“Just teach the databases”: Better responses than eye-rolling?

A recent conversation with a colleague about that perpetual, one-time-a-year “collaboration” request for “just a quick introduction to databases” made me reflect carefully on why I don’t really get that particular gem of an assignment anymore.

This colleague had just received that same ask and felt saddened – as it did not resonate with what she thought students actually needed.

So, we began discussing what skills her particular students do need to move forward in the word, and then we began plotting a “database lesson” that would deliver one of those skills, instead. The process reminded me of a closely-held principle I’ve had since before entering school librarianship: what we teach is mostly thinking skills; any technical skills will need to be about flexibly adapting to change over time and across tools, in any event.

This is where I began to reflect on strategies I used in the early years at my school when this was a frequent instructional request. Now, I do teach the basic intro in ninth grade (and my colleague in sixth). Otherwise, whenever I was asked to teach databases, I instead taught a skill that was useful in a broad range of research situations. Of course, we used the databases to practice, so I was delivering on my colleague’s desires. These lessons include, but are not limited to:
*How search tools work (I’ve pivoted to using Stephanie Gamble’s lego method, far superior to my prior attempts);
*Mind mapping pre-existing knowledge to expose potential search terms;
*Using stepping stone sources (reading for useful search terms);
*Imagining sources (for example: most newspaper articles on sports do not mention the name of the sport, but tend to mention team names; articles on psychology do not tend to use the word “psychology” – unless it is in the journal title – but instead refer to specific conditions and possibly the subject group tested);
*Close reading of non-fiction to determine POV;
*Accessing multiple perspectives;
and so forth.

I have recently realized that this approach not only delivers more skills to my students that are more flexible across their needs, but it also demonstrated to my colleagues the greater range of what I have to offer and has led to many fewer requests for “just the databases,” and colleagues coming in the door looking for more meaningful and applicable (and less repetitive) engagements.

Takeaways from California Research and Academic Libraries Conference, 2024

This week I am fortunate to join our academic library colleagues at their statewide conference. I am encountering a variety of products and ideas that might be of use to US/HS-serving colleagues (and a few that might be helpful to all), so I am going to record them here.

The theme was The Insufficient Librarian. It was about both justice work and also the need to fight the feelings of insufficiency at work and learn to embrace boundaries and joy. So, below you will find notes about both IL skills and joy skills! (Let’s work on those JOY skills!)

For everyone, from our keynote speaker, Mychal Threets:

*I have long been wishing for a replacement for “How are you?” and am now considering “Are you ready for joy?” Might need to develop a follow-up questions along the lines of “How can I help you get there?”

*Do you use social media to promote your library? Mr. Threets reminded us that screen readers need help with hashtags. While they can see the separate words in #LibraryJoy (capitalizing the first letter of each word), they cannot parse #libraryjoy into readable parts.

Important new framing from Librarian Amy Gilgan from University of San Francisco:

Multipartiality,” not neutrality

“Neutrality” tends to favor people in power, multi partial acknowledges all but also power operating in the room.

Lit review of literature about joy at work, Kitty Luce and Margot Hanson

Here are the slides of their review. I mean, who doesn’t love a lit review!?!

True Fun from Stef Baldivia and Elizabeth Tibbitts

*We did a very cool “joy audit” to consider elements of our personal life and then our work life. It was awesome, actually. We looked for “fun magnets”: “Fun magnets are what bring the true fun alive for you.”

*The main focus was on library events, and making traditionally bureaucratic, dreadful draggy events into fun, joyful spaces in which your collaborators want to come. They based their thinking on the framework of SPARK:

S (making space – decluttering, taking space when needed, featuring your space, everyone is welcome)

P (pursuing passions – find something people can really get into)

A (Attracting fun – just really thinking about and opening oneself up to places where fun can enter into generally laborious moments)

R (rebelling – fun at work is rebellious)

K (keeping it going – make it a habit)

Example: These particular librarians took the meeting in which the disciplinary department representatives got trained in how to request books from the library collection (which never included the subject librarians!) and turned it into a passport-based fair. They invited all departments of the library to table at the fair, and were able to stimulate a bunch of conversations between faculty members and library folks offering services of which the faculty were not aware.

Virtue Information Literacy: Flourishing in an Age of Anarchy, by Wayne Bivens-Tatum

Virtues: open-mindedness, humility, modesty, courage, caution, thoroughness, justice, and information vigilance. This book draws heavily on “virtue ethics” from the discipline of philosophy, is highly interdisciplinary in its roots, and sounds quite intellectual — an interesting concept overall.

