are not. You are laboring under a teenage delusion that Mountain Dew is some kind of magic potion that makes you write like David McCullough. Not so! You need to leave yourself some time for serendipitous discovery, and waiting till the last minute does not allow that. I spent four solid days this week researching what I thought was a painting of David slaying Goliath, and about three minutes before the library closed for the day today, I read something that made me realize it was probably Achilles killing Hector. If this report were due tomorrow instead of next month, I would miss my deadline and not collect my check. If I were in school, I would miss my deadline and fail my class, something that will surely hit home with all but the most callous and unreachable students.

So, feel free to pluck any useful tidbits from these experiences when you are teaching research skills and bibliography to your charges this year. If real-life examples help you drive home your point, take what you need and let me know how it goes!

The Purge, or I Love CSV Files So Much I Want to Marry Them (sorry Brian!)

With apologies to those of you who may serve in *twelve-month positions . . . IT’S SUMMER! WHOOPEE! *flings hat towards sky and does happy dance.*

(OK, to be honest, I do check work email at least once a day, and I’m actually awaiting a call from the facilities manager alerting me to when I’ll be able to shift the entire collection into new bookcases before the start of school, so I’m not totally checked out. Still.)

So, how did I work towards this oasis of delight, and what am I doing to prepare for the autumn that will inexorably arrive? Many of you, I’m sure, have a year-end routine, so at this point feel free to either compare yours to mine or dismiss this post entirely and grab your summer reading instead.

I didn’t do inventory this year – given that I’m moving the entire collection for the third time, I figured I had handled each and every book in our library quite enough and like Scarlett O’Hara, I’ll think about that another day. I also handled the usual renewals and cleared my desk of personal effects – I’d hate for my Jane Austen bobble-head doll to go walking this summer. As for the rest, here are some helpful hints for users of Follett, Questia, NoodleTools and other common library resources. The real lowdown: CSV files. I love them. I loooove them. Each May like clockwork I walk into my work-bestie’s office and declare once again my love for CSV files, because they save me so much boring, repetitive data entry work.

The first step is purging, hence the title. I begin by purging all the seniors from Follett using its global update criteria feature. Then I increment the sixth through eleventh grades upwards using the same global update. I’m sure everyone has a variant of this, but mine has a peculiar twist: our lower school is on another campus on Siesta Key, and although we both use Follett as our LMS, we have it divided into a lower school catalog and a Middle/Upper school catalog. Instead of adding the entire incoming sixth grade one at a time by hand, the lower school librarian exported the fifth grade patrons as a .out file and emailed it to me, and with the magic of CSV files I was able to update their patron info and then simply import them into my side of Follett. Poof! Welcome, sixth grade! How did I do it? Keep reading.

One of the best things I have done for myself as the Questia administrator is divide our upper school users by class level instead of adding them all as one massive group. Although we only have about 350 ninth through twelfth graders, it’s much easier to deal with their accounts if they are divided into smaller packages. For example, I can easily delete all the graduating seniors, increment the other students upwards into their respective grade levels, and add the new ninth graders coming up from eighth grade. It’s very easy to extract data from Follett and turn it into a CSV file and use that to bulk-upload all the new users. Here’s the trick, because Follett will give you a .out file, which I defy you to open and use. Save the .out file to your desktop, manually change the file extension to .csv (it will ask you if you really mean to do this – you do. Forge bravely ahead!), and then you can open it in Excel and manipulate the data fields any way you want, adding or subtracting whatever columns you need to in order to conform to the template for uploading users.

Armed with CSV files at the ready, you can update or add NoodleTools folders easily too – the possibilities start to look endless. Stop yourself before you discover that it’s July and you’re still looking for ways to exploit CSV’s in every aspect of your library life.

*Twelve-month librarians, do you have a particular routine you attend to in the slower summer months? Here’s your chance: weigh in and share your approach, and ease your burden by sharing your tale of woe with your cohort – I promise virtual tea and actual sympathy.

Less stress in the MS

The tension is so palpable you can practically see it in the air: it’s mid-May, and that can only mean one thing . . . it’s exam season.

