This post is about books

This post is about books. Sort of. It’s about The Book. Yes, That Book. It’s not about religion per se (at least not in the way one might be thinking.)

I am having my second Bat Mitzvah on the 23rd. It’s a quadruple adult Bat Mitzvah – to be truly grammatically correct, it’s a B’Not Mitzvah. What’s a second Bat Mitzvah and why am I having one? Didn’t the first one take?

It did. I had a very usual Bat Mitzvah the first go-around. I’m going to go ahead and assume my library peeps are worldly enough about cultures that I can forego an explanation of what it is, if that’s all right. When I was 12, I had been through five years of Hebrew school twice a week, learned all the prayers, gotten a new dress, had a cake and a party and gleefully cashed in my numerous gift certificates to Camelot Records (pretty sure you can all figure my current age out now!) and bemoaned the number of trees that had been planted in Israel in my name by my less-cool aunts and uncles. And it stuck: I continued going to synagogue on the days of obligation, had my wedding performed by a rabbi and now I have two little boys who are on the same path. Which leads me to why I’m having this second Bat Mitzvah.

When I was young, Hebrew instruction was notoriously terrible: it was disorganized, torturous and ill-suited to the task. I am very good at languages, but still needed an expensive and unpleasant round of tutoring just to get me to limp through my passage of the Torah. My mother wondered aloud to the rabbi what the deal was, and even he didn’t have an answer. I made, it, but even seeing printed Hebrew in a prayer book in the intervening years gave me a slight frisson of terror at the memory.

Fast forward 30 years. My older son is nine, and one of these days he’ll be getting ready for his turn. Hoping to spare him the agony and me the expense of the same journey my mother and I took, I signed up for a basic adult Hebrew class and decided I would be his tutor and eat the grief myself.

My older son is doing just great, because the quality of Hebrew instruction offered now is from some other planet than what I experienced. I also did just great. The women in my class, denied the opportunity for their own celebrations at the traditional age, elected to celebrate collectively. I anticipated only waving from the audience and wishing them well, but they insisted I stand up too, so here I am, nervously practicing at odd moments to prepare for next week.

And now, The Book. It’s customary to ask the Bar or Bat Mitzvah to consider his or her portion of the Torah seriously and write a short speech relating the passage to a current event, to an episode in his or her life, or in some way make a very ancient text relevant to modern existence. (That’s a tall order for a 12-year-old.)

Approaching this as a scholar, I wanted to consult multiple sources, and wanted to start with foundational texts. The canonical place to start is the Midrash, which is a collection of commentaries written by learned rabbis over centuries on the chapters of the Torah. Perfect!

Except I couldn’t find one. Surely this is a thing that would be online. You can get the entire Torah online in Hebrew and English in multiple iterations, and I found many variations of certain portions of Midrashic texts, but I was looking for the entire definitive one, to no avail. I looked in my online databases and in collections of ebooks. I looked in the collections of college libraries. Nope. Maybe it’s me, I thought. Or maybe it’s how I’m approaching the subject.

“Is it like the Egyptian Book of the Dead?” I asked the cantor at one of my rehearsal appointments. “That was varied to fit each person, so there’s no single text that’s considered the ‘right’ one to read. Is there a different Midrash for different purposes, or from different schools of thought, and I should be looking in some other way?” I was perplexed, to be sure.

“You want the Midrash?” he said. “I have one right here.” He did. It was a large hardbound book with a decorative dust jacket. Being who and what I am, I immediately opened to the second page and copied down the bibliographic information before consulting the necessary passage. (Just in case someone asks me for a Works Cited page after the service, I guess?)

It actually didn’t solve my real problem – the passage I read shed no real light on the subject I was mulling over – but it did highlight this salient fact: when in doubt, I reach for books, and moreover I aim for the most authoritative and fundamental sources on a subject. I’m not a very spiritual person, actually, but I would call that a kind of faith.

The Librarians: A Review

librarians_default-800x450_110420140529

Photo courtesy of TNT

I know – I’m a librarian, I’m supposed to love books. And I do, but . . . I also love TV. I mean it. I looove TV. I watch a lot of TV. Usually I’m reading something at the same time, but nevertheless – I love TV. I will never be one of those people that boasts they haven’t seen a TV show in 20 years because it’s a total wasteland, a mindless pastime designed to sell us Snuggies in between catfights on whatever iteration of the Kardashian show is running at that moment. For anyone who claims that books are always superior to television, I offer up any Harlequin romance novel as evidence to the contrary, and would present virtually anything on BBC, PBS, and the indie film channel in support.