TikTok analogies for information lit instruction, from Laura Wimberley of California State University, Northridge (you are going to have to do your own self-education on TikTok, as I am so not there):

*Finding a strong initial article for citation tracing is like your first follow that indicates to the algorithm what you like and want to see more of in your feed

*Literature reviews are like explainers (I will try to get my hands on her example and share it, if I can)

*A citation is a stich (you are on your own here, I am working on growth mindset re: understanding stiches)

The National Library of Medicine has an online Medical History hub and a very interesting Know the Science tool

Pheonix Bioinformatics has some very interesting tools for K-12, including:

*Tair, a reference for gene function data that can be free for K-12

*MorphoBank, a paleontology database



Reading Comprehension, Resilience, and Identifying Aboutness

I don’t know about you, but I am noticing quite a drop in students’ ability to read for information. We are experiencing a lot less resilience and a lot more rebellion against reading activities. Students complain “this isn’t English class,” when asked to engage with text in their other subjects. Thus, some teachers and I are reviving an old lesson in strategic reading as students prepare to undertake background research for their science fair projects.

I would love to hear how you are handling these challenges, as I think about how to repurpose the following lesson.

An age-old problem, of course, is a lack of reading-level appropriate materials on certain topics, especially for our middle school students. Two years ago, our seventh grade science teacher asked me to help students tackle navigating a slightly too hard article to learn some necessary information. My then-TA Anna came up with a lesson that met with great success.

Each group of students were assigned one article from a series taken from a single source. For homework, the skimmed the article. In class, we gave them a second copy of their articles and a specific prompt:

What are the abiotic factors (of your topic) and how do they interact with the biotic factors in the ecosystem?

We asked them to go back to their article and identify which parts of the article would help them answer their prompt. They were to note the text that looked useful and cross out any text that did not appear to help them answer their question.

Students stared at us, open-mouthed. We explained that they would only be working to read closely the parts of the article that had the information they needed (remember, they had looked at the entire article already…though they probably had not understood large parts of it), so we needed them to cross out anything that would not be helpful so they would feel freed from the need to read and understand it.

They continued staring at us. We next reminded them that each student had a second, clean copy of their article. If they crossed something out by mistake, it would not be lost — they had a back-up copy. (My TA had been very clear that fear of missing something would keep students from eliminating unhelpful text, and they needed the safety blanket of the ability to retrieve text, if necessary.)

Finally, they stopped starting, and started crossing out. With vigor and glee.

We then moved on to comprehending significantly smaller chunks of text, and the students felt gratified by the practice. They were able to speak to their prompts by the end of class. Our learning specialist even adopted the strategy to teach to specific students across the grades.

It is a tricky thing, balancing the need to know the context in which your needed information appears with the ability to target your reading successfully. It is my hope that employing this technique again this year will help students view reading for information not just as something being done to them, but as an incisive tool they can wield as needed.

But I would be really grateful to hear, if you have encountered similar challenges, how you responded!

“Fun kits to check out”: Action packs in action

Last week, Matt Ball of Pace Academy sent a question out to our list about “Fun kits to check out.” Our library realized my dream of activity packs (named by my cooler colleagues: “Casti Library Action Packs,” or “CLAPs”) a few years back, and some back and forth on the thread suggested I should share some details here.

We find that the use of these packs fluctuates heavily in relationship to marketing and also school vacations, but we keep them going out of a commitment to outdoor and offline activities. I suspect that schools with elementary school students would have a much higher uptake.

My colleagues, Jole Seroff and Christina Appleberry, are spectacular at making things fun and engaging. I love the thematic papers they use! Students take a tag for the CLAP they want to check out and bring it to us at the circulation desk. We grab a pack for them.

We have five themes to our CLAPs at the moment, and the back of each check-out tag tells students what they will get with a given action pack:

In addition, these cards help everyone confirm that every item is there at both checkout and return.
Advancement gave us these cute knapsacks to hold our CLAPs. Each is tagged with a card showing the topic and a catalog bar code on one side.
Each CLAP tag again lists the items we can all expect to find in the bag. It helps us remember what is in the bag at checkout and return, and assists students as they prepare to return the bag to us. As a result, we have experienced very little loss of materials, making these packs a relatively inexpensive endeavor. Sometimes, there is an invitation to engage in a communal activity with the CLAP. (Note our inflatable pillow is a lice-proofable material…..)
The weaving and pompom kits include the choice of two colors of yarn. We bring students to this drawer to chose what they want. We have found our students to be responsible and return extra materials. In this drawer you can also see our extra looms, extra embroidery hoops, and the biggest investment from our CLAPs, Sashiko fabric with water soluble dots, by Olympus. Fun fact: you can also tell students are using these packs at school by the amount of artificial turf that has made its way into the yarn drawer!

