Librarian, Meet the Left-Handed Whelk

The job of librarian is one that continues to show up on polls as one of the most trusted professions.

Like many independent schools, my school has several signature programs intended to distinguish it from other area schools. Since our campus includes a bayou that is just south of the Manatee River, which feeds into the Gulf of Mexico, all of our students learn a ton about marine ecosystems. At the high school level, the Marine Science signature program includes the required 9th grade Biology course followed by three years of Marine Biology electives. Marine 3 is a research-based seminar in which students design and complete a year-long study; they ultimately write a paper, create a scientific poster, and present their findings at RISE (Research and Independent Study Expo) in early May. Five to ten students pursue this path each year, which earns them the Ocean Academy graduation distinction. Many continue their marine studies in college.

RISE: Marine Presentations

Enough with the advertisement—oh wait — let me also share with readers that teachers are requested to supervise student boat and kayak trips, so we also get to spend classes out on the water with students!

Just an “average” monthly boat trip for the students

If you ask our students why they’ve chosen to devote many of their electives to the Ocean Academy distinction, you’ll get a variety of answers.

“Concern for our planet.”

“Love the teachers.”

“My older brother said it was like a family.”

“Labs on the water.” “Get to fish during school.

To recap the past few paragraphs. Ocean Academy graduates have had some sort of Marine focus in science classes each year they’ve attended the school, and students in Marine 3 have taken, you guessed it, 3 years of Marine Science. Also librarians are a trusted profession.

I think this is a powerful program for all the reasons students mention. As a coastal community, we’ll be affected by climate change sooner than some further inland, and many of our families are deeply connected to local waterways. Because it doesn’t have an AP designation, it draws those students most passionate about marine science, not the ones most focused on their GPAs and the weighted bump they receive from AP courses.

So many seahorses

They aren’t always the ones who have excelled in previous History and English research papers, the projects more typically associated with the library.

So unlike the world they are close to entering of university research and discipline-specific librarians, they are stuck with me. I’m no academic slouch, but I lack almost all of their marine knowledge. I last took a science course that wasn’t labeled “information science” in the year 1999. They know more than me. Years more.

But they often don’t trust their own deep subject-specific knowledge, and our first few classes together are always an interesting dance of questions and responses. Many assume I’m asking them questions I already know the answers to, as I would with courses where I have more of a background. “Why is Lady Macbeth jealous?” “How did planes influence WWI?” etc.

Bayou on a foggy morning

But this is a different use of the librarian’s knowledge. When I ask what they mean by a ghost crab trap, I want to know the definition so we can look up synonyms. For their paper on cast netting, I am being serious in asking if they need to plan their collection time around tides or time of day — or whether either of these factors even matter when monitoring water quality? I’m curious if a “water goat” is something used at the individual or municipal level because we are eligible to apply for grants if this is something that would make sense to purchase for our bayou.  And when they tell me they are looking into a whelk’s “left-handedness,” come on, that’s just like click bait for librarians to follow up with more questions!

This is one of the first times that they are the content experts, and I want to help them learn to own that expertise. The teacher will help with experimental design, but I can use the “reference interview” to get a handle on the scope of their experiment, specialized vocabulary related to their topic, and ways to search in scholarly journals. I can help them parse an academic paper and design an academic poster, even if I can’t assess if all the information is factually correct. I can tell them “I don’t know” and that some questions are better directed to their teacher. In this project I’m no longer teaching them information skills as they progress; instead, I’m helping them build their confidence in using the library as a targeted resource to stay up to date on their topic. It’s the closest they can get to researching in a college library while still in high school.

The Poky Little Printer

Raise your hand if you’ve heard me harp about the student printer. That printer is locally famous enough to have made it into my Baccalaureate speech – celebrating a future where seniors never have to wait for that particular printer again. When we moved from iPads to BYOD, I smiled Grinch-like. My heart grew three sizes that day. That printer has a vendetta against iPads. Though, to be fair, it doesn’t have a particular love for Mac Books. And it’s only black and white. And only accessible if you are on the school wifi. Sometimes I’ll stand next to a student and watch as they send a print job only to see it sit stoically with a print queue of zero.

Like a moody cat that only loves its owner, I’ll admit that the printer likes me just fine. I can print from my PC. From my Mac. From my iPad!  I send a job from anywhere on campus and can count on it to churn up the copies exactly as requested. It’s dependable. Reliable. Loyal.

With some administrative restructuring last spring, I slipped into a new role. It’s both mentally adjacent to my previous role and physically indistinguishable – the same chair, the same view, the same printer to my left. I initially celebrated that printer management would fall to another. And yet…

The poky little printer—in its natural state

The following is a paragraph that I imagine will read as fantasy to those in larger schools. We’re a Google school, so my school email pops up any time a student hits the share button and types the letters “CP.” Because my library is a large L shape and is frequently used by our Study Out students, I tend to do a lot of my teaching in classrooms. Students are enterprising. I’d be working with World History or AP Lang, far from the library, and suddenly ping, ping, ping.

“Document shared with you.”
“Document shared with you.”
“Document shared with you.”

“Hold on class. Open. Print. Repeat.” When I asked students about this, I’d hear some variant of, “That seemed faster. It always works for you.” At its highest, this was twenty plus papers a day. And this was the solution students deemed easier. And while it might not be for the reasons I’d hope, this certainly showed that the students felt the library was central to their lives.

