Worse than fixing staplers: Teaching database search is the most thankless task I undertake

Hi, all! I was working on a different blog post entirely, but had two conversations with other school librarians yesterday about teaching database searching, so thought I would continue my thinking here. More than anything, I like checking my thinking – so, hoping we can converse (in comments or with me directly by email). Push back, please. We are definitely stronger together!

While my students respond very positively to my lesson on database business models as systemic injustice (which also explains why we value databases and how they can allow us to access voices that search engine algorithms don’t surface), lessons on the actual using of databases is much less of a love-fest. I’ve experimented with different formats over the years.

In essence, I have found that teaching a “click here, now click there” lesson is boring for both me and for them. While I love seeing students go to their happy place, I don’t love it so much during instruction. For a while, I experimented with not teaching how to use databases, at all. Just telling students to go for it… Either way, I got the exact same comment: “We never learned how to do this.”

So, I’ve finally arrived at the basic concepts that students need to use most databases. My biggest interest is teaching them to feel empowered to open any database and give it a try.

I really think that 95% of database searching is search term selection and has nothing to do with the database itself. I spend a lot more time on that skill, which is broadly applicable.

My database lessons cover four points, period.

1. Use Advanced Search in databases. They all work basically the same way, but require us to type stuff in slightly differently from each other if you are just suing the single search box. Memorize them all OR just click on that advanced search link. It looks basically the same in almost every database. Learn to manage this interface with basic skill and you can search almost any database competently.

2. The bottom half of most advanced search pages tend to focus on the strengths/purpose of that database. Access World News has a map search, to limit by geography; ARTSTOR has limiters for time and medium; JSTOR offers narrowing by discipline of journals to be searched. So, limit your search terms in the top half as much as you can, and make use of the filters in the bottom half that relate to your topic (ex: don’t use [art history] as a search term in JSTOR, just look for [japan AND gender] and then click on the Art History box to search discipline-specific writings).

3. Similarly, keep the advanced search portion as light as possible, click “search” and use the filters on the left side of the results page (usually, though sometimes on the right) to narrow further. Easier to experiment, play around, see what happens.

4. Databases are not flexible, they look for exactly what you type in. Use * to help. (Note here: I used to think that stemming — e.g., using [immigra*] to look for immigrant, immigrants, immigration, etc. — was too hard and I chose not to teach it to my students. Turns out they love it and find it extremely useful.)

Ultimately, I think that the flexibility of moving from database to database is the most important element to learn. I *strongly* prefer to give students those four basic guidelines and then do a jigsaw. Give groups each one database to play with. They apply the four principles I teach, see what a specific database offers for themselves. They jigsaw and teach each other. Maybe build a communal class guide to use when searching.

This approach has definitely been the most productive for me, given that I usually have one class period (on good days) and no specific time to follow up. Though, given my druthers, “how to database” is never my go-to lesson. I do force myself to teach the lesson once in early 9th grade. The rest gets followed up in one-on-one student conversations.

I’d love to hear how you teach database lessons.

When is a Cheez-It Not a Cheez-It? Some highlights from AISL23 (with links for at-home exploration)

I am so grateful for the collaborative learning that takes place through AISL. I learn so much from our communications and from the relationships I have been blessed to build within the group. As a friend said yesterday, there is nothing quite like the “process of sharing our work, having other people iterate on it, and then being able to ‘steal’ it back.” The conferences provide a particularly dense opportunity to share, iterate, and “steal” (a.k.a., re-share).

For those who either could not make it, or who could not be everywhere at once in Santa Fe, I thought I’d (re-)share some highlights of the conference. Not everything will be here, but welcome to a random sample of appreciated moments – “random” as defined by asking all four other AISL attendees who happened to be sitting in the waiting room with me at the Santa Fe airport on Wednesday evening! 😉

If you are not linked here and presented at AISL23, please consider sharing your slides in the comments section so that other members can learn from you, as well!