While the CLAPs do not quite see the consistent use we would like, it gives us a lot of fun opportunities to connect with students, and also lets us extend active and passive programing (we had a stargazing event and we keep a simple loom warped and ready for us in the library) in a way that students can take with them.

Our larger loom, in between projects.
Examples of student watercolors of clouds. It took a while to get students to leave their images in, instead of ripping them out to hide them from others’ view, but we are starting developing a fun collection. Each one is dated, along with a location, type of cloud, and student name and grad year. It is really lovely to be building this visible history of relaxation within our community.
We also had a student design badges that students can collect as they complete each action pack. (We also love our button-maker!)

I know that other libraries are out there running similar programs. Please feel free to share in comments, and link to pictures or other information that you have. I still fantasize about putting together local literary outings (or even for other cities) — maybe walking tours of places that appear in MG and YA literature, or activities similar to those noted in books. I’d love to have Go-Passes, as well, that students could check out to attend different museums. Right now, we don’t have the traffic needed to justify those purchases, but I have my eye on the future!

Does your library offer something in this realm?

Bringing Sources into Conversation: Teaching Literature Review to High School Students (Part 2)

As I mentioned in November, I have become a huge fan of having students read and write literature reviews before heading off to college. Working with students in those upper-level electives that use scholarly sources, I have found that they completely misinterpret what that section of papers is doing and how they are meant to interact with it. More importantly, I find that literature reviews help with basic and highly specific skill-building for which alums express appreciation when they transition to college. In addition, I have several highly collaborative colleagues now (in our AP-equivalent Advanced Topics Statistics, Biology, and History Research and Writing classes) who collaborate on teaching how to build lit reviews, and also invite me to hang around as students work, involve me in draft reading and feedback, as well as assessment.

For my first several years at this school, AP/AT Statistics was the only class that undertook functional literature reviews, and the teacher made time available some years for me to come in and teach students what a lit review was before they wrote it. So, I had several opportunities to experiment. I will admit that, in part, this process has gotten easier as students have had an increasing number of years building relationships with me prior to my appearing for this lesson (in year two, students stared at me stony-faced over a sample lit review about whether dogs feel jealousy and in year three the lit reviews on women and swearing got the same response – in years nine, ten, and eleven, the same lit reviews go over very well among my gender-diverse girls school students, because they are unsurprised that I plumb the Ig Noble award-winning papers for funny, readable, and informative examples).

In any event, over the years I found some methods that worked better than others at teaching students particular skills inherent in lit review writing, but I still found the outcomes of student work quite inconsistent. No matter how I explained the basic building blocks of lit reviews, not all students seemed to get it – or, at least it took more, one-on-one discussion over time to drive the concepts home. So, this year I took on a new approach – and this one seemed to yield much stronger results.

What is a lit review?

This year, I did not tell students what lit reviews are for or how they are organized. Working in pairs or table groups, students read sample lit reviews. Each student would have a different paper. Their task was to compare, discuss, and answer: 

1. What job the lit review was doing? and 

2. What are the building blocks of lit reviews? 

We would then work to synthesize their observations as a class, which gave the classroom teacher and myself opportunities to add observations, clarify details, answer questions, and correct misconceptions. We always pause to look at an example of a sentence that address a single study and one that reflects on several studies that arrive at similar findings.

We do this work on paper — lots of annotating takes place, and we want them focused — so most students had their computers closed. One student took notes for the whole class to refer back to ask they worked (examples). I also gave them Assiya’s (my dedicated Lit Review Research TA) FAQ that I shared back in November, of course!

Creating conversations

In the second round, students looked for signs of “conversation.” How could you tell that authors are bringing sources into conversation with each other? What words did they use to demonstrate a conversation was taking place? Students discovered signal phrases – a concept I learned from The Harker School’s Lauri Vaughan – and transitions in their texts, and I gave them hard copies of the transitions template from They Say, I Say, and a handout on signal phrases with lists of sample verbs. 