With some metaphorical distance – and an improved printer interface this fall – I’ve realized how many student interactions I gained from that printer and how much stronger I was as a librarian because of it. I’d have conversations with students every day about their work. When I had time, I’d ask about their projects. I’d make comments like, “Do you want to alphabetize that bibliography before printing?” or perhaps, “Ummm…remember this requires a bibliography. Want to print that too?” So many one-on-one conversations. And since just about any printing issue could be solved by sending it to me, most of those conversations ended with a student feeling like the library left them in a better place than they’d been a few minutes before. So later conversations might be, “How did this ICW compare to what you’ve been asked to do as a Precis in History?” “Tell me something you learned about how bees communicate.” “Why are you choosing to write about this book for your essay?” To say nothing of the SAT tickets, senior speeches, trip forms…

Obviously this isn’t an optimal library use strategy, but it is interesting what sorts of conversations come up during this involuntary quality time.

(In)visible Libraries?

A recent conversation about work with a family member prompted her to ask about the “essential duties” in my role. I paused. Most of what came to my mind was fuzzy. Saying yes to people. Answering questions. Searching. More searching. Searching again. Commiserating. Ideally making people’s days better. But not the technical services of library management. (Want to weed my collection or figure out some integration questions with our school’s LMS?)

An administrator recommended NAIS’s New View Edu podcast on school innovation, and as a bit of a podcast fiend, I’ve been catching up quickly. As our school grows its library department this year and I step into a newly-created role, this idea from Sanyin Siang in Schools for Developing Superpowers jumped out to me. I hit rewind when I heard her say that as roles change, “you have to let go of some of the things that you used to do, that you are really great at, and instead develop others.” This was the podcast equivalent of the librarian’s right book at the right time. I tend to add and add until I’m overwhelmed. If you’re like me and you needed to hear those words from a management professor, what’s one thing you can let go of this year? One.

But for now, her next lines are where I want to turn my attention. When librarians talk, a common conversation is about the invisibility of libraries. Whether in larger educational organizations or our own schools, operating efficiently sometimes feels like it’s supposed to seem seamless. And that can too quickly drift towards…

Yes, schools can function without libraries. But well-utilized libraries add so much value to schools. Returning to Siang, the next few minutes of the podcast spoke to me even more as she shared her theories about the roles of leadership, both the functional roles and the invisible roles that lead to organizational success. To a bit of the podcast transcript!

Sanyin Siang: Let’s play with that a little bit, because I think, you know, there’s functional roles, but then there’s also hidden roles that different people assume, right? … this has not been in an article yet, but an idea I’ve been playing with, is this idea of the four invisible roles that led to organizational continuity.

… One is the MENTOR or the coach, right? Because that’s a, you know, mentors are not just only imparting knowledge … they just can’t help but share out knowledge and the norms … basically they create that continuity.

The second type of person is the EMOTIONAL GLUE. We all know these people, this can be the executive assistant, or it can be the principal, you know, but this type of person, the emotional glue, the team is better when they’re on the court, but they’re, they’re great at assists, right? We don’t record assists. Uh, why not? You know, when assists are just as important …

And then a third type is the CATALYST … where they either are great at asking those questions that make us take a step wise leap in imagining, or they could be skeptics … But they pose something on the table that made us rethink.

Right. And then the last type I think about is the INTEGRATORS. So we know the importance of diversity on our teams, but given how busy everyone is, we also need that person who loves going around learning what everyone is working on. You know, and then they just, they just pollinate. They’re integrators. Great. Now intellectual cross pollinators. And these, I call them invisible roles because these roles exist sort of, we don’t intentionally create them in our organizations, but when they exist, at least they better chances of organizational continuity, but they’re not often that recognized.

Mentors. Emotional glue. Catalysts. Integrators. At first, I thought this would be like the Harry Potter houses where we can’t help but self identify. (Shout out to my fellow Ravenclaws!) But then I realized these four roles might be the most essential pieces of a librarian job description that I’ve never seen articulated. Who supports the community, asks meaningful questions, and “cross pollinates?” Your librarian. Thank you, Sanyin Siang for thinking about those intangibles and communicating to administration about why it might be worth building more intention into supporting these roles that make our schools better.

What Now, What Next?

When you finish a research project, what’s your next step? Anyone share mine?

Hi PW, So glad to see your students at the printer this morning with their final drafts in hand! Let me know when you have a few minutes in the next day or so to debrief about this year’s project and how we might improve it next year. Thanks, Christina

To complement my digital files online, I also keep a folder per class with research projects. At the top of each assignment, I put the year, what I did, how it was received, and a note with titles of any files linked to the assignment. After meeting with the teacher, I add a Post It with notes about how to make it better next year. These add up over time for a neat evolution of research and also work as a reference for new teachers looking for examples of the variety of ways the library can collaborate with classes.

In this, however, and in much of my life, there’s an unintended side effect. I don’t let things go. It’s never enough. Did I make enough brownies for the potluck? Is the recipe unique? Should I bring brownies to the teacher on lunch duty who can’t attend? Or offer to cover her lunch duty?  I remember my college used to host free movie previews, and I’d go with my roommates and sit next to them to movies none of us had heard of. And I’d think, “What if they think this is a waste of time?” Note that I didn’t need to suggest the movie to feel a sense of responsibility for their reactions. (So if you are reading this thinking, why am I not more thorough, know that thoroughness is not a recipe for contentment. When asked to set an intention at the beginning of a yoga class, I default to “Be here now.” And yet…)

Two years ago, when there was a lot more time for long hikes, I learned that memorizing poems during long hikes does bring me quite a bit of contentment. And roots me in the moment at hand. One such poem was Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter.”