“Research Process As Product” by Sara Kelley-Mudie (Librarian and Educational Technology Specialist) and Sadie Weinberger (Upper School Teacher, Global History and Social Sciences), Beaver Country Day School – if ever there was a set of food analogies to make your stomach growl and your research practice grow, this was it! This run through a 10-day, process-based collaboration in historical research had many specific strategies to help students slow down and develop, practice, and reflect on skills for searching, selecting sources, notetaking, and more. I happened to catch the famous Cheez-It/source analogy (original idea courtesy of Courtney Lewis) on video:

Sara and Sadie share the Cheez-It analogy

I’ve heard that colleagues are already looking at to their budgets for charcuterie boards so they can offer PD and drive home the idea of what databases actually are with a metaphorically appropriate snack! Participants are excited to relay a broad range of strategies from this presentation to their colleagues and figure out how and where to implement them at school.

“What Happens When a Superhero Librarian Gets Tired?” Jen Dawson and Laura Marmorstein, Cranbrook Schools — Colleagues found it meaningful to acknowledge something typically not mentioned: burnout at a job you love. The goal of the session was to think about how to reinvigorate yourself, and included concrete strategies. Some of the working materials in this session came from Elena Aguilar’s book, The Onward Workbook, so you can look at the website and the book for materials to support the attached slides. Ultimately, Dawson and Marmorstein created an environment that enabled really positive connections among people. With the addition of a goodie bag of stickers, noisemakers, and magic wands, participants left with a sense of connection and renewed enthusiasm. So: find a librarian friend, connect, and reinvigorate your own practice! (And go big with a magic wand or sparkly pencil, maybe some stickers, of your choice!)

“School Librarians as Instructional Coaches”: Chris Young (Director of Libraries) and Kate Turnbull (Director of Professional Learning) of Metairie Park Country Day School
argued that the job of instructional coaching maps directly onto the work we already do as curricular collaborators. Additionally, participants took inspiration from this example of strategically reimagining what a team can look like in order to achieve staffing or other goals that are otherwise out of reach.

“Let Them Help: Students Behind the Desk“ Kimberly Senf (Senior Librarian)
Elmwood School: Participants were impressed by Senf’s well-rounded system. “Her student volunteers did so much for her, and she developed a functional system – she might not even be in the room when they were helping her out!” The session broke down the logistics of her program in great detail – from sign-up forms that asked applicants at what jobs they thought they would excel to her methods for training shelvers. Participants appreciated the advice to look beyond just our good readers when considering volunteers – non-readers can also bring wonderful skills into service for the library. Although the session was about high school-aged volunteers, participants could imagine their oldest students (4th graders, in this case) being able to contribute to display design and other tasks around the library. Thanks, too, to the participant who shared that her volunteers love having special nametags to wear when they are working.

“What Makes a Comic a Comic,” from Bram Meehan, of Bram Meehan Design, Writing, + Direction, was a dynamic exploration with a lot of hands-on activities. Participants learned to define a comic by sketching one out for themselves. If you like classes with learning by doing, you might want to take a look at these slides as a model. You can learn more about his work at https://www.brammeehan.com/.

Finally, participants wanted to send a heartfelt thanks to our hosts and organizers. We sometimes forget that an intentional component of the AISL conference is for regions to show off their local culture. In particular, this conference we stayed in an historically significant hotel, and even had a talk from a staff member about the history of the building and the companies that built and maintained it. Several participants shared that they found ways to go hiking in the area, and we had chances to visit local museums. For those among us who had only ever experienced Geogia O’Keeffe’s flowers, this was a change to go deeper into her work. For many of us, the pace and style of life in Santa Fe did juxtapose with our own community’s pace of life – it was exciting to experience a new way of being. In addition, it was so much fun to see the ways that students in different local schools contributed to the co-creation of their libraries’ cultures. Thank you to everyone who gave of themselves, shared their spaces, and brought us along for the ride!

Thank you to experience contributors Jole Seroff (Castilleja School), Jill Maza (Montclair Kimberley Academy), Megan Kilgallen (Packer Collegiate), Amy Pelman (Harker School), Kristen Robb (Poly Prep Lower School), and Sara Kelley-Mudie (Beaver Country Day School). And thank you to all the presenters who gave permission to post their documents here for the whole group!