“Stress” is perhaps a too-general term. Some students are exhibiting a disinterest so pronounced it’s akin to a state of coma; others are verging on hysteria. This month I consider ways to help all parties (yourself as well!), including some ways to get involved as the librarian. I spoke to my own middle school advisees as well as our school’s director of academic services and counseling, Melinda Lloyd, for some expert information. I also consulted our wellness coach, Kelly Lavieri, for some physical and nutritional advice. (Don’t we always encourage the students to seek expert opinions?)

I have it on good authority that it’s not your 7th grade history final that gets you into Harvard, so why the agony? Predictably, my bunch reported that they still worry about getting a bad grade. I’m assuming that it’s parental disappointment driving that particular fear, along with perhaps a sense of failure that all humans would sooner avoid. Interestingly, another student said that it was the issue of having so many all at once. One student said aloud that he didn’t think they were that bad, and appreciated being let out at noon for five days – the kids have one final each morning for five days, with Memorial Day in the middle, and go home each day after a brief review session for the next exam.

And that right there is exactly what Ms. Lloyd said to me: one’s attitude towards the exam goes a very long way towards affecting the stress level of the test taker. Research, she said, (yay research!) suggests that the way we view stress changes our response to it. If we look at exams as a threat, we are pessimistic and feel no control over our situation. If we see exams as a challenge, we can control our approach to them and feel more optimistic as a result.

So, how to equip our youngsters with the right attitude during this fraught time in their lives? Start by validating their feelings, Ms. Lloyd said, and then move on to ways in which the kids can take control and feel as though they’re in charge of their destinies. In my group, we talked about ways in which they combat stress, so here are the words right from their very own mouths:

  • “I prepare and organize notes,” said one enterprising and with-it student. This is a way of taking that control Ms. Lloyd mentioned.
  • Sleep, said another. Our wellness coach echoed this. Good sleep is vital to good brain function.
  • Eat well, they said (while munching on donuts a parent provided for a snack.) This is true: good nutrition also supports good brain function, which the wellness coach also pointed out. But, said Ms. Lloyd, “They know what to say, but they don’t follow through with their behavior.”
  • “Punch a pillow,” said a tiny but fierce girl. “Swimming,” said another. Another student reported she likes to ride her Penny board around the neighborhood to relieve stress too, and I have a young equestrienne in the group who rides her horse to de-stress – physical activity is good for body and mind, and a dose of nature is healthy too.
  • “Dream about summer,” one said at last. Way to keep your eyes on the prize, kid!

In the library we don’t have horses, a pool, or a half-pipe for gnarly thrashing, but here’s what we do have:

It’s an office–supply paradise here. Notecards, a hole punch, highlighters, glue sticks, you name it – if a kid needs it for preparing flashcards or exam notes, we’ve got it. Tons of tables for working in groups, too, and some private rooms for group study like vocabulary review. I try to schedule the rooms fairly with a sign-up sheet so they can study together the morning of the test without disturbing others.

Crafty Corner – this is new this year. I bought some coloring books, including something called Intrepid Coloring: Adult Coloring for Burly Men. We’ll have scented markers (remember those?) and colored pencils. I’m also going to set up some yarn and needles, and have a few projects already cast-on so users can just focus on knitting meditatively instead of choosing a pattern, casting on stitches, etc. There will be a kitten jigsaw puzzle – who doesn’t love kittens? – and our rather fancy inlaid chess board gets a lot of use, so I’m putting out some extra cheap chess sets so more people can de-stress with the Queen’s Gambit.

Caffeine – We have a Keurig machine here in the Student Center but I still feel conflicted about sending 12-year-olds zooming into the stratosphere with dark roast. I know they walk into school with Starbucks cups, but I don’t have to enable them. I may limit a library-sponsored basket of coffee pods to upper school only.

Healthy snacks – to be consumed off-premises, obviously! Coach Kelly, our wellness guru, told me that protein-rich snacks are key to good brain function, and shared this fascinating fact: just taking a sip of water before any intellectual task can actually improve brain function measurably.  So, bottled water too, and ample recycling bins strategically placed to avoid the usual stuff-the-bottle-in-the-reference-section response.

