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.

The Ghosts of Students Past

So here’s a thing that has happened on several occasions over the last few months: alumni, now enrolled in college, getting in touch to ask for library services from me.

I’m of two minds on this, and I think you’ll all see where I’m going here . . . one part of me is worried that I didn’t do my job well enough: they should be skilled enough to navigate their current university libraries themselves, or at least know enough to introduce themselves to their librarians and beg for their help, not mine. The other part of me is secretly (OK, not secretly!) pleased that I provided such reliable friendly help that I’m the one to whom they turn in their hour of need.

A favorite student of mine whom I see at least once a year is writing his senior thesis on a rather narrow subject. He did actually do the right thing: he visited his college library and consulted with the librarians there. Favorite Student needs articles from some unusual journals to which the college does not subscribe, and the librarians said they would try to get them via interlibrary loan but made no promises about if, when, how long. I take a certain perverse pleasure in trying to solve the unsolvable, so with the theme song to Mission: Impossible playing in my head, I cracked my knuckles and got to Googling.

His college doesn’t subscribe to those journals, but a major state university nearby does and because it’s a public institution, they allow access to any in-person user visiting the campus. I advised him of this, told him to pack a lunch and pocket change for the photocopier, and off he went to fulfill his destiny.

A former advisee sent a desperate email, on a Friday night no less, begging for help with an art history paper on which her grade depends. Full disclosure: I taught college art history courses before changing careers, so I am especially intrigued by her request. I visited her college’s library website and pointed out that they subscribe to several excellent art research databases, offer appointments with subject specialists, and the painting she is studying is owned by the nearby museum which also has a library. She’ll be fine; she just needed direction and reassurance.

I’m trying to strike the right balance between swooping in to save the day and guiding these young people towards self-sufficiency. “Home,” I suppose, is always a comfort: I am firmly into middle age and make my own chicken soup very well, but when I have a cold it’s to my mother I turn for hers. Without treading on Jack Canfield’s turf, if a familiar librarian can provide chicken soup for a researcher’s soul, I’ll take that as an epitaph.

Until cloning is perfected

I serve both middle and upper school students, and in what I suspect is probably an unusual arrangement, the two populations do not have schedules that mesh neatly on any given day. Neither are school policies exactly alike for both groups, which is as it should be – there are a lot of differences between 12 and 17. I’m the only librarian here: no assistant, no clerical help, just me and my trusty barcode scanner.

What this means for me is that I am often in the position of having to decide where I should be at what time, and who I will have to neglect in the process. Until cloning is perfected, there isn’t a way for me to divide myself when I’m needed at two meetings at once, for example.

Back-to-school meetings and orientation days were a major challenge: often there were equally important meetings in both divisions happening concurrently, and during orientation I found myself dashing across campus to start one session and dash back to finish another. (Any lay person who maintains the fantasy of the tweed-skirted lady librarian in a heeled shoe and crisp blouse will be saddened to know that flats and khakis are my typical uniform, since my role is more action hero and less schoolmarm.)

So, how to serve all masters at once? It’s complex, but so far I managed to make most people happy. I did as much maintenance at home as I could before school started, such as updating patron files or tweaking our library page, to free me up and make me feel less frantic. I entered every single meeting into my calendar to see where the overlaps were and contacted all relevant people well in advance to alert them to my conundrum, and also frankly to avoid inadvertently offending anyone with my absence – everyone likes to believe his or her meeting is the most important one of the day, after all. In plenty of cases, one or more parties stepped back and let it be known that one meeting was less important than another, or that my own preference could guide me. In the end, I chose to attend what was most informative to me and where I could be the most helpful. As far as I can tell, this worked but it was indeed the product of careful, thoughtful management and planning.

As well, I created a library page strictly for middle school students. Last year all library services were parked on a single page and it felt somewhat strangulating to introduce the library and then immediately tell them what they couldn’t use; for example, we only buy Questia for upper school students, but there it was, teasing them. Instead I set up a page only with materials available to sixth through eighth graders, and it seems much more welcoming and useful.

I am pleased to say that the result is a satisfied faculty in both divisions: they know my schedule presents certain exigencies but that I am committed to serving their needs and will find a way to do so . . . even without cloning.