After a busy term — compelling professional development and a bit of musical library love

Work has been delightfully and overwhelmingly busy the last several months, and so it has been hard to think about much beyond the next project in the queue. There was a week back there where I was excited about a number of Webinars on fascinating topics, but was unable to participate with any of them.

As a result, I’ve been enjoying catching up with archived professional development while washing dishes, making myself do a little crafting for fun, or prepping dinner. For those of you who might want to do the same over break (or, after break!) here are two excellent options:

Search Engines as Gates and Gateways to Misinformation From the University of Maryland College of Information Science’s Search Mastery Speaker Series comes Jevin West, Associate Professor at the University of Washington. He looked at the ways search engines can prioritize quality content but can also give credence to misinformation. Particularly interesting was his research on how academic recommendations tools impact the shape of scientific literature.

Through Chokepoint Capitalism – How Big Tech Captured Creative Labor Markets, Cory Doctorow and Rebecca Giblin taught me a lot about the behind-the-scenes (or purposefully hidden) impact on authors of both the winnowing of companies in the field of publishing and the practices that Amazon has created, as a monopsony – creating a single-buyer market for creative output.

Also, a fun addition from librarian-in-training and host of the Broad… Wait for It… podcast, Rebecca Barabas: Matilda: The Musical (available on Netflix) apparently offers a healthy dose of library joy. Highly recommended for the pure fun of it!

Wishing all a restorative break and a wonderful new year!

Can we share philosophies of teaching research?

Well…this blog post was due yesterday, which was Back to School Night around here. So, I’m running a tad behind.

For Back to School Night I was asked to create a tri-fold board summarizing our seven year research skills curriculum. It was quite a challenge (hence the late post). I’m sharing a picture of my poster below, but it really made me want to hear from our group:

Please share your philosophy behind how you develop your information literacy curriculum. It can be one sentence, or just bullet points. If it would help, maybe share a short bit of personal history about how you got there. Please share in the comments below.

Through this blog, our conferences, and our list we have so many discussions about teaching information literacy, and I think it would be amazing if we could see a wealth of different ways of approaching the endeavor of teaching research skills.

The Times They **Keep** A-Changin’

Welcome to a new school year! This post, despite its title, is a cheerful (hopefully cheering?) look at changes still underway….

Current library door decorated by Christina Appleberry, Library Services Specialist

Show of hands: How many of you have returned to this year only to discover a new wave of changes to your program?

I may be the only one with my hand in the air, but I doubt it.

This week the ten-month-contract educators all returned to my school. Like many other schools, we have had a lot of shifting around: some new elements to our schedule and some new teachers; switching up who is teaching what class and changing out class deans, not to mention transitioning who is the lead teacher for any given class.

Amid this refresh, we have been discovering quite a few unanticipated changes that are a challenge to our program. For example, some tweaks to the school’s method of orienting new students – in order to avoid too much school time before the year formally begins, a response to the long arm of COVID-driven societal changes – is transforming the way we in the library will meet new students.

Similarly, I have intentionally ended the project that gave me the most relationship-building and instructional time with our 9th graders, the first year upper school students. During our January intersession, each grade-level has a special project. For the nine years I have been at my school, we have had the same (generally speaking) project for our ninth grade, and I have been on the teaching team since day one. During lockdown, the grade level-project was (by necessity) cut from an October-February, 40-50-hour project to being just 6 hours in January. We adapted the curriculum and the expectations, but we really needed to stop trying to figure out how to fit a big thing into a small box. As the newly minted lead of the project, I decided it was time to “murder my darlings” (to quote Arthur Quiller-Couch) and set that project aside altogether.

In doing so, I forfeit many hours of instruction and interaction with our ninth graders. Particularly, hours that colleagues were required to have me in their classrooms to prepare students for the project. Hours that I counted on to introduce the philosophy and basic logistics of upper school research education, not to mention time to interact at length with individual students and their four-person groups. It is a moment of letting go for the greater good. I am trying not to panic.