(Sidenote: I get these documents into the hands of students every chance I get. They really help students to bring sources into conversation. A former Research TA and I analyzed multiple grade-levels of History writing from the same cohort of students, looking for how they were using evidence and hallmarks of strong skills. We found that precise and varied verb selection was at least highly correlated with good use of evidence. Since then, I encourage those students who do not naturally jive with synthesizing from multiple sources to let verbs lead their way; it is really helpful for them to pull out the list and just ask themselves which fit what they are seeing: are these sources contradicting? building upon? supporting? advocating for? Classroom teachers love that students use more variety than “said….said….said.” I encourage students to keep these docs next to their computers for reference whenever they are working to bring multiple sources into conversation.)

I do not know why I did not try this method years ago. Clearly, having students observe for themselves and puzzle out the “rules” of lit review was so much more effective than telling them.

Organizational schema

The final step of the lesson, which I have used for the last eight years or so, was to give students a set of notecards and have them practice organizing lit reviews based on different prompts. (I have two sets I use, here and here.) For each set of cards, I have three questions, and students work in their groups to pile notecards into the paragraphs they would create to answer each. For dogs, the questions this year were:

  1. Do dogs feel jealousy only over “their person,” or any person?
  2. Do dogs distinguish between social and non-social recipients of their person’s attention?
  3. What method is most effective for testing secondary emotions in dogs?

For each of these questions, most of the studies conveyed on the cards could be used in a lit review. However, for each of these questions, how the sources would be grouped would vary. A lit review might be organized thematically, methodologically, chronologically, etc. This exercise reinforces the idea they discovered earlier in the class that lit reviews are not “serial book reports” (a paragraph going into depth on each source) but synthetic documents.

I’ve come to love working with students on lit reviews, and feel quite passionate about the feelings of agency and accomplishment that they engender. Do you collaborate on any lit review instruction or creation? How do you approach this work?

Help me build a fantasy search lesson: Search instruction from popular fiction

While you might be surprised at how passionate I once was about Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, you will become less surprised when you hear why. Below you can find a little post I wrote on my very short-lived blog back in 2010, entitled: “A Searcher’s Review of Twilight: Book Vs. Movie Through the Eyes of a Search Geek.”

Originally, I only had one idea for a research skills lesson analyzing search choices in MG and YA literature. But then, several years ago, I came across this little gem in Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles, in which Scarlet is trying to figure out what the deal is with Wolf:

(Scarlet, p. 171-172)

So — new fantasy: What if we had a dozen or more research-related quotes from popular novels and could design a class where students picked one and came up with a short real-world lesson based on the fictional account?

My ask: Can you think of a brief passage from a book in your collection that speaks to or demonstrates thinking about research skills? If you email me directly or put them in the comments below, I would be most happy to compile a list of useful passages for the group.

In case we do not get to this new lesson, here is what I wished I had a class to teach to back when I read Twilight:

A Searcher’s Review of Twilight: Book vs. Movie Through the Eyes of a Search Geek

Well, it is that time again—the Twilight New Moon video is now part of our lives. Pre-teens and teenagers spend untold amounts of time mooning over Bella and Edward… providing, believe it or not, a great example of better quality, iterative searching.

Of the books’ strengths and weaknesses, what annoyed me most wasn’t the endlessly repetitive conversations, or the thousand uses of the word alabaster, but rather Bella’s very poor online search skills.

Bella, the heroine, tricks a member of the local Quileute tribe into telling her about love interest Edward’s secret:

In her agitation over this revelation, Bella naturally decides to hop online to verify the vampire claim. And that is what she searches: [vampire].

Bella reads though the site, “looking for anything that sounded familiar, let alone plausible,” (134) and comes up blank.

Meanwhile, my mind is fairly screaming, not about the revelation of Edward’s true identity, but rather about the fact that her friend gave her a perfectly good, highly specific and potentially powerful, search term, [cold ones], and it does not even occur to her to use it.  By sticking with a more general term, she not only opens herself up to many irrelevant hits, but fails to uncover pages that might have information matched to her specific information need. Like searching for [plant food] when you want to know what to feed your Venus fly trap. She ends up frustrated by her search process, feeling that it taught her nothing of use.

By contrast, movie-Bella has a search style that is worlds stronger.