And when I get overwhelmed, these are the lines that echo through my head:

And thick and fast
They came at last
And more and more and more

While technically about the naïve and hapless oysters hurrying to their own feast, to me the lines represent my thoughts, my goals, my expectations for myself.

As many of you know, I also coordinate the school’s Capstone program. It’s not the AP program but an advanced independent interdisciplinary research program intended for a few students each year. Two of their seven periods are devoted to their Capstone. The application process is purposefully cumbersome, weeding out students who might not have the background or the drive to motivate themselves over an entire school year. And during the application interview, students – who can speak knowledgeably about their annotated bibliographies and research goals – get stumped by some variant of this question.

“What will make you feel like you have met your goals on this project?”

Because it’s not the easy answers: “learning about this topic I love,” “when it’s finished after RISE,” or “publishing.”

In the fall, I have the students write or video weekly reflections about what they’ve done, short-term goals, coping with setbacks, and similar topics. They are much harder on themselves than their professional mentors. But, they also don’t have a lot of experience creating their own goals, meeting them, not meeting them and thus refining those expectations, and learning from all of the above. Throughout their lives, they’ve looked towards parents, teachers, and coaches for tasks and for validation that these tasks were completed successfully. And while my students seem to have a simplified view that “life skills” are changing tires, doing taxes, and sewing buttons, I’d say that making progress on your goals — and either being satisfied with their progress or creating more realistic goals — is something I encounter much more frequently as an adult.

Just as with many others’ more contemplative recent posts, I’m still figuring it out. Learning doesn’t stop at the classroom doors, and my students, especially the top students, need to learn to be kind to themselves when their plans don’t match their reality. Rather than tell them how to do this, can I sit with them and their thoughts as we all figure out our paths?

Because I had up to this point drafted far ahead of time, during a crunch period last week, I sat with one and shared what I had written up to this paragraph. To which she responded by saying that she had assumed her stress was about this project, not something she would carry as part of her into whatever projects she has in college and beyond. We bring ourselves and our energies wherever we go; and we need to remember there are times to push forward and times to pull back. Or paraphrasing the offbeat yet wise poetry of Shel Silverstein, remember Melinda Mae and the whale.

(Why) do you care?

The language in the last two posts spoke to me, both Tasha’s reactions to signaling verbs and Reba’s use of the phrase “getting a source done.” (I could write a whole post on my thoughts when students have that mindset.) Likewise, I have spent a lot of time in my head considering whether what’s happening — or not — with student work is the same as what I imagine.

Last month, after asking my brother what he wanted for Christmas, I received a text saying he wanted shelves for games.

Me: Type of shelf?
Him: I dunno whatever might be good for game storage I guess
Me: How many games? Do you want them visible?
Him: I mean id assume visible I don’t know like 20-30 games right now they are all stuffed in cabinets

I Google search terms like “best video gaming shelves” and “creative video game storage” and toggle to image searches. Yet he keeps telling me the shelves I’m suggesting are too small. Finally he sends this picture…

his game photo

We live in different states and haven’t really played board games since before the pandemic. I really did go back through my texts because I was so surprised. My brain had just filled in what I expected to find.

And back to searching. As many of us have noted, librarian skills enhance our lives outside the library. I found ones with excellent reviews in our price range and sent him the links for approval. (We’re not big on surprises.) Later conversations revealed that determining the “perfect” shelves was the actual gift. He could have bought the shelves himself if he had known what he wanted to buy.

organization by color

(Though the installation was part of the gift as well.) And with an artist for a wife, organization by color was a MUCH more aesthetically-pleasing choice than my hemming and hawing as I tried to organize by category. (Genrefiers, I’m impressed. I tend to second guess placing anything definitively in one genre.)

Too frequently, I’ve heard people say that students aren’t completing work because they don’t care. But what if it’s that they care too much? Or aren’t sure of the next steps? Or are afraid of feeling embarrassed? (Or, alright, sometimes are required to take a math/language/science class and “just don’t care.”)

I was talking with a student this fall about his missing bibliography. He couldn’t remember his Noodletools login. Since this had happened previously, he was self-conscious about losing it again.

A student missed the meeting to workshop her Senior speech before giving it in chapel. She hadn’t written it because she’d been awake stressing about it for several nights and had pages of notes on her innermost thoughts but no speech.

Or the students who didn’t print their completed papers after writing essays on iPads because they didn’t realize they had to click the “share and export” button in order to reach the “print” button. They didn’t want to risk being seen as tech newbies by asking.

And here’s where I celebrate being a librarian and not a teacher. I don’t have to question if a student is trying to pull something over on me. Librarians simply get to help, no grades attached. I’ve found myself asking more and more frequently, “what’s your next step?” Or “what’s stopped you from getting to X?” Or “where do you want to be with this?” And while I might be ending on a Pollyannaish note, it’s been fulfilling to try to reframe “why don’t you care? into “what do you care about?”

Did you hear what I said?