There are, though, some programs that are more entertaining than edifying. Thus, gentle readers, I give to you . . . the first TV review to appear in this blog.

The Librarians airs on TNT at 9 p.m. EST on Sunday nights. It is a spinoff of a trilogy of made-for-TV movies starring Noah Wyle released last year. The gist of it is that the world is full of magical objects, collected in an even more magical place called The Library, and this is under the curatorship of the Librarians (I love that this gets a capital L. Really lends some gravitas, doesn’t it?) These objects include things like the sword Excalibur, Pandora’s box and the lance of Longinus. There is a definite Indiana Jones and The Something of Something flavor, and I’m sure that’s intentional. Also intentional is the hiring of unusually attractive actors as the cast, although I will share something with you: during my other graduate degree program I spent a lot of time working with and around archaeologists. They are all very good-looking. I was quite surprised to discover this, because I assumed Hollywood had filled my head with some fantasy myth of Harrison Ford/Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft and presumed that serious academics would be pasty, myopic and awkward, but every day in class and on dig sites I was surrounded by very handsome, stylish people. So that part’s not fictional, strange as it seems. But plenty of the rest of it is, and I don’t mean “fictional” so much as “straining the limits of credulity.” Among their number, the Librarians count a counter-terrorism expert played by Rebecca Romijn, a genius art historian (hey! That part must be true!) who keeps changing identities, a woman whose sensory hallucinations allow her to “see” whatever magic is in the air, and a fellow who is a master thief and hacker. The magic hallucinator gets a free pass, because that’s fantasy, but who gives the master thief the job of safeguarding precious objects? Fox guarding a henhouse. Not gonna pass the HR screening. Also, who pays these people, and how? Someone’s keeping them in designer clothes, such as the denim jumpsuit Rebecca Romijn wore to take a canoe down a river. Evidently she planned it to be a short, beverage-free excursion.

As a service to you, and to myself, I decided to try and watch them all in a single-day marathon, a luxury of on-demand service. I was deep-cleaning the bedroom and I needed some light companionship, and I don’t know any librarian who could resist an entire TV series called The Librarians, so I pushed “OK” on the remote and away we went.

I am regarded as having a good memory. I could not relate a single plot line to you if there were money or honor riding on it. I have a vague sense that in one episode, some fictional characters in books actually come to life and start wreaking havoc (Moriarty, Dorian Gray) and have to be corralled back into their pages, but other than that and a giant tentacle whacking somebody on the head on a picturesque college campus – nothing. Wait, that’s not true. There was this one short passage of dialogue between two characters desperately trying to get a scrap of information to solve an urgent situation, using “ancient technology,” har.

“Dude, can’t you go any faster?”

“Uh, it’s not like this thing has a search engine!”

“Are you telling me you’re a Librarian and you don’t know how to use a card catalog?”

“It’s the twenty-first century! I also don’t know how to shoe a horse!”

Hang onto that, fellow librarians. Every time we are accused of being irrelevant, outmoded, superseded by Google, I want you to remember that somewhere some TV writer thought librarians were fascinating and intrepid enough to go down into Solomon’s Mines or retrieve Judas’ cup from the Last Supper. Are we dusty cardigan-wearing fact-finders fiddling around with databases? No! We are hottie superheroes saving the world from ultimate destruction by the force of our search skills. Watch with me this Sunday night (and forget with me by Monday morning.) I will also be knitting something and petting my cats while I drink tea, but I am glad the world realizes that I could be out there lifting the curse off the Hope Diamond or interviewing the shadow image on the Shroud of Turin instead.

 

 

Things that rhyme with -ookie

At this point I don’t know if I’m super-late for my October post or super-early for my November one. In either case, I am too excited to keep it under wraps. And, I’m pleading for help.

December is Read a New Book Month. December 4 is National Cookie Day. I love both of these things, possibly in equal measure and certainly in their infinite variety. I don’t know that I’ve ever met a cookie I didn’t like, and I’ll read pretty much anything that holds my interest after more than a minute. So, I’m combining the two during a joint programming event with our Student Activities Director. Details are still hazy but I believe he offered to buy a Cookie Monster suit if I would agree to wear it. (We’re still negotiating. Check back here for photographic evidence that this actually occurred.)

