Nothing Propinks like Propinquity

The Oxford English Dictionary‘s first definition of ‘propinquity’ is “nearness or closeness in space; neighbourhood, proximity”, but there is more to it than that. P.G. Wodehouse depended on this very phenomenon when he created his world of genteel country estates and comedic romances engendered by the nearness of those staying under one roof for any significant time. Jeeves enlightens Bertie Wooster in Right Ho Jeeves (1934) when Bertie asks, “What do you call it when two people of opposite sexes are bunged together in close association in a secluded spot meeting each other every day and seeing a lot of each other?” Jeeves replies, “Is ‘propinquity’ the word you wish, sir?” Bertie: “It is. I stake everything on propinquity, Jeeves.” The title phrase above is itself a chapter heading in Ian Fleming’s Diamonds Are Forever (1956). Whoever coined the phrase, it’s genius.

We, too,  depend quite a bit on propinquity in the world of school libraries. We spend a good deal of time, effort and treasure to make sure we have the materials our students need at the time that they are needed, and we rely on the ‘nearness or closeness in space’, of having resources readily available, to ensure our students will make good use of these resources.

The care and feeding of a collection of materials to support the curriculum is of course a primary function of school librarians, but a not inconsequential secondary function is the care and feeding of student interests partnered with the broadening of horizons where student reading is concerned.

In this secondary function, propinquity is of utmost importance.  A student returning from the water fountain to the library table where his things are settled passes by the newspaper stand, slows down–catching the headlines of the New York Times displayed there– stops, slowly picks up the front page and spends perhaps five minutes reading the article. Five minutes later he is back on his way to the table where he takes out his math homework and gets down to business. There it is: Propinquity in the process of propinking! The paper needs to be there, displayed to advantage, and easily accessible, for the connection to be made.

The same process is in play when a student ambles past the magazine display, glances at Car and Driver, notices an eye-catching cover story from a nearby Atlantic Monthly magazine (maybe “The Fraternity Problem: It’s Worse Than You Think” from March 2014, or “How Genius Happens” with a Shepard Fairey Lennon & McCartney cover from July/August 2014) and picks that up. We know this happens because we see it happening, but also because we find all types of library magazines left about the place. This is one time I LOVE cleaning up after the students. Reshelving Bloomberg Business News, The Nation or New Yorker… now THAT’S exciting stuff!

Much is made of discoverability these days, and for good reason. It is hard enough to find what you want when you KNOW what you want, say for your Art History project. It’s a real challenge when you don’t yet know what you want, and maybe you don’t even know that you’re looking for something.  We need to provide our students with intriguing and inspiring material to foster interest in things known and unknown, authors familiar and new. At our academically rigorous Upper School, many students are highly scheduled, but I notice that our students tend to find the time for activities that interests them, whether that’s connecting with friends on social media, following favorite music or TV shows, or reading books, digitally or in print, self-provided or found in the library. Putting students in close proximity with materials that may catch their interest is an important part of a librarian’s role. Having a copy of Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim on hand for the ‘Library Book of the Week’ display with cover and blurb included in the daily bulletin is one step in the ‘matchmaking’ process. Bringing that (newish, attractive paperback) book across the room toward the display, passing a table of voracious and inquisitive readers who (I know) dream of going to Oxford and Cambridge one day (yes, they argue about who will go to which), and saying to them “Okay, here’s the funniest book ever written about the pomposity of academic pretense in the Oxbridge world”– that’s the trigger. When two students say “Me Me!” that’s pure joy to this librarian.  It helps that this was two days before the Thanksgiving break, that I knew these students from our book club and knew that two students in particular loved intricate, involved novels. The connection isn’t always made, but you need to have the bait– er– books, magazines and newspapers on hand, in the library, in close proximity to where students hang out — for this to work.

Notice I’m talking about physical materials here. Yes, there is a thrilling rush in getting an ebook from the library, downloaded immediately to one’s device, but … there’s that discoverability thing again. The student would need to know they wanted a book, go to the library website, click click click (how many clicks before students give up?), search, find a book, download, and then it’s done. If it all works smoothly, that is. The immediacy of the physical item is really… immediate.

One element of our Library Mission Statement is to foster a life-long love of reading. This is an intangible goal but a vital one. We need to make use of every tool at our disposal, not the least of which is propinquity. It really is true: “Nothing Propinks like Propinquity.”

Ebola! Ebola! Ebola!

Not too long ago I came upon a blog posting on Washington Post’s The Intersect by Caitlin Dewey (October 2, 2014) with the catchy title/subtitle “Popular on Amazon: Wildly Misleading Self-Published Books On Ebola By Random People Without Medical Degrees” and it prompted me to look into the world of publisher credibility. A (young) teaching colleague has often defended the “Wiki world” of crowd-sourced information, saying that Wikipedia is often more accurate and complete than other older published titles, and championing the whole crowd-sourcing phenomena as largely reliable. Prompted by Dewey’s posting, I took the opportunity to check through the list of titles resulting from a keyword search of Ebola in Ingram’s ipage (our main book supplier) as well as those same results available in Amazon Books.

ebola1The top book in the Amazon search was David Quammen’s Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus, published October 20, 1014 (the day of this writing, likely the effect of “Publish on Demand”). Hot off the press, as they say. This title is published by W. W. Norton, complete with reviews by known reviewers as well as readers. Once you take a closer look, though, you see the note: “Extracted from Spillover by David Quammen, updated and with additional material”. Spillover was published in September 2013, so it’s been updated to included new material reflecting the current Ebola outbreak. Okay, this is an understandable response from a known publisher to spruce up a related title to address the current hot-button topic. Just change that obscure title of “Spillover” to “Ebola” and voila! Watch the sales soar.


The second title in Amazon was Ebola Survival Handbook: A Collection of Tips, Strategies, and Supply Lists From Some of the World’s Best Preparedness Professionals, published September 22, 2014 by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; number 3 is Richard Preston’s classic The Hot Zone, reprinted by Anchor in 2012. Next: Ebola Pandemic Survival Guide, published by Amazon Digital Services in 2014 (no author specified); 99 cents will get you 23 pages of information here. Down the list is a whole range of ebola titles, including Obama Invented Ebola : The Illuminati Truth; Ebola is Here!: Will You Survive a Global Pandemic? and What Obama Doesn’t Want You to Know About Ebola : 9 Horrifying Truths.  The majority of the Ebola titles from farther down the Amazon list have the clear notice: “Please note that the content of this book primarily consists of articles available from Wikipedia or other free sources online.”