So – I am heading into this year well aware that there is very little that will be the same as it has been in past years. I have a lot less clarity than I have in about a decade about where my work will be situated in the coming year. All of this sounds very doom and gloom, but really – I am striving to remember – it is very exciting! I always strive to question what I have been doing, look it over, refresh it. It is tiring, but really a chance to question my assumptions, involve my Research TAs in decision-making and curriculum formulation, and learn. Well…here is my opportunity.

The truth is, I always have many more skills I want to teach than I will have the opportunity to undertake with students. Since I always have to make hard choices, I am focusing on the chance to pick what I think is most useful to students now, what skills they most need today. Might this year’s ninth graders not get some of the skills that ninth graders got five years ago? Certainly. Will they have a chance to learn something new and deeply relevant? Also, certainly. It is really mostly upside, with a side-order of hustle.

As I am writing, I am realizing that I want to frame conversations with colleagues as an exploration of what today’s students need that is different from past years. Approach with an assumption that change is in the air (as is the opportunity to keep what we have built in the past). It really is an exciting opportunity, now that I think about it.

So, thank you for listening. You have given me the opportunity to think through a scary moment to the excitement underneath.

Where will this year go? Who knows! I look forward to sharing the journey and hope that you will do the same. May you have a meaningful and uplifting new year.

Urge your state school library association to join School Librarians Learning Networks

One of the greatest joys for me is learning with and from other librarians. It is one of the features that makes AISL so wonderful!

Presumably Steve Tetreault, a librarian with a career in New Jersey public schools, feels the same way. He is working to get the School Librarian Learning Network (SLLN) up and running.

The intent of SLLN is to scale the PD that is taking place in different state school librarian associations. Tetreault aims to have different state associations share their online professional development trainings across the SLLN’s entire membership. A new collaboration across states could provide “virtual professional development opportunities on a regular, rotating basis.” (From their homepage.)

Because it is summer, and I am a bit slow, I now have a bit more information to add: Steve reports that his goal is to get as many state organizations as possible working together in a coordinated effort to offer several PD opportunities a month, every month, to school librarians across the country; with some coordination, that would make it so each state org would only have to figure out a small number of PD offerings each year, while being able to take advantage of a whole lot more. At the moment, joining SLLN is pretty straight-forward – anyone can visit the site to see free learning opportunities he has come across and use the links to sign up.

Is your state a member? So far New Jersey; Louisiana; Washington, DC; and Nebraska have joined. I have contacted California School Library Association and requested they join.

I urge AISL members to reach out to your state TL organizations and request that they join SLLN, as well. Together, we can continue to update, grow, and learn as a profession!

Not only is this network a cool idea, but as we are seeing a lot of threats to libraries that we need to be discussing across state lines. These threats both make use of local laws and government structures and of anti-library groups are coordinating more fully across different states with the goal of impacting how libraries function in each location.

In other words, we need a national network to help us tackle local issues. I’ve been chatting with TLs around the country and am discovering that a librarian who is very deeply educated about anti-database legislation in their own state may not have any idea what the organizations and conversations are on the national stage.

We need to talk to each other, learn together – and from each other.

I was thinking of Cathy Leverkus’ AISL publishing group and her point that AISL members need to reach out and share our wealth of experience with others in our profession. So, not only can we request that our state teacher librarian associations join this nationwide endeavor, we can also offer to lead AP that our states can offer as their contributions to SLLN.

Please join me in supporting this wonderful national initiative!

Great PD next week! Global Factcheck 9

Last October I had the great good luck to attend a conference for professional fact checkers organized by the International Fact-Checking Network at the Poynter Institute. It was cool enough to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and — as they vowed to be back in-person for 2022 — I thought for sure it would be just that.

Happily, I received an email just this week telling me that the conference will be hybrid this year. Next week (June 22-June 25) it will take place in Norway, but will also be offered virtually. You can find more information here.

At this very global conference you can hear panels, such as the one involving journalists from Brazil, Kenya, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Phillippines, discussing fact-checking during elections. Another multinational panel discusses media information literacy from the point of view of professional fact-checkers. There will be sessions on conspiracy theorists and on the relationship between research findings in the field and practical applications. It looks pretty great, to be frank.