So, for promoting this event I’m leaning towards something like, “Read a bookie, eat a cookie!” You get the idea. But then I wondered if a picture of Chewbacca, you know, a Wookie, would lend some emphasis; and then I remembered I had the whole Charlaine Harris series of books about Sookie. I’m probably not going to offer a selection of books about family planning, so the other obvious rhyme* is out. Books about Kentucky will only work if read in a Scottish accent. Books about playing hooky? Am I encouraging delinquency?

What else rhymes with cookie? Librarians and wordsmiths, I need you!

 

*It’s nookie. You did not hear me say that here.

Awesome, baby!

I’ve been serving both middle and upper school constituencies since I arrived at Out-of-Door in 2008 and have often joked that I could use a clone to cover all the spots where I need to be in two places at once, but this time I really mean it!

Exterior

In August we celebrated the ribbon-cutting on our shiny brand-new building, which comprises the Dick Vitale Family Student Center and the Dart STEM Center. The student center occupies the ground floor, while the STEM center takes up the second floor. (Yes, it’s that Dick Vitale. They’re a really lovely family, as are the Darts.)

VitalesThe student center is host to a small café area with a coffee machine, a few booths, a couple of high-top tables with chairs, and a very large TV tuned to CNN to keep us current on events as they unfold throughout the day. Our food service is just a few feet away, so it’s easy to grab a salad or the daily special and enjoy it there.

CafeThe director of student activities occupies a small office nearby, which allows for easy communication with the kids. Along one wall is a spectacular classroom equipped for videoconferencing with a very large projection screen and a camera and microphone suspended from the ceiling.

tech ctrAdjacent to that is a writing lab, soon to be staffed by peer tutors and overseen by members of the English faculty. Our director of collaborative learning and educational outreach is next door, and immediately next to her resides the assistant head of our upper school. The academic services office is also found in the student center.

The majority of the ground floor is given over to open space filled with tables, chairs and soft seating, just the kind of collegiate environment to encourage social study and collaboration with pockets of quiet for individual work.

Upstairs are the classrooms for all the math teachers, science laboratories for biology, chemistry and physics; and we have two 3D printers that have the campus buzzing with imagination. (Everyone is about to ask, so I’ll answer: they are available by appointment only, must be used for school-related projects, and the cartridges are removed when the machines are not in use.)

And where am I? And where’s the collection?

And thus . . . the conundrum. The librarian is not in the library, and by the way, what’s a library? Is it the place where books are, or is it the place where the librarian is?

My desk, really more of a fortress, occupies one end of the Student Center. I don’t have an office, but I have plenty of storage and the very best view of anyone on campus, including the headmaster.

Pond viewThere are two small project rooms behind me, plus a larger conference room with a curtain wall of glass, so there is plenty of room for book processing if I need it and places for private consultation with students or faculty.

Fortress of Solitude

at-my-desk

The Savidge Bowers Library suddenly became the “old library,” paradoxical because there isn’t a “new library,” it’s a student center; but we do have a small collection here. I brought reference materials suitable for high school students, as well as fiction and biography for high schoolers as well. I figured that since it was designed to be Hangout Central for ninth through twelfth grade, what should live here are materials that need to be quickly at hand, either for reference or to grab as pleasure reading while walking by.

Chloe

(Interesting side effect: these are mostly the same books that occupied the library these last eight years and had faded into the background as part of the scenery, but by removing them to a new location suddenly they’re a hit. “HOLY COW MISS MANDEL,” I keep hearing, “WHEN DID WE GET THESE AWESOME BOOKS? I LOVE THIS AUTHOR. DUDE, YOU SHOULD TOTALLY READ THIS.” It’s both gratifying and slightly perplexing.)

The “old library” houses the rest of the circulating non-fiction, and biographies, reference, and fiction for middle school students. How to get middle schoolers in front of those books to keep the collection relevant and in use is the other issue. Senior students collectively take a seminar course that meets in the old library (I guess we’re saying that now!), so they visit every day. All high schoolers are allowed some freedom to wander the campus at lunch or other free times of day, but our middle school students are more managed than that, so they don’t simply just wander over to the library. And if they did, I’m not there!

All students in grades six through eight have study hall during the same period of the day, divided up by advisory group. Thus, I made a rotating docket that schedules each group to come in at least four times per semester during that study hall. Teachers have pretty universally been on board – who’s opposed to more reading? – so I set up my laptop and portable barcode scanner and wait for the hordes to descend at the appointed hour and check books out to happy readers.

It’s working well. I don’t think there’s a perfect method, short of replicating myself, but this way I get to work with readers and with the collection, my circulation numbers are up, awareness of the resources we have has improved, and I think all of my constituencies really understand that I’m trying to serve everyone despite trying to be two places at the same time. Also, seriously, have you seen my view?