Writer’s Block

I’d like to start by thanking my friend and colleague, CD McLean, for stepping in on my behalf last month. I did indeed have some family circumstances that kept me from blogging, but I’m back now and ready to write.

Or am I? Therein lies the problem. I knew my deadline was approaching and I pondered it aloud in the kitchen one night as my husband and I prepared dinner. “Middle school,” I said. “I have no idea what to say!”
“Maybe you should write about writer’s block,” he joked.
I dismissed this initially and decided that was too obvious and gimmicky, but . . . here I am.

Writer’s block is a condition that plagues all of us from time to time: this is especially true for students, except they are even more handicapped by their youthful inexperience and their general feeling of invincibility. How many times have you witnessed a kid furiously scribbling out the last sentences of an essay ten minutes before it’s due because “I work better under pressure!” A little pressure can inspire a good performance, true, but chances are the muse dances more gracefully if her tune is not quite so breathless.

As some of you know, I have a summer job. As well as a library degree, I have degrees in art history and I was a lecturer at various colleges before I became an independent school librarian. Thus, I spend my summers writing reports for a company that authenticates works of art for galleries, insurance companies, auction houses and collectors. So basically this means I write research papers for money, except mine are legit and not those horrible “use this as an example!” ones for $24.95 on I have a deadline to meet (and the pressure of deciding if someone’s family heirloom is a valuable original or worthless fake). I don’t get a grade but I do receive a reward, so to speak. My process is exactly what you’d expect: do some research, create a bibliography, sketch out an outline based on the evidence, give examples to support my argument, fill in with some prose, wrap it up, proofread, and submit.

So how do I overcome the problem of writer’s block, and what advice would I give to a seventh grader writing a three-pager about volcanoes?

Do the grindstone kind of work while waiting for inspiration. Can’t think of an opening sentence? Put together your bib instead. Can’t decide on a conclusion? Go back and reread some key passages in your research. Can’t figure out what your third example should be? Rewrite your intro. If most of the major pieces are in place well before the deadline, then the writer is afforded the luxury of just waiting for a beautiful first line, or graceful segue, or perfect conclusion. On the other hand, if the writer is too busy finding three volcanoes that all erupted in the last 50 years the day before the paper is due, there’s no room for real inspiration and the result is a mediocre essay at best.

It leaves room for serendipity, too. There have been times when I just couldn’t draw a conclusion or felt like my evidence was inadequate, and simply having the time to accidentally discover something useful while skimming a random book or even watching a TV show is priceless. What if there were a PBS program on Mt. St. Helen’s with new facts that completely blew apart the writer’s conclusion? Three days is plenty of time to rewrite page two and make a spectacular final essay, but jamming in an ill-placed sentence the hour before it’s due is veering into C territory, or worse if the writer ends up contradicting herself.

There’s no magic recipe for convincing middle schoolers to get it done early, but if we shepherd them along carefully, eventually they’re bound to see that a well-paced process allows for discovery, thoughtful examination, rewriting, and happy accidents. To make it real I try to share something of my own process when I give research lessons, and they always focus on the remunerative part of it, to which I say, “Sure, I get paid for it . . . IS YOUR GRADE WORTH LESS THAN MONEY?” No kid in his right mind says yes, so they shake their heads and get to work.

An organic approach to citation skills

I’d like to thank David Wee for providing an unbeatable segue into my own blog post this month – introducing MLA bibliographies in the sixth grade. At my own institution this has grown rather organically rather than as an objective goal to be met, so I’ll include a little background info here to set the stage:

My official title here is Upper School Librarian. But we are a 6-12 campus, so I minister to middle school students too as much as I am able, but the parameters within which I work have often restricted how much time we could spend together, a topic I have broached before on this blog. In addition, a library skills curriculum had not been built into the program I inherited from my predecessor, so teachers were not used to scheduling me into their classes, and the assignments they gave didn’t necessarily rely on research very often.

Something changed this year in ways I can’t really quantify, and I don’t want to for fear that whatever fairy has been the guiding hand behind all this will flit away. In real terms I was assigned to be a sixth grade adviser, which simply gave me more face time with the middle school, but other aspects have been more like a lovely alchemy in which reactions just happen and then build on each other. One day the Latin teacher asked me to deliver books about ancient Rome for a blog project, so I talked with the kids about how to look at tables of contents and index pages. Then the history teacher heard how well that went and asked me to do the same for her, so I took the kids to where the e-books live and we explored those. Seeing my chance, I offered to return the next week and show them how to cite them and create a bibliography, so we did that, and then we did some more. Then the science teacher cautiously approached and asked if I would possibly consider helping her with a volcano project. “WOULD I?” I know all of you are saying to yourselves. Try and stop me!

Along the way I taught them not only how to insert in-text citations, but why. Not just to prove you’re not a plagiarist, I told them, but because you are doing important research work and some secondary reader (as in, not me or your teacher) might want to know exactly where you got that fact so he or she can read it firsthand. As well, we worked on creating MLA Works Cited pages for their projects; again, I told them, so that another reader could find the exact book or article and read it for himself. Understanding that they were creating something of real value that another person might someday read was very illuminating, and they worked hard on making their bibliographies as thorough and accurate as possible.

I’m sure all of you can attest to how much repetition an effort like this will take, but if we start in the sixth grade, by ninth grade it will be second nature and by graduation we’ll have them doing in-text citations when they sign yearbooks, right?


It seems that I’m spoiled for choice here: when I was invited to blog for AISL I indicated that I served both middle and upper school aged students, and so I was given the choice for this particular post of either division. What to do? Where to start? With no “problem” to solve, the world is my oyster but I’m staring out the window trying to decide on what to write. Sometimes having strictures or parameters placed upon our work actually leads to better results. Islamic religious art, for example, is astoundingly diverse in its color, texture, pattern and even regional style despite, or perhaps because of, the prohibition against using human or animal figures as inspiration. Instead it relies on plant forms, geometric patterns and calligraphic ornament derived from holy texts. (And it’s all stunningly gorgeous, but that’s a post for a different blog!)

And that’s what I’m here to talk about: solving the problem of having no problem to solve. For the past two weeks I have been conducting research skill workshops with the ninth and tenth grade. I have had the luxury of meeting with the entire ninth grade for four straight days, and at the moment I am doing the same with the entire tenth grade. Each day we work with a different tool for conducting research, but deploying those tools is dependent on having something to research. In the past I had always been called in after an assignment had been given, so the focus was just on getting the job done, not how best to do it. This time, my fate was entirely my own so I approached the problem differently. My show, my rules! So, no paper.

That’s right. No paper. I must give some credit here to my colleague and friend Christina Pommer of St. Stephen’s Episcopal in Bradenton – a talk she gave at FCIS inspired me to remove the burden of the essay itself and allow the students to simply focus on the research process by doing all the work except the actual essay. But a not-paper about what? Any topic would do, but which one? I know enough about students to realize that if I started the week by letting them choose their own hypothetical paper topics, it could stall the process indefinitely or allow them to choose things too narrow or too lacking in academic weight to really demonstrate how these research tools should be best used.

Research-exercise-topics_Page_1Instead, I spent a few days making up a list of quirky, interesting and broadly culled not-paper topics on a range of interests. I kept these in a spreadsheet and added to it periodically, and whenever I was able I gently poked around in my databases to ensure there were enough books and articles to make it a doable assignment. There are 75 ninth graders here at Out-of-Door, so I made up one for each kid. I cut the spreadsheet into little slips and put them into a grab bag.

Research-exercise-topics_Page_2On Day 1 I passed around the grab bag and allowed each student to choose one and announce it. When each had chosen, they were permitted three minutes to trade with each other to give them a sense of agency and allow for individual interest. Surprisingly, most of them just decided to keep what they chose randomly. From there, we explored ways to generate search terms and each student made a list to keep for the week.

On Day 2, we used those terms on Questia. Day 3, used the terms on EBSCO Discovery Service. Day 4, we did a little website-credibility exercise and they found one or two reliable, authoritative sites for their topics.


Finally, they turned their entire work product into a single document: list of search terms, bibliography of sources in correct format, and a three-sentence thesis statement based on the materials they found. Best part of all? The classroom teachers did the assignment right along with the students so they learned how to use the tools as well, and it reinforced to the kids that this is important. So far it’s been great – teachers all over campus are asking for classroom visits now, and I had to scramble to find time in my schedule to actually get this blog post written.



Video tutorials for library skills

As it is for some of you, for me, finding ways to work myself into the classroom for research skill instruction is a Herculean task. Here’s the usual scenario – sing along if you know the words:

In the morning Mr. Smith invites me to his afternoon 9th grade history class to give a lesson on how to use the library research databases because they have a paper to write about life on Nile in Pharaonic Egypt. I have 45 minutes to cover Questia, EBSCO Discovery Service and the library catalog. Knowing this might be the only real face time I get this semester, I put together what I can, visit the classroom and march them through an introduction to logging in with their passwords, using search terms, saving things to shelves and folders and creating bibliographies. The very next day, they all turn to Google because who could possibly retain all that? Some of the more enterprising ones visit me in my office and we do some searching together, but most just default to the path of least resistance.

This year I have been given a rare opportunity: I have four straight days of instructional time with 9th grade English classes and 10th grade history classes. Still, as I’ve learned, repetition is the key to retention. I need some easy way for the kids to revisit what we covered during the short time I do get to work with them.

Enter the screencast video tutorial! I share an office with Camela Giraud, director of Collaborative Learning and Educational Outreach – she oversees programs that involve working with the local and global community as well as finding ways to leverage technology for innovative approaches in the classroom.

In exploring classroom flipping models, Camela has been investigating screencasting programs to allow for content to be delivered via video, freeing up class time for discussion, collaborative projects and other work that can be supervised by the instructor.

There are several programs for screencast creation, and the one I settled upon was JING, chiefly because Camela is right here next to me and walked me through the whole thing. It is very easy to use, and is free as the limited version of the more powerful Camtasia. Also, you are limited to just five minutes and it forces you to be succinct and break tasks into parts. Based on my experience, I have some advice if you decide to try and launch this yourself. She suggests Screencastomatic as an alternative, or you can certainly use Camtasia if your school has a license.

1)   Write a script! And then, rewrite your script. I ad-lib virtually every public talk I give, but when you are committing it to video there isn’t much room for speaking off the cuff. Start by actually doing the small task yourself – logging in and doing a basic search of Questia, for example. As you go, write up the individual steps into a document. Print it out. I’m all for saving paper, but in this case toggling back and forth between screens just isn’t going to work.

2)   Practice. Read the script several times to prevent stumbling, work on pacing, correct errors, etc., just like a soap opera actor.

3)   Remember that your audience is trying to follow along. Ensure that whatever actions you take are either slow enough to follow and/or that you repeat them. If you are about to click on a link, mouse over to it slowly and hover for a second. Show your examples two or three times to really ensure the audience gets it.

4)   Don’t be afraid to yell “cut!” and start over. One of the things I noticed is that when trying to read a script while simultaneously conducting a library search, tracking with your eyes back and forth can be quite difficult. JING is free and you haven’t wasted time or videotape, so throw it out and start over if you’ve made a real mess. Think of it like making crepes – the first one is just for practice.

5)   Five minutes really is enough. If you’re going on longer than five minutes, break the task into parts.

6)   Favorite tip: JING has a “pause” button. Don’t tolerate a bunch of dead air in your video while the search engine does its thing – just hit “pause” and when your search terms come up or the page loads, etc. you can hit “resume.” It keeps your video crisp and snappy instead of slow and draggy.

In an ironic development, the videos look just great on the school portal . . . but I can’t post them here! JING saves videos in an SWF or Flash format, so if mounting them on Vimeo or YouTube is your aim, JING’s not for you, but SnagIt or another free screencasting product might be just right. If I am able to convert the file and post it here, you know I will.






Bringing it to the People

My second Pop-Up - we're growing!

I 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 continue this program today, at a rate of about one per month.

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.

Restaurant sign holders are great for this - small but effective.

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.

This month's theme is Thanksgiving: Colonial America, the Pilgrims, Native Americans, and family activities like cooking and crafts.

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.