So, if you are looking for a taste of PD for the summer, and want to engage with a field that is both familiar and unfamiliar, check out Global FactCheck 9! If you need a bit more flexibility on timing, I also recommend viewing recordings of sessions from past years of the conference on the International Fact-Checking Network’s YouTube channel.

What we talk about when we talk about concussions: More questions than answers

Are you in the same situation as me? Do you have multiple students who suffer from concussions each year? Some of my practice has been changed forever by students suffering from concussions. I’ve worried and fretted about how to support them. But I have looked and found few answers. While I cannot really figure out how to go forward, I cannot help but want to have policies in place in support of students with the range of symptoms that come with head trauma. So, with one of my at-home students currently confined to a dark room from a concussion, I thought I would throw the question out here: do you have policies or practices in support of concussed students? Do you feel like it would be a helpful issue to address? Do you have ideas on where to start?

In past years – and based on an admittedly quick search now – I have not found any literature in our field on this topic. One student with whom I became quite close spent close to 12 months over the course of her her 5-year high school career shut in dark rooms suffering from concussions from increasingly benign activities – we have talked quite a bit about her experiences.* I am currently parenting through my own child’s second, non-athletic concussion. And, in addition to multiple concussed students each year in our school’s general population, I am currently mentoring two second-semester seniors in our college-level historical research course who live with persistent concussion symptoms on a daily basis.

So. Here is what I’ve anecdotally got:

The student experience

One of the challenges of concussion protocols is that symptoms vary widely, so it is not – I am told by experts – possible to come up with a one-size-fits-all policy.

School concussion protocols acknowledge that light and screens can be particularly painful. Reading is hard. Students need to rest frequently. According to my students, the corollary is not only that they cannot focus on threads of ideas or remember what they hear for more than a few moments at a time, but that they simultaneously feel the need to be polite and engaged, and so tend to cover for their cognitive deficit when they are interacting with me.

They report that they continue to interact, even though it hurts and is confusing, because one of the hidden outcomes of the earlier stages of concussion is profoundly overwhelming boredom, sometimes partnered with depression. Existing in a dark room for days (or significant chunks of days) on end without company is emotionally excruciating. One can only sleep so much. In fact, with all the lying around it becomes hard to sleep at night. But all those awake hours with nothing to do are so very, very hard. The result can be profound depression, along with an inability to engage with emotion.

Coming back to school, there exists a tension among competing forces of teachers wanting to support students, wanting students to learn the content of their classes, and wanting to help students catch up. The general result seems to be that in our sincere desire to support concussed students in all the ways (as one school’s learning specialist once told me: “We do not cut content, just work. A student who completes a class is just as well prepared as his classmates.”) students experience teachers saying they are following the protocols but not actually doing so. Add to that situation the oft-observed student practice of having both sides of a conversation with a teacher by themselves, without the teacher’s knowledge, and you get experiences like: “Sure, my physics teacher said to only worry about completing this reflection, but that means he expects me to catch up on all the daily work too, he just did not write it in the plan.”

So, where does the librarian fit into this?

How we interact

It seems helpful to tell a student up-front that I know that head trauma makes it hard to concentrate for long. I let her know I will be checking in at regular intervals (aka, every few minutes) and I am in support of her telling me when her concentration runs out. And then actually asking and responding appropriately. If I just pop out with that question mid-conversation, without the up-front warning, students tend to pretend they are okay when they are not.


I learned to love audiobooks due to careful cultivation by my former five-year high school student. Her first concussion kept her in a darkened room for something like six months; music and audiobooks were the only activities she could manage. While she was a font of knowledge that got me hooked on the genre, she also had a lot to say about the kinds of audiobooks that worked for her during recovery: slow moving, not too much emotion, often well below her reading level so they took less cognitive effort to follow but did keep her mind active.