Budget crisis

At the end of the school year I was engaged in the usual tasks (and some not-so-usual ones, as I am moving into a new building this fall and had to vacate my old one), one of which is of course handling renewals for the upcoming school year. Undeniably it is always a little bit painful to have to contemplate fall when I can still taste the frosting on the commencement reception cake, but time marches inexorably on, so those purchase orders must get written.

I don’t think I’ve ever met a librarian who felt he or she had enough in the budget. I did have a mentor once who felt like her budget was pretty comfortable, but she didn’t go so far as to say she couldn’t find a way to spend a little more if she had it. Really, most librarians I know are asked to keep doing more with less, and then still more with still less, and so on. Prices go up, but the budget does not expand to accommodate it, and there is no such thing as Spanx to squeeze all those annual renewals in with no obvious bulges.

Time to get ferocious. I have been called a Grocery Ninja more than once. People standing behind me in line at the supermarket have asked me for tips and hints. I’ve been told I should have a home economy blog. (I don’t need any more deadlines I won’t be able to meet!) So, I am used to tackling thrift like I can get an Olympic medal in it and I decided to take an even firmer approach to the library budget this year. Were there surprising pockets of money lurking around in there that I didn’t consider?

Some of these methods may work for you, and some may not. For example, I’ve always processed my own books, from cataloging to stickering to covering. At a cost of at least a dollar per book depending on the vendor, it’s a savings for me but you may not have the staff or time to devote to it.

So, where else did I get creative? Here goes, with the above caveat in mind:

I had slashed and slashed our periodicals till we had gotten down to about a quarter of the magazine titles we had in print when I started seven years ago. I was careful to poll the faculty each time, and to check if we had access to the titles in our databases. I realize that print and digital are not exact equivalents of each other – there’s just no equal to those New Yorker covers! – but our poetry teacher was surprisingly easygoing about consulting American Poetry Review via database. Then I found a different magazine wholesaler who sold me the exact titles I wanted at a savings of $150 a year. Next, I approached individual departments about purchasing one or two titles out of their own departmental funds if they were very specific in focus. The language department was happy to buy a Spanish magazine, and the history department chipped in for digital access to The Economist. That saved me another $150 or so.

The biggest savings I realized were a happy accident for which I cannot claim credit: EBSCO’s Discovery Service is now available for a consortial purchase through MISBO at a steep discount. With those huge savings in hand, I was able to purchase a streaming online video service for classroom use. Because I will now be getting most of our video resources that way, I won’t need much in my budget for buying DVDs.

And then it occurred to me that I was paying for access to catalog records for A/V materials so I could catalog my own DVDs in-house. If I wasn’t going to catalog more than a few DVDs a year, couldn’t I drop that? I could. That’s another $150 or so.

MISBO, like Sam’s Club or Costco, charges a fee for participation and access to discount buying. In MISBO’s case, it’s a percentage of whatever you order. It turns out that this percentage goes up depending on when you finalize. Note that I said finalize: it means you’ve encumbered the funds but it’s not the same as actually paying the bill, so if it doesn’t match your fiscal cycle dates, you’re still OK. The difference between three percent of your purchase and seven percent of your purchase can be a bundle, so if you can get your shopping cart finalized early, you save quite a bit on those fees.

By the time I was done, I had managed to squeeze about $775 out of a budget that previously had nothing to spare. Not a mountain of cash, but if someone told you that you could have $775, or nothing, what would you take? Yup, me too. “Wow,” said my boss, “you should do everyone’s budget. This is amazing. Can we find enough to get a third story on the new building somehow?”

I’ll let you know how that goes. Excuse me. I have to get back to clipping coupons.

That LibGuide thing I do

Hello again from Tampa Bay! It was wonderful to see so many of you at AISL this month. Many of you kindly asked me about my method for getting resources inside LibGuides to authenticate without resorting to something like EZProxy. A couple of you were interested enough to come on up to my room and watch while I demonstrated on my laptop with a nice cool lemonade to keep us perking along. For those of you who missed that demo, I bring you this very detailed explanation with screenshots and red arrows. It’s a lot more how-to than my usual musings, and I’m glad to be able to share this practical guide.