In the film, instead of revealing Edward’s hidden identity, Bella’s friend darkly hints that Edward is somehow related to an old Quileute tribal legend, but refuses to say more. Bella then undertakes an iterative search process, in which she reads for search terms and folds them back into her search process to get more specificIn this example, Bella takes stock of what she knows, and goes online to find a more information (search: [Quileute legends]). She finds a book on Quileute myths, and homes in on the term cold one, which she then takes back online as her next search. Using this specific term, she finds precise information, which in fact allows her to build a list of attributes that she has recognized in Edward—speed, strength, and cold skin—and leverages that knowledge to add new ones—immortal, drinks blood—confirming for her that Edward is a vampire. A much more successful and satisfying search experience, if a weaker execution of the plot. This type of iterative searching is one of the key skills that I teach students, educators, and parents in my classes.

With the second movie in the Twilight Saga selling like crazy, and two more to come over the next two years, both the Twilight and the search lovers in your class can enjoy the opportunity to dig in.

My take away: No one wants to hear they have to run multiple searches to find information. So, use something kids do want to hear about to get the point across!

Bringing Sources into Conversation: Teaching Literature Review to High School Students (Part 1)

Over the past few years, we have had an increasing number of courses that ask 11th and 12th graders to write literature reviews, most frequently employing approximately ten sources. It turns out to be a wonderful assignment to get at the idea that scholarship is conversation, and one that I would like to see every student experience before heading off to college. It turns out you read scholarly papers a lot differently when you understand what a lit review is, and it makes the work of college much more meaningful.

In my next post, I want to share how I have arrived at teaching lit review after many years of experimentation. But this week, I want to feature the FAQ put together by Assiya Memon (’24), my first Research TA dedicated to supporting student understanding of literature reviews. Assiya’s comprehension of the genre is magical; she has an innate sense of the work, the tone, and the “moves” (as Graff and Birkenstien might say) of a strong literature review.

At the end of last year we interviewed every student on campus who had written more than one lit review in their time at our school. We asked about what they learned in class, what they figured out for themselves, and what tips they would most want to offer future students. Assiya went through those interviews looking for common themes, added a bit of wisdom of her own, and made the following tip sheet. My gratitude to this insightful TA, who personally tutored four sections of Stats and Advanced Bio students through the lit review writing process with humor and grace, even as she worked on her own college applications. (Find Google Doc version of this tip sheet here.)

The Literature Review: Reminders, Tips, & FAQs

First, a few reminders:

What claim are you making?
A common misconception students have about writing a literature review is that it is similar to preparing for a debate—that you are on the hunt for sources that prove your research question right, and should leave out studies that are contradictory to that narrative. While researching, remember that you are not yet arguing the claim of your study, but rather that the study you want to conduct is relevant. Do not shy away from disagreement in the field; let your research be comprehensive and acknowledge the brilliant back-and-forths that have been had! Maybe your research question will change to reflect the existing research, or maybe it’s perfect the way it is. Keep your mind open!

Does it feel hard to find the proper professional “tone” for a lit review? Do you just “not like research”? Remember that you already exercise many of these skills in other classes! While certainly not identical, you know how to put primary sources or quotations in conversation in humanities essays, or write narrative and transition-based problem sets. Your job with the lit review is to consolidate what research already exists, trace how scholars have bounced off each other’s work, and summarize it for your readers. Treat it like putting together a discussion or relevant historical context if you get stuck!

Lastly, literature reviews are unquestionably tricky. It’s easy to get lost in the research process, the narrative flow, or the quantity of sources—regularly stepping back and checking in with teachers/librarians/peers for feedback on what you’ve written can go a long way.

FAQ/Common Challenges:

➡ I’m encountering a lot of unfamiliar vocab in these studies! How much should I Google?
A: Note down any frequently-used terms that you do not understand. Remember that you’re doing a lot of research on a lot of cool new things: a librarian-approved rule of thumb is to only look up a word once you’ve seen it five times!

➡ There doesn’t seem to be much unique or original research done on my topic.
A: First, try refining your search. Talk to your teacher or a librarian if you think there are relevant studies out there that you just aren’t finding. Otherwise, it might be time to step back, recognize that there may not be enough with which to conduct meaningful analysis in a high school class, and consider widening your scope. 🙁

➡ Uh oh… system overload… too many sources
A: It’s hard to resist overcomplicating your lit review, especially if you’re passionate about what you’re researching. Avoid spending too much of your valuable time clicking through rabbit holes; intentionally focus on what studies you need to contextualize your research question. Remind yourself that you don’t have to use every source you look into (even if they’re interesting or cool). If a source doesn’t play a meaningful role in the discussion, it might be better not to reference it! More studies referenced ≠ better lit review.