One of her favorites provides a good example of what worked for her when she missed a significant portion of tenth grade: Saffy’s Angel, by Hilary McKay. The book was character-driven, with a slow-moving story. The characters are engaging, and the book is quietly funny. School Library Journal rates it for 4-6 grades. The humor is very helpful when stuck in a dark room, but laughing hurts and so quietly amusing seems to work well. Again, students report that emotional content can be impossible to process, and I believe that a particularly well-crafted story for an audience younger than the student herself can make for a good fit. Slow-moving stories make it easier to process when you find you cannot remember all that you hear.

Based on advocacy by this student, we determined to add audiobooks in our Overdrive collection (though she may just be learning that fact from reading this post). I would love to crowdsource a list of audiobooks that can provide a sort of emotional “high-low” listening experience that might work for concussed students of different ages.

Additionally, while our library does not tend to collect curricular books – or focus on providing fee-per-use audiobooks of reading from our curriculum – it might be worth considering a special budget category (above and beyond your budget as it stands) for supporting concussed students. Anyone have anything like this in place?

(Another parent’s point of view on concussions and audiobooks can be found here.)


Generally, my colleagues seem to cut back on research assignments for concussed students, but I am also aware that there are plenty of assignment that fall into that gray area that classroom teachers do not call “research” (at least, for the purposes of considering collaboration) but that require both searching for and navigating information resources.

This is where I feel we would really benefit from having a policy in place that gets rolled into the school’s concussion policy. I would like to have well-informed practices in place that would automatically involve our library staff in helping teachers think through the necessary learning objectives around a project. Is this assignment intended to help her learn to pick search terms? To pick good results? Or to navigate content in sources? She should not have to do them all, nor should she be responsible to complete steps that lengthen the use of her eyes and focus when they are not helpful to fulfilling the learning objectives. So, how can we help lighten the load?

I’ve not really gotten beyond this point in my thinking, and would truly love to hear from others how they handle this element of our work.


Overall, I am a huge proponent of teaching students how to read academically, especially in the latter years of high-school. The notion of reading scholarly works from the outside in should be, I believe, a central part of any college prep curriculum that involves reading journal articles, as should discipline-specific guidance helping students understand the parts of articles and what a high school/early college student does and does not need to actually understand in an article. (For example, I’ve distilled this article into a three-page outline that I often share with students reading in the social sciences and some sciences.) Textbooks create a different kind of challenge in reading, since they are written for compact delivery of factual information.

But I think a strong base in reading for different purposes and a curricular acknowledgement that good reading does not always involve reading and understanding and taking notes on every line of text is good for all students. And then we have a base to build upon for supporting recovering students in being selective in not only what pieces they read, but how they approach reading them.

(And now I want to learn more about how visual note taking may or may not be a useful tool with students recovering from head trauma.)


So – this lengthy post is more thinking and wondering than answers, but I would be so very grateful to hear your thoughts and practices, as well. As schools seek to improve their care of students suffering from brain injuries, librarians have another opportunity to offer thought leadership and compassionate care.

*This story with my alum’s permission.

OK, we stopped Follett — Any righteous anger left for the bad actors forcing bad choices?

What do California, Hawaii, Minnesota, Indiana, Nebraska, Idaho, Utah, Oklahoma, and Tennessee have in common? Each state’s legislature has considered and/or passed laws criminalizing databases, building a narrative of fighting against content that is “harmful to minors” (and other terms I’m skipping because they may trigger sensitive Internet filters). 

Update: These laws have passed in Oklahoma, Tennessee, Idaho, and Utah. In some cases they make librarians and educators individually, criminally liable for students accessing sources deemed undesirable. Next legislative season they will be coming back in several more states.

This post will cover:

What is this legislation?