I realize this method won’t work for all of you – not everyone’s school website is configured to allow it. But if your circumstances will permit, give it a try and save some time and aggravation. The short version is that I’ve asked my library product vendors, primarily Gale and EBSCO, to use a referring URL to authenticate and it makes the experience more like a single sign-on environment for the user. Deep breaths, here goes, with screen shots that are a bit small but still illustrative (I hope):

The Out-of-Door Academy currently uses Finalsite to run its website and act as its Learning Management System (LMS.) We are transitioning to Canvas, but my spectacular officemate and bestie is working with me to ensure the same setup for next year. Here’s a shot of our front page.

Screen Shot 2015-04-23 at 9.06.52 AM

So, this is our welcome page that any visitor sees. The red arrow points to a link where students can click to log in with their individual user names and passwords. These are purged when students change schools or graduate, so the user pool is limited only to current students.

Screen Shot 2015-04-23 at 9.08.39 AM

Once logged in, students land on a page that lists all of their current courses. Faculty create their own course pages in the portal and enroll students themselves, so I created an Upper School library “course” with my array of resources and one for Middle School,  and then I enrolled users accordingly. “Sue Student” is enrolled in both Upper and Middle School Library, so she can choose either one for library resources.Screen Shot 2015-04-23 at 9.09.20 AM

After Sue clicks on Upper School Library, she is taken to this friendly-looking page of library offerings. Screen Shot 2015-04-23 at 9.47.27 AMI have databases and the catalog set up under the  home button, and under resources I have a series of tutorial videos to refresh users on how to access their Questia accounts or interpret an EBSCO results page. Sometimes I even manage to update the blog . . . (that’s my Rory, by the way, with a “Librarians Rule” temporary tattoo.) The LibGuides are all parked, here, and that’s the key to the whole business. All the LibGuides I have created exist as live links in that box to the lower right, on a variety of subjects and arranged in alphabetical order, because that is the library way, ahem. Within the LibGuides are an assortment of things: suggested titles from the physical collection for print books & DVDs, database search widgets, etc. but also live links to Gale ebooks and even links to selected articles from EBSCO Discovery Service. These authenticate on or off-campus automatically with no need for something like EZProxy or additional student logins because the databases authenticate via referring URL. The referring URL is the Finalsite page into which I insert the links to the LibGuides, so, because the LibGuides are accessed via that referring URL, all I had to do was call Gale and EBSCO and tell them that’s how I wanted to authenticate. And boom – done!

Thus, when a user chooses a LibGuide, such as the Book Thief guide, I’m showing here, Screen Shot 2015-04-23 at 9.50.51 AMhe or she is able to click on those links I have provided within and go directly there without being asked for another password. (Feel free to ask me how I set up the DVD, too, if you like.) Screen Shot 2015-04-23 at 9.51.13 AMI’ve noticed that the setup on the Gale books sometimes asks for a general password and sometimes doesn’t, so I provided it just above them at left. Again, because all of these LibGuides are behind a wall limited to users only, providing that password is still acceptable as only authorized users will see it, and I can change it periodically as students graduate or move on.

I’m including some shots of other LibGuides here if you’re curious about my general technique. I try to maintain a balance between not doing too much for the researchers, because they need to learn how to do it for themselves; and showing them that we do have rich resources right here – no need to Google in most cases. In the case of Shakespeare, we have very deep print holdings, too many to list in the LibGuide itself, so I made them into PDF bibliography and simply posted the bib instead.Screen Shot 2015-04-23 at 9.52.18 AM For Greek mythology, I thought it was important to include some other goodies, like the Perseus Project, that students could really benefit from but which they otherwise might have overlooked.Screen Shot 2015-04-23 at 9.53.10 AM

If you’ve got remaining questions, or would like to see this in action yourself using the dummy account I give to vendors so they can test my security, please get in touch at amandel@oda dot edu.

Reverse-engineering the library

For the second time in four years I am tasked with the job of weeding a very large portion of the collection, packing what is left, storing it and then moving it back onto the shelves at a future point. The first time I did this, I weeded, then boxed, then unboxed, then shelved. What else did I do? I listened to a whole bunch of complaints about all the wonderful books I was just throwing out and some subtle questioning of my professional judgment. (I also took a lot of ibuprofen and shredded the knees of several pairs of Dockers. Librarianship is way more physical than the general public imagines.)

Anyone who’s ever done more than the gentlest of weeding is right now nodding along in sympathy. “You know,” I said, at a faculty meeting when I faced some oblique criticism, “I didn’t go into this profession because I hate books. I love them. But you have to prune back the dead wood to stimulate new growth. If you want them, give them a home.” And at that point the naysayers kind of scuttled back into their lairs and mumbled something about not having space, the books were outdated, et cetera and yadda.