Looking at the Ingram list, I found a wide range of titles; Amazon doesn’t have a corner on the market of ‘junk science’. Some sample titles: Ebola Pandemic Survival Lists: The 7 Lists That Show You How To Prepare And Keep Your Family Alive During A Pandemic; Ebola, Mh17: the Hidden Truth, Clairvoyant/Psychic Predictions and Diagnoses by Clairvoyant Dimitrinka Staikova … the list goes on. It took me a bit of careful reading to see that third on Ingram’s list is Ebola Virus 100 Page Lined Journal : Blank 100 Page Lined Journal for Your Thoughts, Ideas, and Inspiration. This is a blank journal designed especially for your ebola thoughts and inspirations. Buy yours now!

One title listed at Ingram is Roy E. Lique’s Lured by the Allure of the Seas: The Perfect Cruise Vacation with Avert-Ebola Suggestions. Lique’s title was originally published some (unspecified) time ago,  about cruising with his wife,  but now he’s added a section about the “Ebola emergence”, tacked on due to the fact that “Ebola is a malignant threat to the health and well being of everybody specially in crowds as in cruises”.  Then there is this title: Ebola Virus is a Scam : but There Are Three Cures by Chinedu Akpa. From the “publisher marketing” paragraph: “Those evidences are what the media have never presented to the world because if they do, the whole world will realize that it is a scam and also that there are THREE CURES. Those are what you will find out about this Ebola virus from this piece…” This particular gem is priced at $300.00. And of course, is not returnable. In fact, most of these self-published Ingram titles are not returnable.

Caitlin Dewey’s blog post at The Intersect states that in the 90 days before October 2, “some 84 people have self-published Ebola e-books on Amazon… many of them are popular, crawling their way up the bestsellers’ list to sit atop categories, such as health and medicine. Many of them are well-reviewed by their readers, who vow to buy Hazmat suits or start vitamins based on what they’ve read. And many of the books — almost all of them, in fact — contain information that’s either wildly misleading or flat-out wrong”.  This is the battle we’re fighting. This is our cause. To teach our students and our faculty to be critical users of information. To teach them how to evaluate what they find and to pick and choose the ‘best’ information for their needs. And part of this — admittedly the least exciting part– is to teach our students and faculty to be patient enough to wade through the fine print to see whether this is a title collected up from free posts on the ‘web, or reprinted from something 10 years old.  Even in the face of EBOLA!, we need to take our time and evaluate our information. Reminds me of an old saying, quoted in Joe Jackson’s “Sunday Papers”: “They wouldn’t print it if it wasn’t true”.  Would they?


Upper School Book Club: One Success Story

They came bouncing in, groups of two and three, full of questions. “Are we meeting here this year?” “What’s our book?” “Did we get kicked out of the library?” and of course “Where are the snacks?”  A group of maybe twelve upper schoolers came together in Seaver 308 to start another year of Book Club.  We had half returning members and half new faces. At first everyone gathered around the books scattered across the front table. I’d collected up an assortment of ten different titles, a mix of levels and genres, each with a brief synopsis, and there was immediate conversation bubbling up.   This collection was both insurance — in case there were not enough suggestions for new titles for the year– and a sort of ‘priming the pump’. As you know, for readers, often all it takes to generate conversations about books is: a pile of books.

In the eight years I’ve been at my current school we’ve only had success with a student book club starting last year.  The widely held understanding was that our students were so consumed with the high level of academic achievement expected of them that they had no time to read ‘for fun’. These kids ‘didn’t read’. They didn’t have time. There wasn’t space in their jam-packed schedules for something so frivolous.

Librarians know that this isn’t entirely true. We see all sorts of titles, from the frivolous to the literary, move off our shelves, often quietly and with little adult involvement. And of course, any time you make such broad assumptions about ‘these kids’, you’ll end up immediately with examples that prove you wrong.  SOME kids DO read, and it became my quest to foster this interest and to give these students a space to explore.

With our second year of Book Club starting up and showing strength in numbers, I’m hopeful that we’ve come up with a winning recipe. Knock Wood–I don’t want to jinx anything!

Here are the basic elements contributing to our success:

1. Keep it Short and Sweet

It’s true that our students are heavily committed, with academics, sports, and other extracurriculars, so in order to make this at all possible, we meet for 25 minutes every other week.  Anything longer and students begin to see it as ‘too much’. We set our meetings to occur between the end of the last class and the departure of the first bus.

2.  Attendance and participation are not required

We have a “come if you can” policy, and there is no requirement to have read the book. Once this becomes seen as an obligation, we have defeated our purpose.

3. The only requirement is to be respectful of differing opinions

One element of the student book club that I had not anticipated is the very emotional issue of reading choices and their connection with the teen psyche. Reading opinions are often very strongly held. We work on the idea that different people have different tastes, that tastes change over the years, and that everyone’s views are to be respected.

4. Everyone participates in book suggestions.

We found that students were much more invested in reading other students’ suggested titles when they knew their own suggestions would also be on the list. Each student suggested a title at the first meeting, and those titles were put into a hat and randomly selected to make up a schedule of upcoming titles. I had provided an  ‘Introductory Book’ for our first meeting so there would be something to talk about, but remember that there will be less time for discussion at the first meeting as there will be organizational details to iron out.

5. Work from the designated list, and create a schedule of meetings and titles

Students will be able to ‘read ahead’ if they like, or make sure to show up for particular meetings if they want to be in on discussion of a favorite title. With our first meeting of 12 students, we had enough suggestions for 6 months of meetings. That leaves about two months (giving space for vacations) that can be scheduled later in the year for students who join later.

6. Snacks!  Movies!

I worked with the Book Club President to make sure there was a supply of goodies at each meeting. At the end of the year we had a special Movie Meeting when we watched Stand By Me (The Body by Stephen King was one of our titles last year). This was a big hit, and there has been demand for additional movie events. I suspect that if there were many of these scheduled, however, we would come up against Rule Number 1: Keep it Short and Sweet. We will explore adding a Movie Meeting right before Winter Break, perhaps, hoping for the right balance between Not Enough Fun and Too Much Fun.