My school just hosted our first in-person conference day since October of 2019, and since I graduated out my previous advisees from the Class of 2021 in May, this was my first time meeting many of the families of my new group of Class of 2025 advisees. In preparation, I watched the NAIS webinar “Less Stress, More Success: Managing Back-to-School Nights and Parent Conferences for Maximum Impact” with Michael Thompson and Robert Evans. One of my main takeaways was reaffirming something I already believe. Take people seriously. They may be anxious or excited; either way, their feelings are real and valid to them. I will also put in a plug for the book Hopes and Fears Thompson and Evans released this summer. It is some of the most directly helpful professional reading I’ve done in years, and I can share with folks the five pages of notes I took as a result, particularly the toolkits that are geared towards helping educators communicate more constructively with families.

Which brings me to a conversation I had with one of my senior Capstone students, someone who is in the library 90 minutes each day building her research project. She and I talk multiple times each day, about academic sources, about college plans, about theater. One day I found a book on her Capstone I thought she’d find fascinating, but I was feeling pretty lazy as she sat twenty feet away.

Me: “Hey, can you come here for a sec?”
Student: “Yeah, yeah. I know what this is about. My 20 overdue books.”

Of my passions about library work, tracking down overdues is not in the top twenty. I run overdue notes once a month and then ramp up my attempts in December and May to talk to students directly to get the books back on the shelves. Needless to say, I don’t sit around on a random Tuesday stalking students who choose to study in the library and questioning their reading habits. My thought process was more, “I’m thrilled you’ve taken all the Psychology books home and are reading a ton. You’re a fabulous fit for Capstone.” But I can see how she might think, “I have a huge piles of books I need to return but keep forgetting, and why can I never remember to bring them in and why do I never remember. I just shouldn’t borrow books…”

Whenever the receptionist calls me to ask a student to stop by the front desk and they and their friends give the inevitable “oooh you’re in trouble” face, I remind them that I was called down earlier this year because a mom had baked cookies for a club I sponsor and had to wait until they were cool enough to pack for travel. So yes it could be detention but it could also be cookies. Cookies!

I’m counting on the inimitable Dottie Smay to confirm this next example. During the AISL Boston conference, we were eating at a bistro in the North End. When the waiter found out we were librarians, he was quick to share his memories of those dreaded buildings. He had been shushed as a child. Repeatedly. And I might be conflating library stereotypes but I’m pretty sure there was a strong association with fines and money collection. Dottie, ever the library cheerleader, offered to pay him an additional tip if he would walk through the doors of a library in the next year. Have you seen the Boston Public Library’s central branch? No dice. That negative connotation was just too strong.

 In our professional and personal lives, we’re all bringing our own histories—those hopes and fears—into the ways we approach each day and the interactions within. The words we say matter, as does the tone we use, and the subtext the listener hears. Returning to the notion of overdue notifications, my student’s response to receiving a note is grossly disproportionate to the occasion, even with the old text, “The following title is currently checked out to you. Please return to the library. If you believe you are receiving this note in error, see Mrs. Pommer.” Their worry over receiving such notes, however, did not correlate with a prompt book return rate.  On the listserv last spring, I shared how I changed my notifications.

The library is trying to locate all materials before inventory this spring.
Please return this slip to your advisor with one of the following options circled:
1. HERE IS THE BOOK.
2. I HAVE THE BOOK ELSEWHERE AND WILL RETURN LATER THIS MONTH.
3. I AM STILL READING; PLEASE RENEW.
4. I HAVE LOST THE BOOK.
5. I NEVER HAD THE BOOK.
6. I BELIEVE I RETURNED THE BOOK.
Thank you for using the library! Mrs. Pommer

While there were still students concerned I was judging them for keeping out books, I found many more students were perfectly willing to let me know the status of a book — including that it was lost — than ever before. Giving students the opportunity to explain themselves, even in a basic way, made a huge difference in their engagement.

Thoughts from others about ways their tone has been perceived differently than their intentions or how they’ve changed up procedures based on the responses they had received?

The Real Power of Primary Sources (or in Math Terms: Primary ≠ Best)

I’ve been thinking for quite a while about writing a post regarding primary sources. They are something we teach our students about every year because they are incredibly important. But sometimes our students think that they are almost omniscient, and really, in a sense, they’re the opposite. They’re a snapshot of limited, contemporary knowledge. They often need to be combined with a more distant vantage point to get a complete picture.

So, since this post is in the moment, prepare it to take quite the turn. First, though, here’s a conversation with students leading into primary sources.

LAST SEPTEMBER, During an 8th grade research lesson about primary sources and the perspectives they provide

Me: What was school like last spring?
Student A: We were sent home.
Me: When did you think you’d be back?
Student A: August.
Me: Didn’t you think you’d be back after spring break?
Student A: No. Me: Before the end of the year?
Student A: No, we knew it was all year.
Me (feeling analogy falling apart): Anyone else have a different experience?
WHOLE CLASS: No, we knew it in March.
Me (facepalm): Well, I’m glad to see you this year. About primary sources…

And pivot.

First the abridged version: A tree fell on my old house and while stressful, it was covered by insurance and ultimately fixed.

Our neighbors are my favorite! But still imagine getting these texts 1000 miles away.