So it was with some trepidation that I am facing this second round of weeding, but I determined to stay firm in my resolve to create a lean, perfectly curated physical collection to complement our expansive digital holdings and avoid the psychic toll that kind of criticism can breed.

At present I am tagging the whole collection with colored stickers to indicate their destiny: green stays on the shelf in the high school collection, yellow means I need to check the books against our curriculum or to see if it has a digital equivalent, blue goes on the shelf of the new middle school space, and red means it will be finding a new home somewhere else. That “somewhere else” can take a variety of forms. Some books will be donated to a new private school that’s just opened up and needs resources, others will be sent to Thrift Books for reselling, some must by necessity be pulped for their paper content, and some can go to faculty who want to adopt them into personal or *classroom collections.

Previously I simply took the weeds out of the catalog, then parked the weeded books on a cart in the faculty room for cherry-picking, and that’s where the trouble lay – these discards were the subject of constant questions every time I walked by to get mail or coffee for months on end. How dare I? What was I thinking? Haven’t I read this? This is a really good book! Don’t I understand? I have. I do. And yet . . .

And that’s when I hit upon the idea of reverse-engineering the final weeding process. I’m going to pluck all the keepers and stash them on rented carts in order, to be rolled to their new home and shelved before opening day in August. Whatever is left on the current library shelves gets taken out of the catalog, has a DISCARD sticker placed over the barcode and can then be perused by faculty over the course of three days so they can pick anything they feel compelled to rescue. Then I’m going to pack the rest for distribution elsewhere as I’ve described. This condenses all the criticism and second-guessing into one short window, and then it’s over. I’m also working on greeting this opportunity as a teachable moment for the faculty: outdated science books do no one any good; multiple volumes about a single minor battle in military history take up space better spent on art technique books; kids don’t want to read stained books with worn covers. (I know – all books deserve love, but all librarians make hard choices based on these very criteria.)

In reading this over, I’m struck by how much of my day is spent mostly in the digital realm, and yet the biggest project I have going on right now is the management of the physical assets. There is a romance to books, and I appreciate that, but there are also days when they are things to be dusted, shifted, moved and packed, which makes me a little less dreamy-eyed about saving them and a little more inclined to work harder at converting those yellow stickers into e-book equivalents.

 

*I have mixed feelings about classroom collections. I’m not territorial – I just happen to think that if a book is valuable enough to several students for a teacher to want to keep it in his or her classroom, it’s probably worth keeping it in circulation for everyone’s benefit. Personal scholarly reference is different, of course.

Revisiting the Pop-Up Library

 

Pop-highlightsI wrote this post way back in fall of 2013, but since there has been a lot of chatter on the listserv about pop-up libraries as a way to promote new books, I thought I would revisit it. (As well, I should sheepishly admit I am overdue on a blog post and am too mired in some quotidian minutiae to give a new post the attention it deserves, so I am recycling in earnest.) Also, this time of year tends to lend itself to retrospectives, clip shows, and Best-Ofs, so it seems timely. I hope. So, see below for my first Pop-Up Library adventure, and feel free to get in touch about the details of how I made it happen.

••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••

I have been installed here for six years and I recently joked that I had my first “normal” year in 2012: my first year was my first year and I was still finishing my last two credits of library school, my second year I was expecting, my third year I had a new baby, my fourth year we renovated, and finally in my fifth year the dust had settled and things were basically predictable. But suddenly what was to be my second “normal” year in a row took a detour: the administration assigned me to be a sixth grade advisor instead of working with my usual crew of juniors or seniors.

There is much greater interaction between advisor and advisees in the middle school, so I was suddenly able to witness the middle school program at very close range. It reinforced what I had long believed to be true: the middle schoolers are my biggest potential consumers of fiction or pleasure reading, but they have the least access to it.

In the lower school division, the students have regular, devoted library time each week. In the high school, students can come in before school, at lunch, during study hall or any free time to peruse the collection and check out materials. In the middle school there is no dedicated library time (yet! That’s another post, I hope) but they are not free to wander into the library by themselves. As well, many of them have confided to me they feel gingerly about entering a library full of “big kids.” What to do? All those glorious young adult titles, desperate to find readers, and an equal number of sad readers bereft of great books. And don’t even get me started on how I feel about the potential future impact on public libraries – isn’t part of our mission to build regular library users into college and beyond?