Take care of them, and that palpable tension will be tamed. Less stress for you too!



Tips and Tricks for EBSCO Discovery Users

Here at Out-of-Door I took the plunge and upgraded from EBSCO’s Integrated Search to their Discovery service in 2010. This coincided exactly with the gestation and arrival of my younger son, and the processes did feel rather similar. They involved monumental changes, they took a long period of time, caused me to feel both elation and uncertainty, and in the intervening years I have never been sorry I undertook the endeavor.

Enough sentimentality and metaphor! Onto practical matters. For those of you who are using EBSCO Discovery Service (EDS), I hope these help. If you’re not, maybe these tidbits will make it seem more feasible. If you see things I’ve overlooked or have a better way to do it, please share in the comments below.

  • Let’s start with the most basic of all aspects: price. It is the most expensive single item in my budget. I find it to be worth every penny in terms of the firepower it brings to research, and we are able to purchase it through the MISBO consortium at a very substantial discount. You can add or subtract EBSCO packages to the base price of the EDS architecture, so there is some flexibility in what you’re buying.
  • Remember to update your local collection within EDS periodically. When you add new books or other materials to your collection, these items do not update automatically in EDS. I export my entire catalog and then upload it via FTP about once every three months to ensure that new books will appear in an EDS search. It takes about 24 hours for the update to take.
  • Check periodically to make sure it’s really federating everything you want. Sometimes the link between EDS and other subscriptions you have set up inside it will expire, and then you will not see results from databases to which you subscribe. Our Gale Academic OneFile link expired earlier this fall and it seriously impacted my results. If the link is expired, simply get in touch with their help desk and they can fix it almost immediately. By the way, one of my favorite things about EBSCO is their customer service and support. Their tech help desk is staffed by software geniuses who must have psychology minors – their people skills are spectacular and they’ve solved every problem I have laid at their feet.
  • Managing your results. The chief complaint is that holy cow, does it return a LOT of results, so many that students’ eyes cross at the thought of sifting through 3,743,289 results for a basic search on Shakespeare. Here are my favorite strategies:
    • Make sure to set up your relevancy rankings so that your own local holdings appear at the top. This highlights items in your own collection, can boost circulation numbers, and at the very least gives you an opportunity to talk to students directly if they come to you to find those resources for a project. Face time AND a circ boost, win!
    • This is crucial: at an administrative level, turn off the databases that are irrelevant to you. Many of the results you are getting are for things that are indexed but not available to you in full-text form. It is entirely possible your users will want those results, but I find that mine really want things they can actually read, so knock out some of that metadata and your results will be much more satisfying for most users.
    • On that same note, every month or so you are informed via email that EBSCO has added this or that (or all of these!) database/s to what is being indexed. It really pays to visit your administrative settings frequently to turn off whatever has just been added if you don’t want that metadata to appear in your results page. “Citation creep” is real!
    • When you demonstrate EDS to users, remind them they can filter their results themselves quite narrowly. You can filter for full-text only and you can filter by the type of publication. This means you can filter out all those pesky book reviews that so often clutter up the results page. I’m sure our users need book reviews once in a while, but I find that generally most of them don’t. You can also filter very tightly for date range: only newspapers from 1960-65 on the subject of the Cold War, for example. With advanced searching techniques, even narrower results are possible, such as those by a particular author or in a certain publication.
  • Your audience. Is it suitable for a middle school audience? That depends on the databases you decide to federate into it. If you truly federate everything, then there will be results presented that may be unsuitable for middle school readers. I don’t mean in terms of content, although certainly that is very likely, but rather it may give them things they can’t successfully read and interpret. The user can limit the search by content provider to narrow it to age-appropriate databases, but that’s only possible after an initial search returns results to be filtered. It is possible to search within selected publications, such as Calliope or Highlights, but that kind of defeats the purpose of a discovery service.

As always, feel free to get in touch with me at if you’ve got specific questions, and I really encourage other users to post their tips and tricks in the comments down below.