➡ But I know that my sources are important for my lit review! How do I extract their significance without spending hours pouring over entire research papers?
A: You want to get to the findings—or “main idea”—of a study. All you likely need is the what, so what, and now what* of a given article. Remember to check its abstract, intro, and conclusion. Only delve into the rest of the source if those places are missing information that you know is critical to your lit review or your understanding. Again, you have a lot of sources to parse: resist the temptation to go on too many research deep-dives!

➡ I have so, so much citing and annotation to do…
A: The best thing you can do for yourself is to start citing/annotating early. Do not put it off. It’s remarkably easy to forget where you got a specific piece of information, or what significance a certain source had. Citing is a form of source evaluation. Utilize it!
— Plus, the empirical side effects to opening a fresh NoodleTools project the night before the deadline include extreme panic and exactly no hours of sleep. You don’t want that for yourself. Try your best to get rid of those 20 open tabs and stay organized with your research!

*”What, So what, Now what” is a reflection model that my teaching colleague, Helen Shanks, adapted as a framework for high school students reading scholarly work. I guess that routine may be the topic of Part 3 of this series of blogs…. TBM

“Nonpartisan”: It does not mean what we appear to think it means

So…I’ve been reading and decoding a lot of “About Us” pages this week, and been reflecting again on the many ways those pages are so often written to intentionally obscure more than they clarify.

Quite a few organizations I have been investigating use my least favorite word to describe their work: “nonpartisan.” To be sure we are all on the same page, Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines nonpartisan as: “not partisan; especially : free from party affiliation, bias, or designation.”

I include the definition because far-and-away the most common reason students give for picking a source on a politicized topic is that it is “unbiased.” (No matter how many times we cover that there is no such thing as an unbiased source.) When I ask students how they arrived at that conclusion, they show me the word “nonpartisan” boldly dispatched in among the buzzwords on the About Us page — on every kind of site, from every point on the political landscape. Seeing that word seems to undo anything else students learn about the organization, such as by reading its Wikipedia page or talk page, reviews, etc.

At this point, I am absolutely convinced that most media, opinion, and think tank organizations find some way to shoehorn the term “nonpartisan” into their self-descriptions, specifically because they intend to use common misunderstanding of the word to mislead readers about their positionality and agenda. Even if there are usages of the word that are not strictly about political party affiliation, I believe publishers calculate that inclusion of the term offers plausible deniability. They can make us feel they are neutral without actually making the claim of being neutral.

It is disingenuous, deceitful, and effective.

As a result, talking about that specific word has become a mainstay of my research skills curriculum. At this juncture, I feel like it is one of the most important tidbits I teach in unpacking construction of authority and evaluating sources.

So keep an eye out, and see all the ways that one little word is (mis)used. And let’s work to assure our students are not duped by it.

State of the States: Legislation and interest groups impacting freedom of information 

This post reflects the work of the ad hoc Database Working Group, which is not affiliated with AISL’s organizational structure, although we have many overlapping members. Also, credit for the work reflected here goes to all the members of that group, though for space and confidentiality purposes the members cannot all be named here. 

Additionally, while it is important to acknowledge that not every independent school has the same educational mission–and varying missions may impact the curricular and co-curricular needs of each of our libraries–we cannot know the full downstream impact of allowing censorship of educational materials. Therefore, it is important for each of us to understand the mechanisms by which information access is being curtailed.

Back-to-school means back to thinking about information access. Where electronic information is concerned, we have found (see comments on post) that it is not only the policies of one’s own state or school that have the potential to impact what information your students can access; research database vendors vary in their methods of responding to politicized concerns about content. Right now – as far as we can tell – there is a lot more pressure aimed at these vendors to curtail information access, especially around particular identities and scientific information, than to support students’ right to learn. As we independent school librarians are some of the few direct purchasers of research database products (since most public schools use only the state-provided products), our voices matter in what products offered nationwide actually contain.

I know we are all focused on kicking off our new school years right now, so it might not feel like the best time for a heavy post. But heaviness is impacting our students’ right to learn, so you might want (or need) to add electronic information access to your thinking about the year. It is certainly among the duties of my job to assure both that my students get the educational materials they need and that I am shepherding my school’s finances responsibly. That includes not paying for information my students cannot actually access due to blocked searches, or having content removed that I intentionally purchased to support learning.