And thus, the Pop-Up Library. If the middle school can’t come to the library, the library can come to them, I thought. I cannot claim sole credit for this particular stroke of genius – it was inspired by a conversation I had with a friend who is a local college librarian.

So the library popped up in the cafeteria later that very week: I gathered a selection of very hot current books like the Divergent series, James Patterson’s Maximum Ride books, the Theodore Boone novels, a brand-new copy of House of Hades, and an armful of titles for Halloween. I parked these on a book truck, added a laptop and barcode scanner and printed up some colorful signs. I made sure to announce the event at the middle school morning assembly, emailed the faculty to encourage them to remind the kids, and notified the communications department of the photo op for the newsletter.

 

close-pop

I set myself up in a corner of the dining commons, arranged the books attractively and before I could even sit down, I had customers – happy, smiling, ready-to-read customers. I circulated more books that afternoon than I had in the entire previous week and there was a ripple effect that lasted for several days, since some students asked about this or that book I had not brought, but could check out and deliver at lunch the next day or to a classroom.

Pop-highlights

 

It was so successful I repeated it earlier this month with new titles plus Thanksgiving-related books like Witch of Blackbird Pond, some Ann Rinaldi titles and books about Native American lore and history. The kids tell me they are eager to have it every three weeks or so. To prepare, I have invested in a tabletop poster holder, some book-printed fabric for a tablecloth, sign holders and colorful paper to help merchandise the books enticingly.

Feel free to get in touch with specific questions if you’d like to try launching your own Pop-Up Library – it’s easy, fun, and effective.

The most wonderful time of the year?

I’ve been the librarian here at ODA for the past six years, and one of the things we prize here is maintaining a nimble quality that allows us to be flexible and responsive. We have a constituency that assumes we will fulfill certain expectations of our brand, but part of that brand is being small and friendly enough to try new things once in a while.

Traditionally in the upper school we have had exams in December just before the winter holidays and again in late May. I know there are variations on this theme: some schools hold exams immediately after a winter break, presumably to relieve teachers of the burden of grading over what is supposed to be a vacation. This method seems to shift the burden instead to the students, who must now spend part of their time off studying for looming exams that cast a pall over a festive season.

Our usual method has its challenges too, because it cuts out a few weeks of precious instructional time. The last week or two of the term is spent in review and preparation rather than teaching and assessment; and subsequent to that we have an entire week of exams, one per day, scheduled for three hours at a time, on a rotating docket. After each exam, students are released, presumably to recover and study for the next one. Grades are due quickly, so most teachers breathe a quick sigh of relief, and then put their heads right back down to get them all read and marked before traveling, staycationing, welcoming visitors (or putting their houses back in order after a whirlwind first semester.)

In the middle school it was not much different: the sixth grade has always had end-of-semester projects, but the seventh and eighth grades sat for shorter, but still pretty monumental, exams just like the upper school.

This year we are trying something different in the hopes of reclaiming instructional time; lowering stress levels on both students and faculty; and asking for work that is more collaborative and allows students to prove what they have learned more holistically. To that end, all grades are working on end-of-semester projects. As an example, I offer the ninth grade history assignment. Students were allowed to choose one historical question to ask, and then attempt to answer. Questions were vetted by the history teachers for appropriateness, and then students were paired up to make movie trailers with iMovie that answered their historical questions. Guidelines stated that each student had to help with at least one other pair’s assignment as an actor, cameraperson, narrator, art director, etc. Movie trailers will be presented to the class, and each pair has to submit a one-page abstract of the answer with a bibliography. Other classes or disciplines have assigned oral presentations, traditional papers, mock trials by jury, web page creation, infographic posters and so forth.

I should add here that in either case the library’s role has mostly been supportive: during the traditional exam sessions we provided a good place to study and bottomless office supplies for crafting flash cards, study packets and the like (the idea of library as “makerspace” at times like these being rather more established than we often recognize); in the new approach I conducted research-skills workshops four to six times a day across all grade levels throughout the fall, and also created LibGuides by discipline or project to support these collaborative projects. By now most of the research work has been done and it’s presentation and movie trailer time. So, for the last week or two I have been concentrating on things like weeding, budgeting and planning for my new space. It almost feels like a parallel to agriculturalism: a flurry of frenzied activity at harvest time, then a measured readying for a season of inward-looking hearthside solitude.

Reviews have been surprisingly mixed on both sides. All that extra instructional time teachers were hoping for? Well, they got it. And now they have to fill it. The students who were wishing for a way to obviate the pressure of proving everything they knew in a single three-hour exam? That cataclysm is over, but instead they’re accountable for proving their knowledge to each other and their teachers in projects that take two or three weeks and require collaboration and creativity.