Or the TLDR variety: During a lightning storm this summer a tree fell on my house, a 97 year old bungalow. We were traveling, and our neighbors noticed the next morning. There were three large puncture wounds and some structural damage, but repairs were covered by insurance. We were able to get someone to remove the limbs the next day. Unfortunately, a miscommunication with the roofing company meant that they didn’t come to tarp the roof for five days. In the Florida summer storm season. We had major water damage to our living room ceiling, though magically the water poured and pooled neatly into the two couches we were replacing upon returning to Florida. During reroofing, however, there was a wire splice and we learned our electricity wasn’t up to code. How convenient to be lacking a ceiling for easy access to the wiring! We still need to replace the broken patio tiles, crushed fence, and flattened plants, but we’re fine. The cats are fine. The house is mainly fine. This is just to say there’s been a lot on my mind since returning to school last month.

As a distraction, I walked into a craft store with my mom the night this happened and found this gem of a magnet that has made its way into my life and onto my fridge.

Which is why I’ve been thinking about an essay our AP Lang students are writing based on their summer reading of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. There’s more to the assignment, but the gist is this. Take a walk and “Like Bryson, you will write an essay that both tells the story of a true experience you’ve had, describes the setting of that experience in detail, and incorporates outside research that helps to communicate your purpose to the reader. In order to do this, you must HAVE an experience—or take a walk.” The immediate response by one student was whether they could use a walk they took in the summer. It was in the Grand Canyon. It was apparently spectacular. Eye-opening.

And I’m sitting there, probably distracted by knowing that I wake each morning to a snowy dusting of insulation on the hardwood, feeling like this student doesn’t get this assignment. It’s about experience, about presence, about the uncertainty of the moments beyond now.

Or to put it in literary terms, it’s fundamentally different to describe a book you’ve finished to one where you’re still immersed in the plot! Yes, I’ve tread in this territory before, but that’s the unique power of primary sources.

I keep saying it’s all where I focus my attention…

And here’s the addendum for eagle-eyed readers – this roof stuff was happening while I was staying unexpectedly in my childhood bedroom because of previously referenced “camper maintenance issues.” This spring we fueled up with watered-down diesel, and the fuel system replacement we got was incomplete. So en route to long-planned camping adventures, we instead got a second fuel system replacement, this one complete with fuel tank. (Note to all, especially me from 6 months ago: watered-down diesel is a really really REALLY big deal.) But wait, you say, didn’t you take that trip to Ithaca’s waterfalls?

Yes, two weeks later, writing on this blog about the experience as a planner of travelling with less than a plan. Because primary sources are immediate. They are personal. And of course they are biased. At that point, it was too close, too open. At the time, it felt too sad. (But it was just stuff, people!)  Now it’s a crazy story after a crazy year, and I have a whole new vocabulary for home and vehicle repairs. And, fingers crossed Friday, a drywall-dust-free beautiful new living room with my new favorite couches anchoring the house.

Please tell me I’m not alone in setting up fake boxes to see if my cats take the bait?

Still with me this Labor Day Monday? This is important because all you superstitious folks, I hear to expect things in threes. Camper, House, ???

Last Friday, just before lunch, I was grabbing a binder from the library’s Reading Room and heard a suspicious “plink, plink, plink.” Right in the spot where the AC had overflowed this summer and dripped straight onto two half shelves of books. Being the beginning of the year, the aptly descriptive “decide moldy books” went on my to-do list, as I was determining which of the approximately 30 books were salvageable, which were weedable, and which I wanted to repurchase.

Look at that mighty trash can! And pay no attention to the books from the previous leak on the left…

My library monitor set up a trash can; I called Facilities and headed to my lunch meeting. At the final bell of the school day, thinking of this very 3 day weekend, I walked down to facilities and asked if I should get trash bags to cover books on nearby shelves in case the entire tile collapsed. Slow dripping is one issue, tile-size splatter discovered three days later quite another.

Foreshadowing: “Dry Thinking Ahead Me” writing this post at 3:20pm Friday would have quite a different account to the “Damp What Next Me” writing at 3:30pm.

Somehow, after removing the ceiling tile to get at the splash pan, the bottom gave way. (Those of my generation—remember when people were slimed on Nickelodeon?) In planning to dryvac out the source of my worry, spray hit books from Isaac Asimov to Stephen King. I’ve never been so grateful for laminated book covers. Many were totally dry, a few were soaked through, and the rest had a few droplets along the heads or spines. We briefly discussed using the lunchroom freezers to store books, but instead went with the home remedy method of flipping them upside down on the floor, fanning the pages, and setting up large fans nearby. (The University of Michigan backs me up starting at step 6.)

Cue spotlight on the primary source through line of this post.

Well, right now I know I’m walking into this…

We are all doing our best!

And who knows what the day will bring next. I want to tell my students there’s no #adulting class that really prepares you. Know that uncertainties aside, I wish you all working transportation, solid roofs, and dry books going into this new school year!

Wonder-ful Google?

While camping this past week, a last-minute trip for much-needed nature, I spent a lot of hikes revisiting a question that’s been in the back of my mind for years. The landscape around Ithaca is famous for gorges and waterfalls. Straight from the Visitors’ Bureau…

Truth in advertising

Because of some camper maintenance issues, this trip was being reimagined and rebooked with about ONE DAY’S notice. Like many librarians, I’m a planner. And like many librarians, I’m a savvy searcher. Between tourism websites, travel blogs, and review sites, you can know seemingly everything about a place before you lock the doors to leave your home. But how does that change your expectations about the experience?

My working theory is that it shifts the baseline of expectation. If I’ve researched a trail, or a campground, or a restaurant, and know in detail the terrain, view or most recommended dish, that expectation is now my baseline, leaving me less room for serendipitous discoveries. When instead, I only research the outlines – for instance so I don’t get caught without a place to stay over 4th of July weekend – my days feel more full of wonder. More wonderful? Instead of checking off a mental box that I completed the task I set out to do, I’m constantly asking myself what’s next — what’s over that hill or around that corner?

Rock City vs. Rock City

Scenario One: Hold a map in your hands and walk towards a dot listed “Rock City.” (And question whether you want to walk on the “Rattlesnake Trail” to get there…)
Scenario Two: Google AllTrails and see it has a 4.5 star rating from 158 people who have included 248 photos. Officially, “Rock City Trail is a 1.4 mile heavily trafficked out and back trail located near Morgantown, West Virginia that features beautiful wild flowers and is good for all skill levels. The trail is primarily used for hiking, walking, nature trips, and birding and is accessible year-round.” Begin reading or listening to hundreds of reviews. Know the exact moment you reach Rock City and where to take an iconic selfie.

Entrance to Rock City. Found sans Internet

This past year was draining on all of us. While we faced uncertainty about big-picture questions related to the virus and the United States, we also faced a lot of monotony in our day-to-day lives. While seated at my desk in the library, my fingers can access just about anything the Internet can provide. On slippery rocks, however, my focus is more immediately careful foot placement. This past week, I walked by waterfall after waterfall with little knowledge about which was more famous or tallest or featured in a movie (or that there was—surprise— another waterfall). And I had no cell service between the cliffside walls to get that information, so instead of staring at the screen in my hands, I broadened my view to the moss and eddies and rock striations. Just yesterday, the Gorge Trail led to the Bear Trail and the end of the park map. In real life, there was a sign for a lake. Which led to a picnic glen. A lake trail. A heron gliding over a marsh I hadn’t known was there a minute before. A question from the only other hiking group about whether this was a good place to swim. (Ummm…not sure I’m your girl for that info, but go for it if you want.) In-the-moment decision making about whether thunder indicated an imminent or distant storm.

Benefit of trails in glens and gorges is almost constant shade

A half line from Robert Frost kept popping into my head: “Yet knowing how way leads on to way.” Yes, I doubted I’d be back this way again. On this path. In this weather. In this mindset. In writing this, I remember that I had actually planned to start the aforementioned hike with the rim trail and end in the gorge and only switched because of an off-hand comment a few days previously about how waterfalls look bigger when you are looking up at them. The unexpected lake wouldn’t have been obvious if I had chosen that route.

“Yet knowing how way leads onto way,” how similar to my online life. Alltrails.com to weather.com to reserveamerica.com one day while other serpentine web searches might start on the same trail at Buttermilk Falls and end – in as much as searches ever end – with a search for the country where pancakes originated.

This scale is what I’ve been missing from my local trails

Since I usually have my phone at my fingertips, ready to answer any question I might ask, I forget how rejuvenating it can be to have time for unanswered questions. Long uninterrupted conversations that aren’t being fact-checked in real time. Learning to anticipate waterfalls because of the ways they affect all five senses, not because I’ve been following directions from a website. Most of the time, I love that the Internet provides an outlet for my curiosity and all the answers I could seek. But perhaps there is a corollary to more predictable travel planning in that novelty is harder to grasp, limiting awe.

Wherever you are this summer, I hope that you are getting what you need for a fall reset. After all the disruptions to the last school year, I’m counting on libraries being busier than ever as people appreciate being able to gather together in larger spaces again.

Why I *SOMETIMES* Pull Books

Past Me wrote this post just over a month ago while on spring break. This isn’t the first time where I’ve looked at Past Me and said, “Whoa—you have no idea what lies ahead.” (See accepting AISL presidency while a pandemic loomed on the horizon.)

On Friday, the day of RISE, the half-day senior research symposium I coordinate, I received this email from the teacher who leads the Global Issues project:

On Fri, Apr 30, 2021 at 9:33 AM Chris wrote: I know its cray cray time of year, maybe we streamline it a bit…Chalk it up to crazy Covid and us creating an internal conference but I’d love to pop up there next week Wed. Thursday to get the kids resources and then we can focus on writing and revision the last week before IQ.  If you can swing that let me know, if not, no judgment!  Just honestly let me know what you think you can swing.

Yes, it’s possible for an email to both induce panic and reduce stress. For all my Type A planning, he is as equally Go With The Flow. I found him and confirmed that I could lower my involvement this month and it wouldn’t be placed on my permanent record. Considering I’ve been involved with this project since this year’s seniors were sixth graders and I was doubly involved last year while virtual, why do I feel like I’m losing my library cred? He knows exactly what I normally teach and can supplement accordingly, and the students still have two days of classes in the library, the only two days the library is open to students between AP Spanish and senior exams. They’ll search together for digital resources, supplemented by books as feels natural based on our conversations about their topics.

I have talked with a lot of people this year about being our own harshest critics. In the AISL  Libraries IRL session, we focused on the difference between factors we can control and those we cannot. And mindset fits here as well. In addition to my general eagerness to pull books this time of year…

  • The school moved up graduation by a week since it will be outdoors, and we want to avoid the Florida heat as much as possible. (You are correct to sense a domino effect on the exam schedule…)
  • Virtual students will take exams on campus, one student supervised by one proctor, almost doubling the number of proctors needed. I’m expecting five sessions rather than two. (Could this optimistically mean 10 hours of quiet work time?)
  • I am Lead Advisor for the Class of 2021 and Baccalaureate speaker the following week. (Yes I have a draft of my speech, but I’m reminded it’s not where I want it to be. Proctoring revisions?)
  • I am getting on an airplane for the first time since 2019 to fly to Maryland for Mother’s Day, causing me to miss a day and a half of school when I’d usually be working with the 6th grade. (This is the ultimate seesaw of guilt and gratefulness based on what I’ve learned about my own values in the pandemic. Family is key.)
  • In brainstorming for this year’s Global Issues project this winter, we planned an all-day “Coping with COVID” conference in conjunction with the Health Department, our global sister schools, and all 6th grade subject teachers for this Wednesday! The students are going to be so much more prepared for research the following week after watching experts talk about COVID responses from a variety of perspectives, in a format that models our approach to organizing their papers. (So instead of feeling like a delinquent, why isn’t this accomplishment where I’m focusing my attention?)

And we now transition from an honest assessment about how I’m feeling this weekend, compared with my feelings the first week of April, a week I camped near the beach far from school. I need to remind myself that this year can be a reset, and the post below will better reflect what’s happening in my library May of 2022.

While I feel like I’m backing down, I have a new “Coping with COVID” conference and a day in the classroom this week, 2 days in the library next week, and access to files on Google Classroom. Even if it’s not embedded librarianship, it’s not nothing. Anyone have tips on being your own best friend and not your own toughest critic?


Earlier this spring, a colleague and I presented at a summit on Teaching Global Writers. I’m officially the librarian for grades 7-12, but we’ve developed a transition project for World Cultures that we teach to the sixth graders in May. As we brainstormed about how we wanted to organize our presentation, focusing on our values, our goals, and our process, we had a slide about “items to consider.” This could also have been called, “what you might be concerned about,” but hey, positive language. Obviously, time was number one – for him, me, and the class. Also practicalities like how much scaffolding to offer and how to best help 12 year olds build long-term independent time management skills. But, we had this conversation more than once:

Me: I have to mention I pull books.
Chris: It’s fine. No one will notice
Me: There’s a photo of it.
Chris: Will librarians even notice?

First question after our presentation: “How do you find the time to pull the books?” First, remember we’re a smaller school with a print collection under 20,000 and only about 60 students in the sixth grade. So the scope isn’t what you might be picturing. It actually goes pretty fast. I have a million colored sticky notes in a drawer. I assign each class a color and pull out a bunch of tabs and write a student’s name from the roster on each one. Since the project is on “global issues,” a lot of the books are located near each other. So that one endangered animals book might have four tabs at the top.  I have a strong spacial memory, and I can pull a fair number based on a general recollection of where I saw them last and the shape of the spine. Until restrictions on campus guests this year, I have benefitted from a few long-term parent volunteers who I trust with the task. When in doubt, they’ll pull a few or put an asterisk by a student’s name, greatly streamlining my time.

Stacks of global issues books

I’m posting this because I think that as independent school librarians, we all have procedures that might work well for our own school but not for others. This post isn’t a push for others to implement this practice. It’s actually an apology because in the presentation, I answered the how but not the why. And whys are important for figuring out if there’s a reason for the how.  Here’s why I pull books for our sixth graders.

  • This is their official introduction to me. We have one day in the classroom brainstorming project ideas, and then the students walk across campus for their first time in the Sunshine Library as budding “Middle School researchers.” They’re both excited and intimidated by that walk, and that when they arrive; there might be seniors at a neighboring table. This is my chance to make them feel a little more comfortable, an immediate sense of belonging. It’s also a pretty good introduction to me as a person who will help support their research in this project and for the next six years.
  • I present it as a present just for them. Here’s a gift to get your project launched. As with the previous point, it helps to make a good first impression.
  • Do you all work with sixth graders? I hadn’t before this project. I hadn’t even worked with Middle Schoolers before starting at Saint Stephen’s. Newsflash: they need more guidance than 9th graders! Their projects can address any global issue, meaning there’s a lot of variability. Chris and I are most productive in individual research consultations with each student, especially because many students choose topics that are personally very meaningful to them. This gives everyone somewhere to start gathering background knowledge as we talk with others.
  • By this point, you’re probably asking why I don’t have them search the catalog for their own books. This actually started because we had some turnover in the library a few years back. We had a few months without a librarian, and I wasn’t sure what was being taught or when.
    • Necessity is the mother of invention. But it’s continued because…
    • We have limited time to complete this project, and it’s basically organized on top of my daily schedule with the Middle and Upper divisions to be shoehorned into when I’m likely to be freest. This is generally when students are already reviewing for exams but before they take exams in the library. I could spend a day teaching the catalog, a skill some know and some don’t, or I could move them towards higher-level skills of source analysis. There are three days total for research before they move back to the classrooms (hello exam library!) to begin creating their paper.
    • Even when students know how to use the catalog, we have two libraries. Sixth and seventh grade materials are often interchangeable and could be found in either. We don’t allow students to cross campus without supervision, so this ensures the books are in one place ready to be used.
    • Students have chosen global issues ranging from endangered rhinos to ebola to teen depression. Needless to say, as a k-12 collection, some materials are better suited to sixth graders than others. For this project, I’d rather they have success with a book in their hands than choose a book for which they are not the intended audience. I find small successes build research confidence, which I’d argue is an essential research skill.
  • By having books in their hands within a minute of entering “their new library,” class time is spent on reading, thinking, note-taking, and analyzing. I do want to note, also, that we don’t require books for this assignment. This isn’t about giving them a place to start.
  • We try to complete the project during class time so the work is fully the student’s. The books move from the cart to the children’s hands and back again. I would like to have more accurate circulation numbers, and while I could just check out the entire collection to a “Grade 6” account, this is almost as fast and much more representative of collection use. In checking the books out, I’m getting a reminder of each student’s name and photograph.
  • Which brings me to what is probably the main reason this is worth it for me.
  • The sticky notes have their names! I love our school’s promise. “Every student is known and every student is valued.” I crisscross campus past their playground multiple times each day and I pop into Lower School classes. Even though they generally know my name, I don’t know these kids. I have yet to have a kid piece together that I know their name because of a sticky tab poking out from the top of their book rather than because I actually know them. Virtually, Google Docs and Google Classroom is also a savior for this.
Pre-pandemic research time