This particular movement has been underway since a Colorado couple filed a lawsuit against EBSCO and the Colorado Library Consortium in 2018, alleging that databases “knowingly [provide] sexually explicit and obscene materials to school children” and that the Consortium “purchases from EBSCO and knowingly brokers sexually explicit, obscene, and harmful materials to Colorado school children.” According to James LaRue, the former director of ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, it was the first known challenge to a library database. The lawsuit was dismissed, but in its wake a connected individual in Utah filed a complaint that led to the state turning off all access to EBSCO’s K-12 databases while it was investigated. Although specious, the state of Utah has since maintained over 1500 blocked terms in their state consortium-purchased K-12 databases and has now passed anti-database legislation (and demonstrated consistently via usage reports that students are not searching for inappropriate content). The pandemic has since helped popularize the narrative perpetrated by that lawsuit. Various political groups fed parents’ worries that children isolated at home during online school were using databases that – they led parents to believe – were giving students the capacity to access materials that were harmful to minors. 

“Harmful to minors” and the related designations are used in COPA and CIPA, though you may most clearly recall having seen them applied more recently to a wide range of books being pulled from library shelves around the country. This movement is occurring in states that span the political spectrum.

Legislators in many states have introduced bills designed to shut down statewide database access unless massive filtering takes place.

So far, I have seen three general flavors of legislation:

  1. Requires all databases purchased for use by K-12 students (generally at the state and/or school district level, sometimes including other entities such as public or university libraries) to have “safety policies and technological protection measures” that filter and prohibit sharing of materials that are harmful to minors, etc. 
    1. Penalty for noncompliance is termination of contract and withholding payment;
    2. Very common version of legislation;
    3. Appears across states to come primarily from a template; 
    4. Examples include Idaho (enacted), Utah (signed by governor 3/21), Oklahoma (in committee) and many more (many voted down or languishing in committee).
  2. Requires schools to provide convenient methods for parents or guardians to track, monitor, or view curricular and supplemental learning materials.
    1. Often part of a so-called “Parents’ Rights” bill
    2. For example, in California.
  3. Nebraska’s bill, currently undergoing amendments from the Judiciary Committee, is particularly pernicious and is intended as a model for other states. In addition to the requirements above, the Nebraska bill requires that schools:
    1. Assign each K-12 student an individual logins for any state-contracted databases, outlawing group accounts; and
    2. “Provide the account credential of each student in kindergarten through grade twelve to such student’s parent or guardian and allow the parent or guardian access to all materials accessible to the student.”

The bill also outlines situations in which individuals can sue database vendors and and claim damages.

History suggests that we will see continued attempts at legislation on this topic across the nation; the inciting rhetoric suggests that the library vendors’ products themselves are not the actual target. Rather, the legislation seems to be aimed at libraries and the schools they serve. All of which leaves students caught in the crossfire, impacting their access to information as well as their privacy.

Why support vendors?

Last week, a nationful of librarians raised voices in protest when Follett reached out to say they were considering complying with so-called “Parents’ Rights” legislation being promulgated in a number of states. Many librarians responded viscerally–not only due to our belief in intellectual freedom, but also in the knowledge that many administrators might see that optional “fix” as an easy answer if Follett made it available. Furthermore, we worry about whether technological changes demanded in one place might come to impact our students’ access to information in another place. So we fought back against Follett and now feel empowered and righteous in our victory.

Meanwhile, the laws and bills that forced Follett to consider adding optional modules remain in place. Of course vendors with business models requiring money from libraries need to act in accordance with the ethics of librarianship. That said, I could not help spending last week wishing to see the energy that went into anti-Follett advocacy aimed instead at our state legislatures and the encoding of censorship into law. 

If we want our students to continue to have intellectual freedoms, it is critical that we focus our efforts on ensuring that our vendors will maintain the legal rights to provide all of us with the educational content they can provide.

What can I do?

So, if you have energy to give, how can you help? A group of librarians is working on a strategy now. We are happy to have more hands to make this work lighter. 

  1. Now: you can help identify if any legislation is passed or pending in your state that would impact database access. Whether in so-called “parental rights” bills, freestanding bills requiring enhanced filtering, or other mechanisms for parental reviews of “supplemental educational materials,” we are trying to get a sense of what attempts to block intellectual freedom through databases are out there. Please feel free to use this anonymous form to point us towards legislation impacting databases.
  2. Sign up here and we will reach out and find a volunteer task that works for you. Also, watch this space. We are constructing a crowdsourced monitoring tool so we can try to keep an eye on what is being blocked in different parts of the US. 