So, naturally there has been some water-cooler discussion burbling here and there: teachers are exhausted by two or three more weeks of instruction, students preferred “getting it over with” and enjoying a week of half-days, et cetera. At one point I said this aloud:

Just because we don’t like it as much doesn’t mean it isn’t better for us. I do not enjoy broccoli as much as I like ice cream, but I recognize that one is clearly more beneficial to me than the other. As neither current classroom teacher nor student I don’t feel like I have a right to weigh in on which approach is ultimately better, but as a citizen of the world with more than four decades’ experience I know that “liking” a thing is not always based on its actual merit. This was an experiment, and I have no insight into whether we will return to our usual arrangement or not. If your institution has variations on this theme or has similarly experimented and come to a conclusion, please feel free to share in the comments below.

Red light, green light

I’m actually so swamped it was hard for me to find time to compose this blog post, and my calendar reminds me I’m late with it, too. I’m sure everyone knows the words to that song, but nonetheless it’s true, and I think particularly so for solo librarians to whom all responsibilities fall. (And no nearby professional shoulder to cry on, either.)

Not only is it research project season across all grade levels, I’m also working towards some major changes in the library, both physical and philosophical. By August 2015, we expect to have finished construction on a brand-new upper school building that comprises a ground-floor academic commons with café, offices, outdoor pavilion and a writing center; and a second story with a STEM lab and technologically innovative spaces such as a virtual conferencing room. At the same time, we are also retrofitting several of the older buildings to accommodate growing middle school needs, such as a dedicated middle school library space and science area.

For me this means engaging in complex and thought-provoking conversations about print versus digital for middle school users, what to do with weeded assets, where to house what parts of the collection, if I anticipate future growth or reduction in particular ranges, and so forth. As well, I am also responsible for some very mundane stuff, such as literally packing weeded books into boxes and driving them to a dropoff point, or putting colored stickers on books to designate their ultimate destination. Every day is a peculiar combination of engaging with students and faculty in classrooms as I give research lessons; having deep philosophical debates with my office mate about the looming digital horizon; and ripping stickers off spines with my fingernails. I’m never bored (but I am constantly confused about how to dress every morning. Am I speaking in front of a roomful of peers and professional superiors, or am I doing the library equivalent of gardening today? Or both?) Did I mention I’m also helping to plan and host the spring AISL conference? Y’all should come, if only to check on me and see how I’m doing.

Just like we tell the students, you gotta break the task into manageable pieces and check them off one at a time or else it’s overwhelming and that’s why your paper is late your library doesn’t have any books in it because they’re still in boxes.

I have a clear deadline to meet and it’s all up to me, so I try to spare time each day for these things:

•Tagging books for removal, retention, allocation to the middle school, and “maybe I’ll get rid of this if there’s a digital version but I have to check.” I have several packets of transparent round stickers in red, green, yellow and blue. Red books go, green books stay, blue books go to the future middle school space and yellow ones are in that liminal zone above, so I attack one shelf at a time and sticker as needed. Unscientific, but I’ve been here six years and I know my books and my users. I see the little red and green dots in my sleep now, hence this post’s title.

•Meeting with the physical plant manager to discuss space; with the library interior designer to discuss book storage, workflow and furniture choices; with my office mate to delineate who and what will go where after the new space is built. This seems to change daily, so I also devote a few minutes each day to meditating on the illusory nature of permanence.

•Packing and delivering weeded books. I know that re-homing discards is a challenge for many of you. I am fortunate in that just this past August, a new independent school opened nearby and they are delighted to receive current books that I have weeded – all I have to do is show up and open my trunk and away they go. Other books will go to Thrift Books or to a recycler to have their paper pulp reclaimed.

•Exploring digital equivalents to things I might either weed or retain depending on what I discover. I am tasked with keeping physical growth under control, so I devote such time as I can to looking for alternatives and building a case to present to those who make budget decisions.

It’s a heady mix, and among all those things I still have a sixth grade advisory to work with, research lessons to schedule and give, books to shelve, periodicals to manage and all the other daily business to which I am sure you can all relate. I know many of you are on a similar cusp, in that you may also be charged with planning for a new space or conversion to an academic commons rather than a traditional reading-room library. If what I have posted here is of use to you, then please avail yourself of it, and best of luck with your journey! Please comment and share as your own process moves forward.