There are two additional factors that have played a big part in the success of our book club. We have a very organized student leader who is Benevolent Dictator and manages all the organizational details. Our meetings are too short for Roger’s Rules of Order, elections and the like.  Our Fearless Leader is good at delegating tasks when necessary, and the system works really well for us.

We also benefit from a hugely successful Book Bistro program at our Middle School, with Anna Martino as advisor. Having a batch of lively readers coming into the Upper School each year has been key. While we’ve tried student book clubs in the past, they were unsuccessful until the Middle School’s Book Bistro built a solid base for us.

Bottom Line

We have developed a book club that works for us. The meetings are so short one might be forgiven for thinking that they were unimportant or inconsequential. My view is that our club is a springboard for student discussions away from our official meetings. We are building a community of readers with a shared vocabulary and common ground, where students can pass in the halls and exchange updates on recent books, and the conversation continues even if someone misses the meeting. The next book club book is available behind the library desk, where students can see it as they check other items out.

We had to start meeting in Seaver 308, just down the hall from the library, because our book club meetings had grown so boisterous that it was a constant challenge to ‘keep it down to a dull roar’ when we met in the library. No, we were not ‘kicked out of the library’, as one student asked at our first meeting. We just had to find a space that would allow for the exuberant exchange of ideas that went on at our book club meetings. I know that a successful student book club is as much a result of each year’s complement of students—some are better at this than others— as anything else, and I am very grateful for the success we’ve had so far.   Knock Wood—I don’t want to jinx it!

Your turn!  What has worked well with your book club? What has not? Are there other successful Upper School Book Clubs out there? What is YOUR secret?

Top 10 Reasons to be happy to go Back to School

shooting star

10.      You can finally drop last year’s experimental “Let’s See If It Works” project (“Lesson learned!”).

9.       You can start up a new experimental “Let’s See If It Works” project (“This will work GREAT!”).

8.       You get to hear about everyone’s summers and catch up with old friends (see item 1 below before attending that first Back To School BBQ)

7.       You get to see how much last year’s sophomores have changed now they’re this year’s juniors (often triggering thoughts of time travel and /or suspended animation because there is NO WAY these changes happened in just 3 short months!)

6.       You get to implement that one fix that came to you out of the blue while stargazing in the Sierras. Finally, the solution to that one thing that has been pestering you for years. It’s really so simple!

5.       You get to meet this year’s new students. They all look so young and eager.

4.       You get to meet this year’s new faculty, and have the wonderful chance to make a great first impression.  Here is your chance to implement that new project you’ve been wanting to try!

3.       June is ONLY 9 short months away!

2.       After collecting up all your notes from the summer, now is your chance to make those practical changes to library office, general layout, front desk, workflow, and start out with a fresh new landscape.

1.        You finally get to talk BOOKS to your hearts’ content, finding out what students have been reading, what faculty are recommending, how they like what you’re reading, making those matchups with the right book and the right person. Social media, GoodReads, anonymous reviews—there is no substitution for face-to-face real time interactions about the wonders of books.

Top 10 Challenges of Going Back to School

1.       Remembering Everyone’s Names: I mean… EVERYONE’S names. Including those in your immediate department. Solution: review last year’s Yearbook—the photos are especially helpful. Spend extra time on faculty names and faces. There is no exemption for those oldest and dearest friends on staff. ALL names are suspect after a truly relaxing summer.


Okay, I couldn’t come up with 10 real challenges of going back to school. We are lucky to be in a profession where we get to participate in that annual renewal process known as Back to School, and actually be part of the excitement of getting to start fresh, with a clean slate and new opportunities—each and every year! Somehow the smell of new school clothes and the thought of that exciting shoebox with brand new Hush Puppies are popping into my head. And for me, the smell of those lovely pink Amaryllis known as Naked Ladies is a sure sign of the melancholy end of summer inextricably tied up together with the thrill of First Day of School.

What does ‘Back to School’ look, sound, smell like to you?


Summertime Reading : a Family Memoir

Summertime is a time of relaxed schedules, unusual outings and for many just plain ‘extra time’. For my family it has always been connected somehow to extra summer reading. In fact, the phrase “Social Reading” is one that really does apply when my three sibs and I get together. Although we live thousands of miles apart, when we get together, you can often find us sprawled around any and all available seating, quietly reading away. There will be occasional “oh you have to hear this part!” and “Can I borrow that after you?”, and when books are handed over to others we are sure to be clear—this book can be given away to anyone, or it is lent on terms of returning to ‘the family’. Not that the book is valuable—usually it’s a battered paperback—but we know others in the family would like it. Thus we continue to build a family vocabulary of particular authors and titles.

For twenty years we have had family gatherings of my sibs and our 8 children, together with the grandparents, and most often we would gather in some small mountain town. It was a tradition that we would all collect up our extraneous books and bring them along for a grand family swap. One time we were playing Dictionary (a homemade sort of Balderdash) which absolutely requires a dictionary. None of us brought one that summer, so I made a trek to the Alpine County Library in Markleeville, where I presented my ALA card and cajoled the librarian into lending me a dictionary, just for the week. Yes, I did return it, but I still have my Alpine County Library card as a souvenir.

Some memorable family reads include Robert Crais for Los Angeles detective thrills, Margaret Atwood’s Maddadam trilogy for thought provoking futuristic thrills and Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon series for backcountry wilderness thrills. Robin Hobbs’ Assassin, Mad Ships and Fool series kept my two sisters and I enthralled during one road trip through the Rockies; we found it very hard when two of us had finished a volume and the other was still in the middle of it—not being able to go into particulars while in the throes of Oh My Goodness Can You Believe He Did THAT?!? was particularly frustrating. There were occasional whispered Q and A’s between two of us while the third sister kept fingers in ears singing La La La. Then when one of us was ready for the next volume but another sister was still finishing it, no one was allowed to talk to that sister until she’d finished her book. “No talking to Sarah til she finishes Mad Ship!” With that series, there were 9 volumes to keep us all busy all the way to Banff and back.

Canada Road Trip 204

One other aspect of family summer reading is tied up with our annual summer backpacking trips. My dad, George Sweeney, completed the Pacific Crest Trail in pieces over twelve years in the 70s and 80s, and was nice enough to bring his family along for much of it. When backpacking, weight is an issue, so there was often much conversation about what books everyone would bring. If we brought titles that others were also interested in, then we could swap our titles and everyone’s library would be extended. I fell short one summer up in the Oregon Cascades, when the rain kept us to our tents more than usual, and my Dad finished all the books we had brought. The last title available was a Barbara Cartland I had slipped into my pack for old time’s sake. Yes, George Sweeney read even that—I think it gave him a few giggle fits. Now that Dad has passed away one of our favorite photos of him is on a pack stop, sitting with feet outstretched, leaning against his pack, reading a paperback while looking out from the top of Nevada Falls over the stunning Yosemite Valley. I took that photo, and remember the day, the trip (with my brother Phil) and even the book he is reading: The Beast by Peter Benchley. A perfect backpacking book.

But one of my fondest book/ backpacking memories was reading War and Peace up in the Washington Cascades. I was riveted. Somehow the back country setting allowed for optimal absorption of the most foreign places, and I was transported to St. Petersburg salons and gory battlefields with equal ease. [Spoiler Alert: if you haven’t yet read War and Peace, skip the rest of this paragraph!] When I commented that I wanted Pierre and Natalie to end up together but it didn’t look likely, my Dad calmly said, “No, they don’t end up together; they marry other people”. I was so mad at my Dad for spoiling my book, and all the way through, when it started looking as if Pierre and Natalie WOULD end up together, I knew they wouldn’t, since my Dad had let that cat out of the bag. Well, as you know, they DO end up together, and my Dad was having a lot of fun with my confusion all through that trip. George Sweeney’s famous dry humor pulled that one off completely. He’s probably STILL laughing about that one, somewhere.

My heartfelt thanks go to my parents, George and Mary Sweeney, for making books and reading an integral part of our lives, and to my siblings Kathryn, Phil and Sarah for joining me on the journey. The shared memories are many and the shared books are a strong part of the tapestry that weaves our lives together. I hope you are all building similar memories reading with your families this summer.

George reading backpacking

A Recipe for the Quintessential Summer Retreat

I’ve just returned from a slice of Professional Heaven, and can still feel the warm, aromatic breeze as it gently wafts up through the chaparral. Better yet, I’m still pondering the topics and issues we delved into over a 2 day retreat at The Thacher School in Ojai, California.

ojai image 2

(photo from

For librarians and teachers the world over, summer is a time of rejuvenation, relaxation and reinvigoration. AISL’s Summer Institute (this year’s edition coming soon to the John Burroughs School in St. Louis, directed by our own Linda Mercer) is a shining example of what can be accomplished in just a few days when we all get together to develop really meaningful content and match that with the inspiration that comes with connection and community.

A more modest approach can be taken for those perhaps unable to manage the trip to St. Louis, or who would like to augment that event with a local retreat of their own. In Los Angeles, we’ve just finished our own “2nd Annual Retreat” and I’m returning home with fresh ideas and much to ponder as the summer moves on. Here are the basic ingredients you’ll need to cook up your own local librarians’ getaway.

  • Start with a bunch of librarians. Do you have a local librarians’ group that meets occasionally for professional discourse? Start there. Don’t have one yet? Get one going. The Independent School Library Exchange (ISLE), founded in 1980, includes schools and librarians from throughout the greater Los Angeles area. It has grown and changed over the years as libraries have changed, but has always been a great source of professional support. 
  • Find a venue. We’ve had ours at The Thacher School in Ojai the past two years; it was perfect. If you’re lucky enough to have a boarding school anywhere nearby, see if you can meet there for a few days. The Thacher librarians—Jenn Finley-McGill and Bonnie LaForge—were instrumental in providing the perfect setup. Our accommodations were comfortably rustic, as Thacher is situated in the hills above Ojai and has a decidedly equestrian flavor; the kitchen, dining facilities and meeting rooms were ideal. The Thacher School is about 90 miles from downtown Los Angeles. Some had longer drives, some shorter.  No handy boarding schools nearby? Don’t despair. Try working with local hotels for accommodations, and have the retreat centered at a local school.

Thacher School

(photo from

  • Set the program. Communicating through the ISLE Ning, the Board surveyed members to see what topics of interest might rise to the top. We already had some items on our list, issues that had been raised at our bi-annual meetings but which – due to time constraints—had not been explored in depth. This is where we set time to look at hot topics during the program, and then (here’s the vital piece) continue conversations over lunch or during a pre-breakfast ramble. 
  • Take full advantage of local talent. We recruited member librarians to present hour long sessions on Book Talks and Readers’ Advisory, Collection Development and Team Building/Department Management, among other topics.

ISLE ojai retreat session

(photo by Matthew Wittmer)

  • Bring in Wisdom from Afar. We were lucky to have Buffy Gunter Hamilton (The Unquiet Librarian) join us to present sessions on “Teachers Engaging in Inquiry Using Write Around Text on Text Strategies” and “Defining Makerspaces”. Having Buffy join us for much of our retreat was an added extra bonus, bringing further depth and breadth to our discussions throughout the retreat. 
  • Carve out time at the beginning for a ‘pre-retreat’ for your librarian group’s leadership. The ISLE Board met the evening before the rest of the membership was scheduled to come in, allowing for final retreat planning, but more importantly, for philosophical discussions about ISLE’s growth, focus, and future. This can be a really fruitful time for your group; goodness knows there’s precious little time for such important work during the school year. 
  • Don’t forget to include ‘down time’, for the pool, for hikes, and for long chats in the shade. This is the ‘retreat’ part of a retreat. Program is only part of it; just as important is the time apart to ponder, discuss, share and ponder some more. For dinner, break up into smaller groups and head into town, amble the sidewalks, try out some local cuisine.

ojai librarians dinner

(photo by S. Acedo)

Every region and every librarians’ alliance is different, but if you follow this recipe you’ll be sure to have cooked up something inspiring with a taste carefully crafted for your own group. The benefits are many and varied. Individual rejuvenation, professional development, and community building are just a few. ISLE was able to define and build on its policies, and many librarians met each other for the first time.

For those of us who attended ISLE’s Summer Retreat at the Thacher School in Ojai, we learned that one important definition of “Retreat” is “Advance”.


An Idea So Crazy… It Just Might WORK!

The world of independent school libraries is a varied one, and that is a blessing. Here at Independent Voices we hear from libraries that are large, small, boarding, day, rural, urban, traditional, progressive, coed and single-sex. Through this one blog we hear stories and solutions from each of these different environments.  Here is a story from a large suburban coed Upper School, and it’s a story in progress. The ending hasn’t written itself yet.


Like many libraries we’ve struggled with the issue of food management, working under the standard rules: no food or drink allowed in the library with the exception of water in closed containers. This has been the policy for as long as anyone can remember. The policy was generally followed, perhaps 70 percent of the time, but we have always found wrappers and spilled/dropped snacks squirreled away –occasionally not even ‘squirreled’ but tossed about carelessly. Our rules didn’t stop the entry of food, they just drove it underground.

Over the past 3 or 4 years, with the rise of the caffeine culture, we have gradually come to accept coffee mugs and traveler cups as long as they were covered—after all, we couldn’t tell what was in those travel mugs, whether it was water or hot chocolate, and we were not interested in checking each mug to see if the beverage was legal or contraband.

It got to the point where we were enforcing our rules fairly sporadically. If students were quietly eating a granola bar in a carrel, or came in with a Something Grande from Starbucks, we would turn a blind eye. Ice cream and yogurt, on the other hand, would get a request to eat outside. Naturally, as librarians are human too (yes, they are!) our enforcement would spike on rainy afternoons or when we had a cold coming on.

This is as much an issue of administration as anything, and it is entirely my responsibility to make sure rules are enforced consistently and fairly. I admit to frustration about having to have the food talk over and over, with little results. Our recent remodel means we now share a space with the Department of Independent Studies and Interdisciplinary Research, which leads to more gray areas and territorial differences.  The remodel also reinvented the library space as a particularly welcoming and relaxed gathering place, and our numbers were way up from previous years.

As the season’s research projects wound down, I started thinking about possibilities.  In fact, I was tempted to think outside of the (lunch) box.  At the AISL conference in Dallas/Fort Worth we toured Texas Christian University where they have a policy allowing students to bring in food (with a few exceptions). That inspired me to do a little research.  I send out a query on the AISL listserv asking for everyone’s experiences with food in the library. 32 librarians responded. Of these, 11 allow food in their library (including 4 that allow ‘snacks’ only), 15 allow only water in closed containers (4 of these allow “covered drinks of any kind”) and 5 allow neither food nor drink.  One respondent said they’d tried allowing food but are back to previous policy of water only.

With this information I felt inspired to have a trial run of a new “Food Is Okay IF” policy. I figured, if it worked, great, and if not, we’ll start out next year back where we started, no harm no foul.

I made a fresh start on a Monday, with flyers up around the library, announcing “The Mudd Challenge—Are YOU up to the Challenge?”   The wording was key: “Food and drink are allowed as long as it does not lead to mess… Indulge, but please eat responsibly. This policy will continue as long as the library stays tidy”.  


So how did it go? I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I made it clear to the students that they were able to bring food into the library as long as there was no mess. Full stop.  Period.  After one full week of the Mudd Challenge, we find that Mudd Library is cleaner than before. There was a noticeable reduction in trash left behind. I’ve reminded students that, for the Mudd Challenge to work, they’ll most likely have to pick up after their friends so that the ‘no mess’ rule is met.  There are still the occasional half-empty water bottles here and there, but the amount of food trash/litter has dropped significantly.

As far as mess goes, the students have truly stood up to the Mudd Challenge. Were there any unexpected consequences? Well, yes, perhaps a few.

The food experience was universally welcomed by students. They were very happy to be trusted with behaving well, with the idea that they are given a privilege that is theirs to lose if their behavior so dictates. Our school is grades 10-12 only, so we generally have more responsible students (GENERALLY, I say). Our schedule is such that there is no common lunch period, and some of our students do not have a free period in the middle of the day, so the ability to eat while working on a project was greeted with enthusiasm. On top of this we have no proper cafeteria. This is Southern California after all, and dining ‘al fresco’ is generally very comfortable. Of course last week we had triple digit temperatures, and the lounge that serves as ‘emergency cafeteria’ in case of inclement weather is fairly small, certainly not enough hold all refugees from the heat. The last factor to be considered is that we had AP testing last week, and while the library was not immediately affected, students are given half a day away from classes to prep for testing, and this most likely added to the library crowd.

After the first week of the Mudd Challenge, one thing I hadn’t expected was that the ability to eat food with while studying seemed to make students behave more casually. There were larger crowds around tables, and the simple expansion of numbers made the noise level rise. This might be due to the excitement of a new privilege, or to the AP giddiness, or to the heat outside. Or it might be due to the fact that when friends gather around a table with food the atmosphere changes to one of festivity—even if there are text books, binders and studying at that table.

One other effect I noticed was that I spent more time circulating around the library, chatting to students and educating them on the details of The Mudd Challenge. I realize that over the years I had slowly reduced the amount of time I spent out moving among the tables and carrels. Re-initiating this practice brought me back into contact with more students, and increased my positive interactions with them. If I regularly circulate even when there are no problems, then I am no longer only approaching a table to shush or enforce some rule.  This is good!

We are only 1 week into the Mudd Challenge, and have 2 weeks of classes left in the year. As we correct our stance, and work on education, it will be interesting to see how the students respond. I am hopeful that we can reach a level of equilibrium, where students are no longer forced to choose between lunch and studying, but where students are able to expect an atmosphere conducive to study at the same time. We will be taking notes and re-evaluating the situation at the end of the year, and I’m not sure what the verdict will be, but I am very happy to have taken the leap of faith toward the Mudd Challenge, and am looking forward to seeing how it plays out.

Over to you, now:  Have you had similar experiences? What is your food policy, and are you happy with how it works out?  Please respond in the comments.


A Truly Epic Event– Or– A Whale of a Tale

A few weeks ago our school held a Moby Dick Read-a-Thon. Twenty-one  and a half hours of reading Moby Dick – out loud, in turns—to air live on the school radio station and be recorded for all posterity. Some may ask: Why?!?   And I say:   For the same reason anyone climbs Everest—because it’s gosh-darn HUMONGOUS!

moby3 (design by Andrew Ravan with inspiration from Mark Hilt)

At Harvard-Westlake Upper School, English teachers have what is called Teachers’ Choice, where teachers can select their own texts to teach during second semester. Choices have ranged from Krakauer’s Into the Wild and Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides to Ellison’s The Invisible Man. Two of our teachers, Drs. Malina Mamigonian and Charles Berezin, have taught Herman Melville’s Moby Dick for the past 2 years.  This is the second voyage on the good ship Pequod, and the first that I took part in. To say that it was transformative sounds as if I were exercising hyperbole (as my son’s third grade teacher would say) but… not so. It was a truly moving experience.

Arrangements started several weeks before, with the different sections of classes gathering after school in the library to brainstorm on decorations, scheduling, readers, food, and other such details. Scheduling such an event is perhaps the trickiest part, but as this is a purely voluntary event, and students can drop in and out, signing up to read just one chapter if that’s all they can manage, it all fell into place. There was a small core of dedicated leaders and a larger crew of helpers. Four sections of Juniors read Moby Dick in their English classes, but the event was open to anyone in the Harvard-Westlake Community.

A spreadsheet was created dividing the work chapter by chapter, all 137 chapters (and Epilog) broken down by estimated reading times.  Students and other community members signed up for different chapters, sometimes signing up with friends to share the longer chapters.  Students would be able to come and go except during the 11:00 pm – 6:00 am lockdown for those sleeping over in the library.

A chowder dinner was provided, featuring both fish and vegetable chowder and biscuits, with sandwiches and cupcakes for all-night snacking. Coffee was provided by (who else?) Starbucks.  Students planning on staying over came prepared with sleeping bags and pajamas (the Totoro Onesie was a big hit this year—very cute!).  Student designed t-shirts were made available through

Decorations were anchored by the Podium As Prow/Pulpit creation designed by the head of our Performing Arts department, Rees Pugh (a wizard at all stagecraft). The inspiration came from the highly decorated pulpit at the shorefront church led by Father Mapple as described in Chapter 8.   Additional atmospheric touches came from the stage lighting: blue-violet LED lights scattered about the reading area were offset by a shimmering indigo light slowly rotating like the waves of the deep blue sea. Battery operated tea lights lent their flickering ‘candlelight’ to the cozy atmosphere. One student created a continuous loop of ocean views and whale images accompanied by sounds of wind and wave and whales which was projected in the area where students set up their sleeping bags. Brilliantly done.


The reading started promptly at 4:00 pm Thursday April 17, and continued non-stop until 1:37 pm Friday April 18. I had listened to the Moby Dick audiobook (unabridged, of course) in preparation for this event, and had just finished the entire thing a few days prior to launch. “Everyone Knows” that Moby Dick is an American Treasure, an Icon, but mostly a Really Really Long Book, and that included me, but I’d never read it before. I was in for a surprise. In addition to being a wonderfully crafted tale of obsession and adventure, Moby Dick is surprisingly funny. Some of our student readers really went to town with the various characters’ accents and comedic interactions, and we had many truly laugh-out-loud moments. Why is this such a deep dark secret?

There were also moments of rapt attention when the reader was engrossed by the text and the audience was in the grip of the spell cast by Melville’s language. I found that when I read one particularly dramatic chapter, as Starbuck is wondering whether it would be better to commit the sin of  killing Captain Ahab in his sleep, or to hold back and likely see the whole ship of 30 men lost, that I was caught up in the spell myself. It took me several minutes after leaving the podium for the next reader that I was fully myself again.

It was a thrill seeing others have this same experience, knowing that students really enjoyed their time in the spotlight, and knowing that this whole event is only successful – like a whaling voyage, in fact—with the combined coordinated efforts of a dedicated team. While the readers continued one after the other, students, faculty and administration came and went, jumped in to read a chapter and waved goodbye, it seemed every different element of the school was represented by someone that night. Some students even brought henna tattoo kits, and as the night progressed proceeded to decorate a goodly percentage of participants with so many tattoos as to out-Queequeg Queequeg.

We were thinking about what other novel would work as well, if there was interest in moving to a different author in the future, and frankly I can’t think of one that would provide such a rich experience. The very act of reading Moby Dick out loud is in itself a truly epic event. To have 21+ hours’ worth of such beautiful language read aloud, with its astonishing imagery, star-crossed characters and drop-dead adventure on the high seas—this really is the epitome of Great Literature. This is epic. This is Grand on a Grand scale. This is truly a Whale of a Tale.

Tips for next time: provide a whiteboard for announcements :  you can’t break into the reading to tell everyone the food’s ready or Lockdown is in effect.  Provide coffee, cocoa, and food near the reading location, rather than in a different room or building: keeping the event contained creates a greater sense of community. Order smaller amounts of chowder as it’s not best served all night long. Small sandwiches are a better bet for continuous nibbling. It would be possible to have students collect sponsors – per chapter or per minute—and include a fund-raising element, perhaps to benefit whale preservation or marine ecology.


Over to you:

Have you experienced your own version of a Read-a-Thon or sleepover event in your library? What has worked well? What different books or authors have you explored in this way? Let us know in the comments.

The Format Wars : Notes from the Trenches … or… Cushing Revisited

I was talking with a colleague recently and the conversation shifted over to Things Administrators Think They Know.  One of those things they think they know is that ‘Everything is available online’ (see my blog post from November 2013), and its corollary: ‘Libraries need only a fraction of the space they currently take up’. Administrators love this last one, as it allows the full scale renovation of the library into a small space with some computers right next to the spacious new Faculty Room/Espresso Bar.  My colleague was asking for tips on what to say to her administrator the next time he started praising the Cushing Model as a template for the future of their library.

This prompted me to take a look into the state of affairs at the Cushing Academy (Ashburnham, MA) now that the dust has settled. As some of you will remember, in 2009 the Cushing Academy took the bold step of transforming their collection from primarily print to almost entirely digital resources.  Some items were retained in print format, including a small collection of children’s books, many of the art books, and a limited collection of popular fiction.  In an open letter responding to other librarians’ concerns, Cushing librarian Thomas Corbett explained that the goal was to “focus our efforts and limited resources on meeting the student in their digital space with new tools, techniques and encouragement that promotes reading and improves learning”, and that “this will require libraries fully committed to making sure reading thrives in a digital environment”. That might work if your students live solely in a “digital space”, but students at my school live in a heterogeneous world, with preferences for both digital and analog tools, depending on the need.

When the “The Cushing Model” was introduced to the world in 2009 it was with the fanfare of a major motion picture premiere, but there hasn’t been much about it in the news lately. While attending Liz Gray’s seminar on collection development at the Taft Summer Institute in July of 2012, our group was able to tour the library at Cushing and talk with Corbett about the transformation and maintenance of the collection.  My observations at the time included the following:

  • At that time there were no mandated information literacy sessions, and not much research being done. A new committee had just been created to look into improving this.
  • Corbett did not think Collection Development was important. Some resources were received in cooperation with the state, with gaps filled in by database subscriptions.
  • Cushing’s expenses for recreational reading after the transition to digital exceeded that for print purchases before. Titles were purchased and downloaded onto devices as students requested, with no coordination between devices.

In 2012 came the publication of Building and Managing E-Book Collections, edited by Richard Kaplan and published by Neal-Shuman. Part III of this book is devoted to “E-Books in Practice”.  Among the six academic and public libraries included in this section is the one at the Cushing Academy. Tom Corbett’s evaluation of their library program is illuminating.  The first mention of a benefit from a primarily bookless library is that it “freed up significant floor space to be used for other library and institutional purposes”. This is the part that administrators love. At Cushing it included the espresso bar and 2 new classrooms that were not used for library purposes. Corbett notes that student use of e-books for research has “not fully lived up to expectations…perhaps our selection of e-book titles, as large as it is, is still too highly academic for secondary school students”. Another thought is that this is where careful Collection Development becomes a vital professional service. A knowledgeable librarian can customize the collection to match classroom assignments, but this sort of close match is generally not a function of ‘purchase by package.’  I also noted that out of six ‘Actions to Improve Library Services by Prioritizing Digital Content’ presented in a sidebar, four are services that would benefit a collection including print as well as digital resources, such as “Work with faculty to raise citation standards and promote ethical research”.

I found myself wondering. Corbett said “While p-books still provide a few unique advantages, it is debatable whether these advantages warrant the resources needed to adequately provide for them in a secondary school environment. In our view, they do not; the opportunity costs are simply too high.” Corbett is saying that print books are uniquely useful, but cost too much to provide. In this specific example, it is a financial decision rather than a curricular or programmatic one.  Later, he says that “the value of electronic text, especially for extended reading, is directly correlated with the quality of the device it is displayed on. In this regard, paper sets a very high standard” (emphasis mine)—and then goes on to say that “This is why we primarily deliver our reading service through nearly 100 e-ink-based Kindles”.  To my mind, if ‘paper sets a very high standard’, then why not offer paper as one alternative?

One highlight of the digital transformation at Cushing is an increase in ‘long-form popular reading’, which continues to grow after the introduction of the digital collection. This is balanced by the lack of such an increase in the use of ebooks for research.  Corbett notes that “the use of subscription content of all types has remained mostly stagnant.”  This seems to average out to a C grade on the Cushing Model.  If Cushing did not have the ideological impetus of becoming a primarily digital collection, they might have gone with the blended collections approach, allowing more flexibility to reach for the right tool for the right job, be it print or digital. Our students exhibit a range of preferences here at Harvard-Westlake Upper School, with some preferring print for recreational reading but digital for research, and others leaning in one direction or other along the print/digital spectrum.

In his article in Building and Managing E-Book Collections, Tom Corbett says the Secondary School Library’s two main roles are to support research and to support reading. He mentions teaching in an aside as he doesn’t consider it as directly related to the use of e-books.  I think there is a direct relationship: our students need to be taught how to use the resources they will find at their college libraries. The vast majority of college libraries contain a combination of print and digital resources. Students need to feel confident to approach their research from anywhere along the digital/print spectrum with the primary focus resting on the quality of the resource. I think this can only be accomplished in a library that is a collection of the best resources, carefully selected — regardless of format– to meet the specific needs of a school’s curriculum, students and faculty.

School libraries are important to our students in three major ways:

  • Materials are carefully selected and made available to students in support of the school’s curriculum and to promote development of a life-long love of reading
  • Librarians provide instruction on how to locate, evaluate and use resources both on site and off, and how to become responsible digital citizens
  • Libraries provide a welcoming space for students to work alone and in groups, with useful resources and a librarian’s assistance close at hand.

If resources are tight and space and funding is an issue, then schools do need to evaluate their programs to find the best options for their school. In this case, then the discussion is one of determining the best use of school resources, with possible limitations of services as a necessity.  To couch this discussion in terms of one format’s precedence over another, however, is not really applicable.

One recent interaction underscored the importance of providing a variety of formats. A student was looking for a title in the Social Issues Primary Sources collection from Gale, Human and Civil Rights, which we have both in print and as part of our Gale Virtual Reference Collection. As I helped her find the print volume on the shelf I reminded her that we also had access to the ebook online. She told me she liked working with the print version better, and that it was “just easier to use.” As a current junior, this was certainly a card-carrying member of the Digital Generation, but in this instance she preferred the print edition with its easy access and handy layout. Another time she might prefer the digital version for any number of reasons. It is important that our students are given the tools they need – and taught to use these tools– to prepare for their futures, without limiting these tools due to an artificial fixation on format.


Corbett, Thomas. “E-Books in a High School Library.” Building and Managing E-Book Collections. Ed. by Richard Kaplan.  Chicago : Neal-Schuman, 2012.

Corbett, Thomas. Open Letter.

Gray, Liz, Cheryl Steele and Cassandra Barnett. “Bring Back the Books” . “Letters.” School Library Journal 55.11 (2009): 10. ProQuest. Web. 31 Jan. 2014.