In past posts by various AISL members we have discussed work being undertaken by the Database Working Group—a collaboration of various school librarians around the country–that functions independently of AISL. During our group’s boot camp this summer, we kicked off with a “State of the States” update. We agreed that the update needed to be shared more widely. Please note that we had significant assistance in our preparation from EveryLibrary’s John Chrastka, an ally fighting hard for your students’ right to read and learn.

Legislation

There exist many methods for achieving censorship, or freedom to read, but we will start with a brief legislative overview of the first half of 2023. We need to care about legislation in our own states and also in other states. Legislators take other states’ bills as models for new proposals (and bills that die one year may well come back the next year, as with Nebraska’s very worrisome LB635) but also because the chilling effect  – plus legal impact – of legislation can change the content available to our students even if our own state does not legislate censorship.

Trends

According to Chrastka and EveryLibrary, the three major themes in legislation impacting reading and databases are:

  1. Limits: Bills such as Michigan’s HB4136 require public libraries to create an area only accessible to people over the age of 18 for “either obscene or sexually explicit matter that is harmful to minors” and further restrict where the materials from that area may be used.
  2. Ratings: Laws such as Texas HB900, which takes effect on September 1, 2023, require vendors, publishers, or libraries to apply a ratings system to materials. In Texas, for example, vendors must rate materials before sale, and must recall anything that has already been purchased which is rated as “sexually explicit.” Several states have put forth legislation of this nature so far, among them Tennessee and Maine.
  3. Criminalization: For the past several years, criminalizing databases themselves was the trend. Such laws passed in Idaho, Utah, Tennessee, and Oklahoma, and died in several other states. This year, there has been a shift to criminalizing librarians or all educators, making individuals legally liable if a student is perceived to have accessed obscene materials.* This year there has been more legislation that includes:
  • Redefining “obscenity” (diverging from the Miller Test): especially changing language around the “community standards” that define “obscenity” and/or removing protections such as those afforded to artistic, literary, political, or scientific sources. 
  • There is also a proliferation of alternate terms that (as I read it, not being a lawyer) attempt to legislate around the legal definition of obscenity, such as: “inappropriate materials,” “sexually explicit materials,” “pornographic for minors,” “harmful to minors,” or “hard-core pornography.” The definitions of these terms may vary from historical or contemporary common usage. 

(Much of this wording implies we are talking exclusively about electronic content dealing with gender, sexuality, and gendered health. However, certain book bans have applied “harmful to minors” to other identifiers, such as race/ethnicity and religion. We are still struggling to get transparency and understanding around how these identities are impacted by censorship attempts for electronic content.)

  • Iowa legislation, currently in committee, includes “accredited nonpublic schools” (and also prohibits “the use of standards or guidance developed by the American Library Association” for collection development and weeding). 

Among other trends, states such as Georgia and Texas are legislating statewide collection development and/or reconsideration policies that override those of individual libraries or districts. 

For more or state-specific information, we strongly recommend EveryLibrary’s page on 2023 Legislation of Concern, and especially reading EveryLibrary’s Unpacking 2023 Legislation of Concern for Libraries and Education.

Impact

Once again, we care both about bills passed and bills proposed. It is common to see several states proposing the same language, or to see legislators shopping their text around to other states. If many states legislate against the freedom to learn through accessing electronic educational materials, our vendors may change the content of our subscription products against our will. We have already seen that happen in at least one vendor’s products.

In the first half of 2023 we saw:

  • 7 laws passed and enacted
  • 1 bill vetoed
  • 28 bills dead (but not forgotten)
  • Many more currently in committee

The states that have passed legislation specific to databases and access in the first half of 2023 are:

  • Idaho
  • Indiana
  • Kentucky
  • Mississippi
  • Oklahoma
  • Tennessee
  • Utah (multiple)

Other forms of censorship

Legislation is created by legislators who are influenced by activists. Beyond legislation exist many other paths to enacting (or fighting) censorship. Each state mixes and matches legislation and these other forms in their own unique way. Additional paths include:

  • Policies that are created by executive heads of government departments, both elected and appointed, such as the governor or the head of the Department of Education.
  • Rules that are created by the bureaucracy. In many cases (but certainly not all), rules set the guidelines for how a law is actually supposed to be implemented.
  • Enforcement that can come from various administrative authorities, such as the state Attorney General, a school board, or a school administrator.
  • Requests for proposals from, for example, state libraries buying electronic resources on behalf of the K-12 schools in a state. Requests for proposals (asking vendors to submit an offer for a database that the state could buy) may lean on contract law to set requirements for what content is acceptable within a state. While most states keep RFPs public and transparent, other states have been placing the requirements of their calls for proposals behind non-disclosure agreements. 
  • Chilling effects that cause vendors to self-censor may lead to changes in the functionality or content in electronic products. It is extremely challenging to discover when browsing, searching, or content have been changed and are not giving students the educational materials we believed we purchased.