In gratitude: So many people have helped me understand what is happening here. Many of them cannot be named due to risk in their workplaces. However, the entire ad hoc working group for building realistic databases has worked together to reach this point. Some of our colleagues’ comments about unsearchable terms on my last blog post started a process. Several anonymous individuals helped me understand more about what was going on. EveryLibrary tracks legislation and has helped me better understand the movements underway. My family have been supportive as I have lost sleep, and … well, everyone I have encountered has had to listen to this tale as we followed its twists and turns. Thank you to each and every one of you. And, thank you to to village of librarians and Americans committed to intellectual freedom that it will require to move forward and safeguard our students’ right to learn.

Have five minutes to give for better databases? Take that vendor call or write an email!

Over the past eighteen months, many of you have asked how you can help encourage database companies to reformulate their core products to reflect a wider range of identities and perspectives. Luckily, there is a quick and easy way you can contribute: reach out to your vendors and ask for what you need!

This action can be as simple as picking up the phone when a rep calls, sending a short email, or adding this topic to your contract renewal conversations.

We have found that when two or three librarians from different geographic regions have reached out offering feedback about product offerings (as when companies have done marketing blasts for new “ethnic” databases over the past year) it makes people within the company take note. Imagine if a company hears from twenty or thirty of us? Or two to three hundred? Alone we are just one independent school. Together we represent a significant customer base for most of our vendors.

To help you out, below please find potential talking points to use with vendors. Credit where it is due: Sara Kelly-Mudie led the way documenting these points, a group of eight additional independent school librarians from around the country contributed to the conversation, and then Sarah Levin of the Urban School of San Francisco and I ran these past the Bay Area Independent School Librarians group last fall for feedback. So – we hope you will find a point or two that can help you get started.

Whether you work from these points or have another approach based on your personal observations, if you have wished for more diverse, equitable, and inclusive school products, now is the perfect moment to let your vendors know. We will not get what we do not communicate that we need.

Talking points for vendor reps

Our ask:

The core school database product should offer a realistic reflection of the people who live in the United States/Canada/your country. We should not have to buy “special” add-on databases representing “other” identities or perspectives (be they socioeconomic, ability-based, racial/ethnic, religious, gender-based, etc.) in order to offer basic representation of the people present in our school communities and in our country.


*We are so excited to share that our institution is expanding its commitment to equity in every department. Here in the library we are auditing all our services and resources, including databases.
*Much like our collections, our electronic resources need attention if they are to reflect our communities and provide the perspectives we need.
*As we think about which vendors we will continue to patronize, we have decided to prioritize those committed to building central products that reflect the diverse experiences and perspectives of our students and their communities.
*We’re so excited to see the equity work you’re currently doing – identify two or three things you have noticed (examples here and here), OR ask them what they are doing to recreate their core school product to be equitable and inclusive – to reflect our nation in a realistic way.
*Looking ahead, as we consider our next round of renewals, we have a few questions:
Are you committed to offering a broad baseline of experiences and perspectives in your flagship product (rather than in add-on packages)?
*What is your current equity audit process and timeline? Do you have a rubric?
*Are there simple ways to offer feedback about gaps?
*Thank you in advance for your time and attention. We look forward to hearing from you and to our ongoing collaboration.

Responses to the objection that this ruins databases’ profit model:

*At this moment, our institution is looking to represent our population and those we study.
*We are exploring many vendors’ offerings and, while none is exactly what we’d like, some are moving with intention toward our ideal.
*We are happy to work alongside a vendor for another year or two as you work toward realizing the commitments we asked about above. If we don’t see significant growth after that, we’re happy to take our business elsewhere.
*We believe the vendors most willing to engage in this work alongside libraries will be poised to capture our attention in the next round of renewals and beyond.
*We don’t mean that you have to “give us everything” – we understand the value of being able to purchase extra depth in areas central to individual schools’ curricula. However, databases that do not provide realistic representation of our national population do not actually provide the sources our students need to be educated adults.