The November/December 2013 issue of Knowledge Quest   –titled “Dewey or Don’t We”–is dedicated to exploring the ins and outs of Genrefication, starting with a plea from the Kansas Association of School Librarians asking for clarification from AASL:

“Many school librarians are questioning the method of arranging their library collections. The move away from Dewey classification to genres has resulted in confusion, unanswered questions and a variety of attempts. We are seeking guidance from AASL to provide answers and guidance in this popular trend. Is it a viable way of arranging library materials; and if so, please help us in setting standards and appropriate genres for different age levels.”

I was not familiar with the details of this recent “popular trend”, other than that it had something to do with organizing school libraries by genres, sometimes called ‘the bookstore model.’ I dove into the issue thinking I’d finally get it all straightened out, but soon found myself getting more and more frustrated, coming up with questions and counter-arguments in my head… “But that wouldn’t work in my library, my teachers aren’t like those teachers, this is all so STOOOPID!”

Being the professional that I am, I calmed myself down and set out to finish reading the issue. I found that there are as many ways to genrefy your library as there are libraries, and it is helpful to look at the basic outlines of the issue before getting to specifics.

I could find no clear definition of the ‘system’; there are many ways of doing it, and many ‘levels’ of doing it, but it generally means arranging your library by subjects, or ‘genres’.  Many of us have experience with this in some part or other. If you have a section of Biography, maybe under 92, then just call it Biography and you’re genrefied. Story Collection, under SC for example, at the end of Fiction? Genrefied. If you use genre stickers on your fiction collection, for fantasy, mystery, romance? You’re taking a step toward genrefication. The Knowledge Quest issue refers to many steps on the road to Genrefication, and there is no set definition of where that road ends. Some libraries do use the BISAC system published by the Book Industry Study Group, and some Metis (developed by librarians at the Ethical Culture School in New York City), but it seems that most are finding their own way in this confused wilderness. One thing I did notice, and it helped me no end, was that the vast majority of librarians talking about the joys of genrefication are elementary and middle school librarians. Some say that since their patrons can’t read yet libraries should be shelved for browsing, with pictures as guides.

This makes some sense, and I was able to see reason in it, even if I don’t agree. However, when I got to the high school librarian who argued for genrefication as an easy way to arrange materials for high schoolers, he lost me when he mentioned the teacher who was “was adamant that the kids not spend time looking for the books and insisted I put them on a cart … for a one-stop shopping solution” ( Jeffrey W. Aubuchon, high school librarian, in “21st-Century Thinking at the Local Level.”)   Yes, when I worked at a combined middle/high school, and the whole class of 8th graders was working with ancient Rome, it made some sense to put books on carts, but I was aware of it as a short cut. Students will not get books handed to them on carts in college, and they need to learn how to find and select useful materials.

Here I was brought back to the mission of our library, which is in part to provide resources for current school work and to prepare students for libraries and resources in their future. At my school most students will be going to college, and will need to be prepared to use those libraries. Many college libraries use the Library of Congress system, but it is much easier to transfer knowledge of DDC to LC than to go from genres to LC.  Middle school librarian Juanita Jameson says “Students deserve to walk into a new library and have the skills to feel at home.” (“A Genre Conversation Begins”.)    I agree.  So we need to teach them how to use the libraries they will encounter in their future—they will be walking into a new library with their first college research paper, so we need to give them the skills to feel at home there.

Allison G. Kaplan, a faculty associate in the School of Library and Information Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison, explores both sides of the issue, and concludes that “Librarians who have made the genre switch for their fiction collections are thrilled with the results. However, in my humble opinion, for information books and other resources: keep the Dewey.” (“Is it Truly a Matter of Dewey or Don’t We?”)

I am reminded of one key element of our position as independent school librarians. Very often we are Rulers of our Realm (okay, with the one little acknowledgement that someone else is funding this universe) and we are often able to arrange things to best meet our students’ needs.  We have a longstanding tradition of finding creative solutions that work for our own libraries. As always we can glean the best bits of the best advice on this issue to apply to our own situations.

It struck me that those libraries having the most success with the process of genrefication are those where the online catalog is not being used.  At my high school library it is imperative that our students know how to find specific titles for their AP United States History projects, and we catalog specifically for various subjects and projects.  Devona J. Pendergrass, high school librarian, makes a good point: “If Dewey is not working for other libraries it might not be the system but the teaching of the system that needs to be revamped (emphasis mine).”   Pendergrass also makes the (to me) obvious suggestion to address the issue of students not finding materials by genre on the shelf: “Another idea is to add those ‘genre’ keywords to the OPAC as new items come into the system. When a student searches the OPAC for that genre, items of interest will show up and the student can then go to the appropriate shelf and find the books”.   (“Dewey or Don’t We?”)

After careful reflection (and reading the WHOLE issue of Knowledge Quest Nov/Dec 2013!) I have come to the conclusion that there are 3 main points to ponder as we approach this question:

  1. Elementary, middle and high schools will likely approach the question from different directions
  2. Genrification is more of a spectrum than an absolute, allowing librarians to use it a little or a lot depending on their library
  3. It is important for students to learn systems that will help them have success in the libraries in their futures, whether academic or public

I leave the final thought  to Cris Grabenstein, author of Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, who explains the wonders of the DDC so eloquently:

“So put me down as a fan of the Dewey Decimal Classification system, but only as a first step in a more three-dimensional approach. Because, for me, Shakespeare’s plays really come alive only when I know where to find the scripts (the 800s), plus a little about Elizabethan history, the meaning of ‘iambic pentameter’, what groundlings were (they paid a penny and sat on the ground), why religious folks shunned actors (the devil is the great pretender) and why every scene ends with a rhyming couplet (the plays were performed during the day, and without blackouts, the actors in the next scene needed some kind of cue to know they were on!). No single DDC number, not even “822.33 William Shakespeare”, can tell me all that. All ten Dewey categories, taken together, can.”  (“How Dewey Find What We’re Looking For?”)

Thanks to Knowledge Quest for providing a forum for discussion of this issue and many others. All quotes are from the November/December 2013 issue of Knowledge QuestKnowledge Quest  is the Journal of the American Association of School Librarians. If you’re not already a member of AASL, I strongly encourage you to join.