In foreshadowing for a future post, I will share that I am not the person you should ask about work-life balance. I frequently stay late, and I have trouble moving to “non-work” mode even when I’m home. Taking my email off my phone was an incredibly smart decision for me. But this hasn’t been something that’s taken a lot of time, and I’ve noticed a lot of benefits.

Does this ring any bells? Is there anything that someone new to your library might be surprised you do? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

What’s an Information Professional Anyway?

Later this month, the board will share some demographic results from this winter’s planning survey. Thank you to the members who took the time to share their thoughts, especially those who wrote about what AISL has meant to them and how it can stay professionally relevant in coming years. One of the questions elicited an interesting conversation at my school about titles. Teacher titles are more standardized across schools, administrator titles less so. Librarian titles, the least of all. Do titles matter? What do we learn from titles?

In tabulating survey responses to this question, there were 91 unique responses, even with combining some titles like Middle School and Middle Division Librarian into one response. There were 47 different supervisory titles!

AISL supervisory titles

Those outside our profession tend not to understand why we care about being named a Librarian over Media Specialist, or Media Generalist over Library Specialist. My own director calls me Director of Libraries though I prefer the streamlined Library Director that’s listed on my nametag.

More AISL member titles

Perhaps this is the first part of our advocacy outside of the profession, an advocacy that’s so clearly needed about the training an MLIS offers and the ways that a strong library curriculum can enhance the mission of a school. Those who are virtual indicated that it’s become clearer in the absence of physical facilities that many administrators think of libraries more as static places for student supervision and book circulation rather than dynamic instructional and technology leaders.

Thinking back to the high school I attended as well as the one where I work, a teacher who is told they are teaching Geometry or Spanish One has a pretty good sense of what to expect. With changes in education over the past twenty-five years, this is less true for course like Engineering or American Literature, though many goals are still the same. But how similar are the roles of Instructional Librarian, School Librarian, and Teacher Librarian? And let’s tread carefully into speculating the job responsibilities of the Director of Library and Technology Integration, the Director of Libraries and Strategic Research and the 21st Century Learning Coordinator.

Current NAIS postings

One of the other survey questions asked what your administration would say based on their own knowledge if asked to choose the top three roles the library plays in the school. The top three answers provided by members were “collection management,” “reading advocacy and support,” and “student instruction.” That’s a positive statement about their understanding of the library, though it’s less heartening that fewer members chose “faculty instruction” than “I don’t think they have a sense of what the library does.” Even in informal settings, educating faculty and keeping them up-to-date on new trends is incredibly important in the library.

I was curious about this in my own school. While planning this post, I asked my Division Director and Academic Dean to choose three based on their knowledge of my job. I’m happy that each of them chose two of the ones I had chosen for myself.

Member responses about administrative knowledge of library roles

(For those keeping track, I’d say: Student Instruction, Faculty Instruction, and Technology Support. They said respectively – Student Instruction, Reading Advocacy and Instruction, and Technology Support – and – Student Instruction, Student Supervision, and Faculty Instruction. I’ll take it, especially since they both immediately listed Student Instruction as the top priority.)

In thoughts on advocacy, the plethora of titles got me thinking about a longer plan to collate expectations in job descriptions and share this with the larger educational community. From listserv queries and casual conversations, we’ve all had the sense that what library means at one school doesn’t correlate with its meaning at another. Even basic data collection shows there is no independent school consensus that defines our profession. I’m not suggesting that the job expectations should be standardized, just that we —and our schools —need to understand the variance about what happens in the library.

Sidenote: Whoever decided that librarians should be called school library media specialists must have had the most effective PR campaign ever! Even though AASL decided to revert to the title school librarian eleven years ago in 2010, I still have people (generally older) apologize each month for using the outdated term librarian and not media specialist.

Stay tuned for more detailed survey information and feel free to share if you have any thoughts on your job title or the expectation for the library’s role at your school.