Federal level

Federal activity mirrors much of what we see on the state level. Contacting your reps to encourage support for the Right to Read Act and to get them on board re-introducing, co-sponsoring, and voting for the Don’t Block LGBT Act are first steps.

As a profession, we need to also follow policies and rules that might impact our students right to learn. For example, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Right has started working against book bans (example). 

What can you do?

To start with a very specific ask: Help us determine vocabulary that is not librarian jargon to distinguish among different types of blocked search terms. We are looking for language to describe:

  • technical stopwords like “the,” “an,” “or,” etc.
  • swear words that have traditionally been blacklisted
  • identity-related and health science terms that have been/have potential to be blacklisted for political reasons.

If you have ever tried to teach anyone about “stopwords,” you know that is not a term the public is willing to embrace. Feel free to email Tasha directly with suggestions for our group to discuss.

Another very helpful action that each of us can take: ask for transparency from vendors regarding their editorial policies for both content inclusion and responding to complaints about content.

If you want to go deeper, the latter portion of EveryLibrary’s Unpacking 2023 Legislation of Concern for Libraries and Education is a truly excellent description of necessary civic engagement beyond advocating for or against pending legislation. It is worth a read just to enhance one’s own civics education, even if this is not your personal issue. It covers the need for:

Pre-legislative prep: Research, Stakeholder engagement, Coalition building, Media push

Post-legislative actions: Implementation advocacy, Judicial actions

More than anything, we need to spread the word. There are many directly impacted states where we could really use contacts so that we can offer the most-needed support. Talk to librarian friends, but also potential advocates in other professions. 

In support of any or all of these actions, you are most welcome to join the Database Working Group! We meet twice a month – come when you can, do what you can. As we plan our conference presentation strategy for the next year we would love to have your voice making proposals to speak. Generally, cultivating our diverse range of skills, perspectives, and institutional needs makes us stronger.

Civic work is everyone’s business, and our particular business is making sure our students have the right to learn.

*Note that Arkansas’ law creating criminal liability for librarians and booksellers has been temporarily blocked by a judge. (Source)

Celebrating ten years of school librarianship with abstract book covers

This year was my tenth at Castilleja, and my tenth as a school librarian (about 29th overall, depending on how you count). When I started at Casti, I considered myself a big reader of YA — only to discover I was reading all the obvious books and there was so much more out there to discover! I’ve never developed the superpower my colleagues bring to readers’ advisory, but I have a much wider range now.

So, I decided to celebrate my 10th anniversary by acknowledging my imperfections on the pleasure reading side by being vulnerable in another way — attempting to make abstract quilt squares of the covers of books that have been impactful for me over the past ten years. Quilting is another activity in which I engage with more passion than skill. It turns out to be an interesting intellectual challenge, however, to figure out what to convey from a cover, and how to handle layers of text over images. I owe a debt of gratitude to the #quiltyourlifecrew on Instagram for the original inspiration, and for helping me problem-solve.

For fun, because it is summer and fun is much needed, here are a few of the book/covers I love. I am about halfway through making the squares on my list so far. I would also love to know if anyone else has undertaken such a project — I would love to see your book-cover squares!

I figured to share (critique??) the fun, I could put together a can-you-guess-the-cover quiz. Answers below. (And if you cannot guess, it is sincerely not you, but me!)

Answers

#1: Nation, by Terry Pratchett
#2: All My Rage, by Sabaa Tahir
#3 The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, by E. Lockhart
#4: A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness based on the idea by Siobhan Dowd
#5: The Summer Prince, by Alaya Dawn Johnson
#6: The Universe Versus Alex Woods, by Gavin Extence
#7: I Will Always Write Back, by Catlin Alifirenka, Martin Ganda, and Liz Welch
#8: Out of Darkness, by Ashley Hope Perez
#9: Counting by 7s, by Holly Goldberg Sloan
#10: Pet, by Akwaeke Emezi
#11: The Scorpio Races, by Maggie Stiefvater
#12: The Porcupine of Truth, by Bill Konigsberg
#13: Orbiting Jupiter, by Gary D. Schmidt
#14: When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead