“The Collection”

I recently misunderstood a request being asked of me. I thought I was asked to share the book that had most influenced me as a professional. Noooooo, not a superlative! This is the way to get me into my head considering everything of professional importance that’s ever crossed my path. Here was the actual request: “share a reading / resource / book / video that has been particularly helpful for you professionally.” Okay, I can breathe with that! Not that I’m stress-free, but I can focus and answer.  

Well, kinda. I ultimately chose a book (Getting Things Done) and a podcast (Hidden Brain), one for practical skills and one for developing a more nuanced understanding of how others’ view the world.  

After being a solo librarian for my whole career, it was unexpected last week to read Seth’s take on “the collection.” When Rebecca posted earlier this fall on how we select and familiarize ourselves with books in our collections, I eagerly participated and read the responses. Because, for me, it’s rote at this point. I hadn’t gotten out of my routine to think metacognitively about what I did, nor even the path that led me to develop these routines in the first place. But this reflection is what helps us grow, and it’s worth it to take time out to reflect.

Because we are a relatively small school, I’ve bought or accepted as a donation every book for the Sunshine Library for over fifteen years. I’ve spent untold hours on Titlewave and Amazon. I’ve set up thousands of seasonal displays. I’ve checked out the books and subsequently added them back to the return cart. I’ve waited outside students’ classrooms to try to get popular titles returned. As the collection has changed size over the years, both with purchases and weeding, I’ve reallocated shelf space by moving books. I’ve dusted the shelves. Occasionally. Perhaps some of you are with me. Without thinking, I can answer these questions:               

“Where can I learn about the Gilded Age?”        
“Where’s that creepy book that Will recommended during book talks?”        
“Do you have the India book in this Countries series?”

If you ask me about books with orange spines for a Halloween display, I can picture where they sit on the shelves and the general design of the cover.  It’s deep knowledge. Invisible knowledge. But it’s also relatively useless outside this collection, this library. It makes sense that many librarians settle in at their schools and with their collections. While the learning gap is high for a teacher moving to a new school, it’s higher for the librarian. Because the same projects are offered year over year, it’s easy to seem like an expert on Greek mythology, vitamins, or the city of Boston. It easy to be enough of an expert on citations that you know which teachers care that the citations are perfect and which care more that students include the right parts. You are perhaps legitimately the “printer whisperer.”

 Between Rebecca and Seth and the questions that come through AISL each week, I want to thank you for making us all better librarians who think not only about what we do but why we do it, and thus ways to continue to improve. There are parts of the job that feel like second nature after a while but actually involve deep knowledge continually reinforced. Our community of librarians is there to remind us to nurture that knowledge. That way the library continues to stay relevant and be a useful resource for our students, a helpful resource for our teachers, and maybe a slight mystery for the people who wonder how we know the exact physical location of the book they’ve just vaguely described….

A Portrait of the Teacher as a Young Librarian

*Guest post by Seth Carlson*

I’m going to preface this by (1) saying I’m not Christina, I’m Seth, the new Middle and Upper School Librarian at Saint Stephen’s, and (2) apologizing that there aren’t any bits of practical advice or helpful tips the way there are in most of these posts. This is just one newcomer’s impression of what it’s been like to don the librarians’ robes. If that sounds interesting, read on! If not, the regular, useful posts will be back soon! 

The students keep asking me if I’m happier in my new role as librarian than I was in my old one as physics teacher, and it’s weird to me how frustrating one small word can make a question. It’s not a comparison to me. I wasn’t unhappy teaching physics, but I am really excited to be taking on the new challenges the library offers. Because I’m in the somewhat unusual position of moving from teaching to librarianship at the same school, Christina suggested I take over her AISL blogging account and write about what it’s been like. I sincerely hope you all know how amazing and important your work is already, but I’ll try to give a sense of what it’s been like diving in during my first two months. As a nod to the Book Awards my school gives students based on their particular skills and interests, I’m going to do this Book Award style.

The Lord of the Flies Award for not knowing what I don’t know. (This was an introduction to symbolism for me, and wow did I not pick up on it at first.)

This award goes to the collection, for suddenly seeming much larger and more daunting than I realized. Christina was in charge of the Middle and Upper School library on her own for the last fifteen years, but I’ve helped out some here and there and read, ummm, a very few of the books, it turns out. How does one learn what the thousands of books in one’s care are really about? I’ve been trying to do some random book tastings (I mostly refrain from actually licking them!)  at least a couple of times a day, but often when a student comes in asking if we have a book I say, “Let’s find out together!”

Also, right now the first sentence of the last paragraph is reminding me that every time I think the words “the collection,” they’re in a booming voice with dramatic music swelling. It’s kind of fun.

The Fellowship of the Ring “Mines of Moria” Award for dark, slightly concerning corners

This goes to the Study Pod, which didn’t have working lights for a month and a half. This award might be more literal than others. (As far as I know, there were no Balrog sightings …)

The A Room of One’s Own Award

Presented to Christina’s new office (which is still in the library, but is now slightly farther away in the library) because she’s calling it “a room of my own.” I would like to emphasize that I am 95% certain that the fact she is calling it that is meant as a cheeky reference to the book title and reaching a new state of adulthood where she can close a door to the surprises of the library on occasion.

Honorable mention for this award goes to the physics lab, for really, really not feeling like my room anymore. When I go in there now, after twelve years of teaching physics, it isn’t nearly as messy as it used to be!

The From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler Award for how many more things I have to keep track of as a librarian

This goes to my calendar. I never actually had to keep a digital calendar of my own as a teacher (we have a school one that has important dates when things like comments or grades are due). I knew that would change, but I didn’t realize the true level of change. I actually have three digital calendars right now and one in print: one for the library, one for the reading room, and two for me. 

The Things Fall Apart Award

This award is given to my Google Drive and about 10,000 Post-it notes. I desperately need to reorganize my Google Drive, or future Seth is going to be really mad next fall when he can’t find any of the things from this fall. But how do I do it – by subject, then class? Do I need grade-level folders? Do I create overarching folders by month? Do I include notes on managing the space somewhere?

The Post-it notes are only for things that I want to deal with as soon as possible. Some of them are two weeks old.

Let’s move on.

The Odd Couple Award

This goes to getting to co-teach. When I worked at The Seas at EPCOT, my favorite days were the ones where we had large school groups and I would get to co-teach our conservation lessons with other instructors. It’s so energizing to get to bounce ideas back and forth with someone else building on what I’m doing in real time. When planning a lesson, I always talk to teachers about how I’d love for them to jump in any time they want when I’m in their classes, and sometimes directly ask them if there’s anything they’d like to add (especially if I know they really like a topic or I heard them say something cool in a previous period). This also ties directly into …

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Award for changing a plan on the fly

Presented to needing improv skills (and a towel). Sometimes teachers realize day-of that they’d like to do something in the library (or show up because the internet went down). Sometimes we have good plans, but they get better each period as we see how the students interact with the lesson. There’s a certain element of improv in new lessons, and while they haven’t all been new to the teachers this year, some have. And they’ve all been new to me. There’s also a certain amount of improvisation with two teachers in the room that I think can take lessons to a new level while modeling (hopefully) effective collaboration to the students.

The Sideways Stories from Wayside School Award for getting to put a new spin on things

This is for the math and science departments. It’s really interesting to me how quickly I’ve been able to jump in with the math and science teachers, and obviously part of that is the fact that I was in the science department for years (and still am … a story for another time). But I’m also extra passionate about the part of information literacy that will help students who aren’t going to be scientists understand the language of science better. I’ve gotten to use Harry Potter to teach logic in math class. In 7th grade science, we investigated satellites with online data sources leading us to think about what sorts of information we would want from a particular satellite and how to collect it. Then we analyzed data from that type of satellite using free online sources. In physical science we used the idea of … errr … stylish? … cat collars to talk about how to evaluate online information and the results of scientific studies (after, of course, talking about the Australian drop bear). And I’ve gotten to talk about how the same data could be graphed in different ways to tell entirely different stories! (If you zoom in on the y-axis, it really looks like I became a beast when doing daily push-ups for thirty days.)

Birdbesafe collar

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve also really loved working with the history and English departments, which leads me to…

The Dragon Hoops Award for getting to show people a “new” side of yourself that’s been there all along

This goes to everyone who knows that I would have 15 different degrees if I could. I joke. Or do I? 

Many people at school were, I think, pretty surprised when I told them I was applying for the library job. It seemed like a huge change from teaching physics. And of course it is a huge change! But for some of the folks who’ve known me the longest, it wasn’t quite as surprising because they knew I had a writing degree and had taught subjects like English and filmmaking before. So yes, I’ve always had a background in writing and English as well, but it’s still a big change to be talking to people about books and reading on a daily basis. Not to mention going into English and history classes and helping students learn in those spaces. I’ve been part of my first Harkness discussions, literary salons, and student booktalks. And that’s been a blast! I now have extra appreciation for how much students have to quickly shift academic gears over the course of a day.

I’ve got one more official award, and I’ve saved this one for now because (a) it’s hard for me to feel like I can do it justice and (b) I think it really gets to the heart of what I love about libraries and librarians. So, without further ado …

The Un Lun Dun Award for having a really important job and not feeling quite prepared

This goes to me as a librarian. I’ve seen firsthand the amount of trust that a school community places in the role, and now I’ve felt the – is there a word that mashes up burden, responsibility, and honor? – bursponsinor myself when someone asks for a book recommendation for something that starts fast with maybe some romance plus a bit of horror, or when a teacher invites me into a class by saying they didn’t really like how this lesson went last year, but maybe with two of us it will go better. Still, it’s not only with tough questions I get the feeling, it’s also with ones that are probably pretty easy for everyone who’s been doing this longer than I have. But I bet that no matter how many times a librarian hears a particular question, there’s still that gut feeling of bursponsinor. And I honestly hope it never goes away for me, because I want it as a reminder to take the next task, or question, or concern I get as seriously as each one that’s come before.

Okay, one more. The Marvel Comics Award and a huge thank you goes to all of you out there in the AISLverse for being an invaluable resource for me and so many others, and for answering the 10,000 (one for each Post-it) silly and not-so-silly questions I’m bound to have. This month.

Glimpses of the Future in Fiction: Simulations and Lost Knowledge?

Note: Some plot reveals

Truth is stranger than fiction. This saying is cited often, and now with advances in AI, it may well be more apt than ever. However, lately, I find that novels can call us to consider the features of our new world in innovative ways.

Seemingly unconnected to each other, two novels have some similar themes, related to concerns of our “real world” and a possible escape to better ones. For example, The Ferryman by Justin Cronin and Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land each feature certain similar plots relating to “new worlds” that aren’t quite as they seem. At the same time, each of these bears similarities to The Truman Show, in which Truman realizes he lives in his own artificial world. I am sure there are even more books and films that share these ideas of simulations. It is clear that the idea of space travel to another alternate safer place is buzzing our collective imagination. And yet, there is often an important catch to that dream, according to these works. Sometimes, we can’t quite reach our destination. And what collective knowledge should we bring with us on the journey as we begin anew?

These novels also share a concern with preserving knowledge, or discovering lost knowledge. Each has a secret trove of literature stored just in case. I wonder if there is a collective concern for a new era of information richness and clarity as our current information sources become muddled and distressed. This fiction coincides with at least two relatively recent nonfiction titles related to the idea of lost knowledge: The Library: a Fragile History by Andrew Pettegree and Richard Ovenden’s Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge. Meanwhile, Simon Winchester’s Knowing What We Know: The Transmission of Knowledge: From Ancient Wisdom to Modern Magic details the changing ways society views the concepts and conveying of shared knowledge. Interestingly, issues with disinformation and misinformation lurk throughout the centuries; they are not new. But perhaps more prevalent now.

These titles, nonfiction and fiction, could constitute an interdisciplinary course on these interrelated themes. At the same time, the rise of AI will add new dimensions to these issues, and how we address them. As the use of AI chatbots increases, there could come a time when we will no longer reference one standard “body of knowledge.” At least the newer iterations add live links to their cited source material. Meanwhile, a related worry is that of “model collapse” in which the data sets are distorted and unreliable; another concern is “Catastrophic forgetting” which “refers to the phenomenon where neural networks lose the ability to complete previously learned tasks after training on new ones.” Each of these issues highlight real anxiety about the future of knowledge in our new age.

In these revolutionary times, fiction can open new avenues for deliberation and exploration of these important issues. A central plot feature in Cloud Cuckoo Land is the discovery of a missing Greek text–does this portend our own future scramble for lost sources of information from within our constructed new worlds? When coupled with relevant nonfiction, these fictional texts offer engaging and thought-provoking ways to explore solutions to current concerns and they are also fun to read.

When, Why, and How I Say ‘No’

I’ve been reading Let ‘no’ Be ‘no’: When Librarians Say ‘no’ To Instruction Opportunities by Anna White over on In the Library with the Lead Pipe and it has me thinking about when, why, and how I say ‘no’ to instruction opportunities. Upon first reflection, my thinking was that I almost never say ‘no’ unless there is an unresolvable scheduling conflict. But I don’t think it’s actually that simple.

When I get a request from a teacher that’s unclear (either because I’m not sure where in the research process students are, or if it’s a project I’m unfamiliar with, my typical response is either ‘yes, and…’ or (more likely) ‘yes, if…’ If a teacher is coming to me, I want to work with them – but I also want to make sure that the work I do with them is helping students build skills, and also laying the groundwork for future collaborations. The ‘if’ can be about what kind of lesson I’ll do, where in the process I’ll work with students, or how research skills may be assessed. When a request comes midway through a project there’s often less room for adjustment. In that case, my ‘if’ is often about sitting down with the teacher after the project to look at student work and to think about what comes next – either for that class or for future iterations of the project.

Like many librarians, I came into this work with some heavily rose-colored glasses about what collaboration would look like. And I have had some amazing collaborators throughout the years. But I have also worked with lots of folks where the relationship is far closer to parallel play than to true collaboration. Which can be frustrating! Even though I know I can’t maintain deep collaborative relationships with as many colleagues as I’d like to, I still wish it were possible. The longer I do this work, however, I’ve realized that there can still be positive outcomes from one-shot lessons or instruction that feels out of sync with either my or the teacher’s goals. It may not have the outcomes I hope for, but getting to spend time with students and building relationships makes it more likely that they’ll come to me for help outside of class. 

There are times I say ‘yes’ to requests that, in my heart of hearts, I would like to say ‘no’ to, and I’m thinking more and more about those. Sometimes I’ll say ‘yes’ to a teacher who hasn’t tried to work with me before, in the hopes it will lead to more collaboration. Sometimes I say ‘yes’ if it will give me an opportunity to teach a new or different skill/lesson that I’ve been wanting to try. And, if I’m being honest, sometimes I say ‘yes’ because I worry about the reaction if I say ‘no’ – am I closing the door? Am I abdicating responsibility? Am I making it seem like integrating the skills I teach is optional – no big deal if I can’t come to class? 

I have had increasing demands on my time in the past year, and I am truly excited about so much of the work I get to do with colleagues. But if I want to do more truly collaborative work I simply do not have the time or the bandwidth for all of the requests I get. I haven’t figured out what to always say ‘yes’ to, what to say ‘yes, if’ to, and what to say ‘no’ (or, ‘no, but…’) to, but I am looking closely at my goals and at my school’s priorities as I figure out how to make those decisions. 

If you want to go fast…

I have been active in AASL and AISL since I began as a librarian 20 years ago. I won’t be at AASL in Tampa this year. I always learn so much at these gatherings, and I will miss the learning and the fellowship (not to mention the free books and swag 🙂). I served on this year’s AASL social media committee, and I will miss seeing my fellow committee members in person (our work was virtual), and will diligently read social media to follow along as best I can.  

If you haven’t heard me talk about it before, both my kids are/were rowers.  As my oldest is an English teacher and rowing coach (and Masters level competitor) at an Independent School in Princeton, NJ, I still follow the rowing scene closely (don’t get me started…). Today I saw this in a social media post.

True, that!  Attending conferences, especially in person has confirmed this over and over.  There is always something new to learn, even if it’s not something you can apply In toto to your personal practice. Meeting and talking with other Librarians brings us so much.  These takeaways can come in bits and pieces.  They will form connections to other snippets, many from your own experiences. You might make something no one has thought of before (and you can present it at your next conference)!

A few years ago, in Louisville, KY, I was fortunate enough to attend a session with a Battle Creek, MI high school librarian.  Her students participated the National Holocaust Memorial Museum’s History Unfolded project.  This crowdsourced collaboration allowed the students to learn just what America knew about Hitler and the atrocities in Germany, and when they knew it. These scholars-in-progress (aren’t we all?) searched and read newspapers on historical events from the 1930s and 1940s.  Their project culminated in town-wide exhibits, visits from Holocaust survivors, and an award from Michigan’s governor, among other accolades and opportunities.  

After the session (which was too short!), many of us gathered with the presenter, Gigi Lincoln, and chatted.  We exchanged takeaways, business cards, and a promise from Ms. Lincoln to respond to any questions we had.  For the next several months (until the pandemic), we exchanged ideas and resources and cherished the wisdom of Gigi Lincoln.

While I have not put the entire project into use, I have used many smaller aspects.  

Crowdsourcing:  The Library of Congress is crowd-sourcing its collection of musical theater sheet music.  Our musical theater students have been pouring over the collection…adding lyrics, composers, titles, and publishers to the LOC archives, while adding to their knowledge of themes, techniques, and the history of American musical theater. 

The Research Sprint: Gigi Lincoln spoke in detail about the “research sprint”. The state organization in Michigan provides a robust suite of databases to its school and public libraries.  However, these would not be enough for her students to find the local newspapers needed for information on the project. Gigi’s idea?  A “research sprint”!  Students visited Michigan State University’s libraries.  In collaboration with an MSU History professor, and the US History librarian, the students used America’s Historical Newspapers to search for information.  The students enjoyed lunch in one of the cafeterias and also had a tour of the MSU campus.  In our Advanced US History (offered through Indiana Univeristy) we didn’t travel far – we searched African American newspapers available at the LOC for an “in-school field trip”.  With the assistance of the History Librarian from a nearby college we spent four hours (and a pizza lunch) pouring over the magnificent collection, looking for evidence on the social accomplishments of significant African Americans in the late 1800s.  The kids loved it (and not just the pizza and Halloween candy)!  I’m always preaching the “community of scholars” (thanks Courtney Lewis!), but on this occasion, they experienced it for themselves.  

Attending conferences – whether local or far away – is one way to experience the “together” we need to continue to advance our practice and our profession.  I encourage you to take advantage of as many as you can!  And, registration is open for AISL 2024, in sunny Orlando.  Together we’ll go far!

Selecting and Familiarizing Ourselves with Books

Thanks so much to the 100+ people who filled out my survey about selecting and familiarizing yourself with books! Here’s the breakdown of respondents by grade levels, so you can see that most serve grades 9-12, followed by grades 5-8, followed by K-4. The “other” responses included Pre-K students.

Selecting Books

By Reviews

For selecting books by reviews, respondents most often use:

  • Print magazines
  • Sites that curate multiple professional reviews
  • Book-related websites
  • Online versions of print sources
  • Professional blogs.

Least used:

  • Online video reviews
  • Databases

Responses in the “other” category included:

Other Ways to Select Overall

In other ways to select books, almost everyone buys:

  • Books recommended by students or faculty
  • Books from popular series or books written by popular authors

Least used other sources include:

  • Sales reps
  • Bookfairs

In the “other” category, sources mentioned include:

Top Two Selection Sources

When it comes to respondents’ “top two” sources for selecting books, we are a diverse bunch! I parsed the responses, and the most frequent responses included:

  • Print magazines or other review sources/sites (cumulative or not)
  • Student or other patron requests

Top print sources mentioned, by frequency, are:

Top cumulative review sites were:

See the end of this post for a full list of specific sources mentioned.

Familiarizing Ourselves With Books

Familiarization Methods Overall

When it comes to familiarizing ourselves with books, top methods included:

  • Using new books in displays
  • Reading book jackets and back-of-book summaries
  • Skimming new books
  • Reading new books

Least popular included:

  • Reading reviews on social media/ blogs/ YouTube/ etc.
  • Reading social media posts

Answers in the “other” category included:

  • “We get 30+ books on a biweekly basis so that simply isn’t possible!”
  • “Read the ones that don’t seem like they’d be popular so I can \”sell\” them!”
  • Give books to students and request feedback
  • “Read specific ones with an eye toward adding them to the HAISLN list.”

Top Two Familiarization Methods

The most popular methods for familiarizing ourselves with books include:

  • Reading
  • Skimming
  • Reading book jackets
  • Reading summaries

Interesting answers given by one person each included:

  • Watching author videos
  • Reading ARCs
  • Social media
  • Ingram Advance
  • Checking trigger warning sites

Selected comments:

  • “An interesting follow-up survey could be about people’s feelings on paying for acquisitions services. Ingram is coming out with a paid service that will supposedly select books for your school.”
  • “I familiarize myself with books as part of the evaluation process.”
  • “I’m a slow reader so skimming is as good as it gets unless I think the book will be popular or if it’s a book we’re choosing for book club.”
  • “I just look at the covers. 🙂 I know what I’m ordering and know what to expect when those boxes arrive; I read summaries as I order and listen to from webinars; I have lists ready of who requested what and I set aside those titles I know I should read for readers’ advisory.”
  • “I read a lot! And I skim the ones I don’t fully read. I handle every book I purchase.”
  • “I catalog all of our new books; Follett’s cataloging often leaves much to be desired, so I usually do a little digging with each book to create a good record. I also do weekly book talks during our all upper school gathering where I promote new books in the library and our new books libguide weekly.”
  • “I use the 10-minute read technique. Secondly, I enhance the resource records when processing, during which I read the entire cover information and perhaps the first few pages.”
  • “When I order them I familiarize myself with what they are about. I read some, but there is no way to read them all!!”
  • “I use Titlewave, especially Kirkus Review that usually includes information such as “characters cue white” or “protagonist is Southeast Asian.” I also like that it has multiple reviews that include age ranges. Reading the books is also helpful although I’m a slow reader and there are many books! I tend to let the popular books sell themselves and read or read excerpts of the books that might not be as popular but that I know will be good.”
  • “Read the book. If I like it, I read the entire book. Otherwise, I stop when I know enough to book talk it to students.”
  • “Sadly I do very little of this, other then trying to match the titles with the content I saw when reading the reviews.”

Resources Mentioned

These are resources mentioned in the survey, as well as resources from an earlier query by Sarah Davis of Viewpoint School (CA), who compiled this list.

TypeResource
ARCsNetGalley
Edelweiss
Awards/Best-Of ListsYALSA Awards
Pulitzer Prize for Literature
 National Book Awards
 Carnegie Awards
 New York Times Best Seller Lists
 Capitol Choices
Book WebsitesRead Aloud Revival
Redeemed Reader
Book Riot
 Read Brightly
 Fiction DB Book Release Calendar
 The Graphic Library
 We Need Diverse Books
 Epic Reads
 YALSA Teen Book Finder
 Shelf Awareness
 LitHub
 Indie Next
 Reading Middle Grade
BooksellersBarnes & Noble
Bookshop.org
Amazon
Local Independents (Indie Bookstore Finder)
Powell’s
Titlewave (Follett)
Ingram
Crowd-Sourced ReviewsTikTok/BookTok
Crowd-Sourced Reviews/SummariesGoodReads
Cumulative Prof/Non-Prof ReviewsAmazon
Novelist
Cumulative Professional ReviewsIngram
 Mackin
 Bookshop.org
 Titlewave (Follett)
Magazines for ReadersThe New Yorker
 Bookmarks Magazine
 BookPage
 New York Review of Books
Professional Reviews/SummariesHorn Book
 Kirkus Reviews
 School Library Journal
 Bulletin from the Center for Children’s Books (BCCB)
 Library Journal
 New York Times Book Review
 Book Pulse (Library Journal)
 Booklist
 Publisher’s Weekly (PW)
 Choice Magazine/Choice Reviews (ACRL)
Publisher NewsletterLibraryAware
Recommended Reading ListsHAISLN Recommended Reading Lists
 Bank Street College of Education Summer Reading Lists
 ALSC Summer Reading Lists
 YALSA Great Graphic Novels for Teens
Review/Read-Alike DatabasesNovelist
 TeachingBooks
Social MediaInstagram
 BookTok
 Facebook
VideosTikTok/BookTok
BookTube
WebinarsSchool Library Journal
Book Riot

“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.

Lessons with Legos

One of my favorite teaching tools is a box of Legos. I’ve built several lessons around Legos, and it is a guaranteed way to get my upper school students excited about a library session. The lesson I’m sharing here is one I use with 9th graders. The objective is to have students understand what a controlled vocabulary is, how it works in the context of searching, and how that applies to LOC Subject Headings and subject searches.

The set-up: I pre-sort my Legos into standard bricks and irregular pieces, providing a pile of standard bricks, randomly, to each student (or small groups, depending on the student:Lego ratio). I tell them we are building a database of Legos and get some volunteer input to get a definition of what a database is. I then give students about 4 minutes to decide with a partner/small group how they will categorize their Legos so we can search our database to find the right bricks.

Depending on the space that I have, students may write their categories on the board as they discuss, or share them out after and I will write. Typically they offer categories like color, shape, size. For each, I press a bit further and we get lists like:

  • Color
    • Red, green, blue, white, yellow
  • Shape
    • Square, rectangle
  • Size
    • Number of studs (yes, that’s what the bumps on Legos are called)
    • Stud dimensions (1×2, 2×2, 2×4, etc.) 
    • Short or tall (in Lego lingo this would be plate or brick)

Next, we try “searching” our database. I’ll call out a search and the students will push forward their “results” on their desks. I start easy with things like “red” or “square.” I point out how they can combine things “red AND 2×2” and bam, we get the brick we want. 

But, as librarians we know it’s not so easy to search and get what you want, so I point out that there are, in fact, three different shades of blue in my Lego set and that I may do a search for “turquoise,” which based on what we established as a class, is not an option: zero results. This creates the opportunity to discuss the challenges of controlled vocabularies for searchers–if I don’t know the language used for the colors, my search for turquoise will leave me thinking there are no results for me, when there are a lot of turquoise Legos, they are just called blue. So, do we keep it broad and say I should just search for blue and then I have to sort through all the blue results to find the ones that are turquoise, or do we want our Lego database to specify what our three different shades of blue should be called? And, will that alway help? What if I call the lightest shade turquoise but they call it “light blue” or “sky blue”? And, how would I know what words to use? When we work through it like this, students catch on quickly.  At this point, I let them build a creation from the bricks they have as we plow forward. 

New information gets created all the time, so our database expands– I give them a few more Legos from the bits set aside earlier and we upload this new data into our system. We quickly hit complications. How, for example, am I supposed to search for a wheel when our data structure doesn’t have a way to do that–wheels are not square or rectangular and they don’t have studs. Or how would we find a sloped piece? Or other irregular pieces? My goal here is for them to see that, while imperfect, adding more specific categories titles for our blue issue seemed like a fairly simple fix. If we try to come up with names and categories for all the irregular shapes the vocabulary gets unwieldy and it becomes even more confusing to know what to call things. How we chose to include information, label it, and organize it, impacts how it is used. 

Now I introduce LOC Subject Headings and how that language can be obscure, biased, and difficult to find as a novice searcher. But also, knowing how information is labeled and organized helps you know how you can search for it, as well as how some questions may not be readily answered by the way information is organized. We do exploratory searching in our catalog (we use AccessIt) so I can show them how to find the Subject Headings of results of their searches, that those are clickable links that redo a search, and how to backtrack to the stem if the subject is too specific.

The best part is I get to do a lesson on searching that engages my students without relying on walking them through searches projected on the board and connects to the ACRL Frame, Searching as Strategic Exploration through the knowledge practices: understand how information systems are organized in order to access relevant information; and, use different types of searching language (e.g., controlled vocabulary, keywords, natural language) appropriately.  

Webtoons

I’ve been wanting to write about Webtoons for the blog, since I started reading Webtoons webcomics a few years ago and now follow multiple series, but have held back for a couple of reasons. One, the world of webcomics is enormous, with a multitude of sites around the world hosting many thousands of series, but I’ve pretty much stuck to Webtoons so can’t comment on the others (except I know that sometimes series/episodes too racy for Webtoons end up on Tapas). Two, I haven’t really found a good way to translate my love of Webtoons to my job, except to post a list of the series I’m following, and to add some to our catalog if they are available in book format or were adapted from books. I’d love to hear other ideas for how to use them at school!

Webtoons is a South Korean company that’s gone through a few iterations since 2004. Originator of the scrollable-comic format that works well for the web and mobile devices, Webtoons now publishes original webcomics, has a self-publishing platform called Canvas, and is also associated with the writers’ site Wattpad. Though Webtoons is free, readers can choose to support their favorite comic creators, and some comics are offered on a “daily pass” system that allows you to unlock one episode a day or use virtual “coins” to unlock other episodes. Many Webtoons series are in progress, updating at different intervals or on hiatus, so don’t expect to read a story all the way through like a novel unless the series is marked as completed. Finding new Webtoons to follow can be frustrating, since the subject search is unfortunately minimal.

For the most part, Webtoons are aimed at YA and adults, though many are fine for grades 7+. A select few are appropriate for younger kids, though I wouldn’t recommend the site to younger students. More mature YA/Adult webtoons can have significant “R-Rated” content, though not generally above that; obviously that’s subjective. I’ve encountered a ton of LGBTQ representation and a fair amount of other diverse representation, which is always a plus! I also enjoy reading the comments, which has introduced me to more current slang, and let me see how other, probably younger readers connect with the material. Often people will tell how their own situation or personality mirrors something happening in the comic, such as autistic people seeing their experiences reflected in the experiences of Extraordinary Attorney Woo. I also learn things I never suspected; for instance, from reading comments on the trans comic Hyperfocus, I learned that people can identify as multi-personality “systems,” or as “non-human entities.” Windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors are well-represented in webcomics!

English-language YA titles that have been adapted as Webtoons (I’ve starred ones I’ve read):

Webtoons I’ve read that have been/are being released as graphic novels:

Webtoons I’ve read that have been adapted for Netflix or vice versa:

Though I have a long list of my favorite Webtoons, here’s a list of my top ten favorites for grades 7+, along with a summary copied from/adapted from the official Webtoon summary:

Nothing Special. Katie Cook. Fantasy, Humor, Romance, Adventure

Callie thinks she’s nothing special. With the unexpected addition of friendship and adventure (and dead radishes) into her life, she’s about to find out that she was very, very wrong! [On hiatus]

Space Boy. Stephen McCranie. Science Fiction, Adventure, Romance, School Story

A girl who belongs in a different time. A boy possessed by an emptiness as deep as space. A story about an alien artifact, a mysterious murder, and a love that crosses light years. [In progress]

Raven Saga. Chihiro Howe. Fantasy, Adventure, Romance

When her grandmother is taken by a mysterious boy, Wen must travel to the outside world to save her, but the world isn’t as magical as she once thought, and danger lurks around every corner. [On hiatus]

Cursed Princess Club. LambCat. Fantasy, Humor, Adventure, Romance

Gwendolyn doesn’t look like a fairy-tale princess, but she’s got a big heart and a loving family. When she accidentally stumbles upon the world of the Cursed Princess Club, her life will never be the same. [In progress]

Heartstopper. Alice Oseman. Romance, Realistic Fiction, School Story, LGBTQ+

Charlie, a highly-strung, openly gay over-thinker, and Nick, a cheerful, soft-hearted rugby player, meet at a British all-boys grammar school. Friendship blooms quickly, but could there be something more…? [In progress]

Brass & Sass! Antlerella. Romance, Realistic Fiction, School Story

What Camilla lacks in musical ability, she makes up for in passion – especially when it comes to Victor, the handsome musician who’s caught her eye. Will love rule the day, even when your crush-of-choice is a real brass-hole? [Complete]

Miss Abbot and the Doctor. Maripaz Villar. Romance, Historical, Humor

 Dr. Marino loves his quiet life, and when the strange Miss Abbott arrives in his town he decides he doesn’t like her at all. Unfortunately, she’s funny and quirky, has an uncommon past, and seems to enjoy getting him in trouble. [Complete]

The Witch and the Bull. Moonsia. Fantasy, Adventure, Romance

King’s royal advisor Tan hates witches, making him prime target for a curse that turns him into a BULL! The only way to undo this hex is to rely on the beautiful and kind witch, Aro. [In progress]

Night Owls and Summer Skies Rebecca Sullivan/TIKKLIL. Romance, Realistic Fiction, Camp Story, LGBTQ+

When her mother dumps her at Camp Mapplewood, Emma tries to get kicked out. But when she gets to know Vivian, a gorgeous assistant counselor, she might just change her mind. [Complete]

Acception. Colourbee. Realistic Fiction, School Story, LGBTQ+

With his rainbow-colored hair and love of all things fashion, Arcus is anything BUT your average teenager. But like the rest of us, he’s just looking for a few friends to call his own. [In progress]

Sources:

 “Webtoon (platform).” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia, 7 Aug. 2023. Web. 12 Aug. 2023.

Thumbnail images from Webtoons.

AI and The Nightingale: A Cautionary Tale

Hans Christian Andersen wrote his fairy tales during the tumultuous changes of the19th century Industrial Revolution. Can one of his stories speak truth to our current Industrial Revolution of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence? Here are a few reflections on how Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Nightingale” might present a cautionary tale as educators continue to explore the opportunities and challenges presented by new technologies and artificial intelligence. Also included below are some “connections” prompted by recent student discussions of new technologies.

Natural Beauty 
The nightingale lived on the furthest reaches of the emperor’s lands in a “beautiful woods with “lofty trees and deep lakes” (242). Its song causes even the poor fisherman to pause in his daily work as he listens to the song. Though the nightingale agrees to be brought to the royal court to sing for the emperor, the bird says its song “sounds best among the trees” (246).

Reflection
The nightingale’s song is best appreciated in its natural surroundings, “among the trees,” and not when the bird is tethered to a golden perch in the royal court. Its song also causes the listener to slow down and appreciate the beauty of the song. Later, this song has healing qualities as the emperor is rescued from Death by listening to the nightingale’s song.

Connection 
Seventh graders examined how exposure to nature can make us healthier and discussed whether technologies such as Virtual Reality can duplicate the experience of being in nature.
Using the Scientific American article “Can Virtual Reality Mimic Nature’s Power to Make Us Healthier,” students examined the successful efforts of VR researchers, but also reflected on this caution from VR researcher Matthew Browning: “It’s a tool. It’s not a replacement . . . We have to be careful with not pushing it in a way that would take money or attention away from investing in urban greening and parks” (Bartels). 

Authentic Voice
In Andersen’s “The Nightingale,” a mechanical bird arrives as a gift for the emperor. The artificial bird delights the royal court with its sparkling appearance–“glittered like bracelets and breast pins”–and a predictable song that is “perfectly in time and correct in every way” (248). The royal court’s music master praises the superiority of the glittery, mechanical bird over the plain-looking nightingale. In comparing their songs, he faulted the nightingale’s song because it was unpredictable and different each time: “you never know what you will hear.” But with the mechanical bird, there is predictability: “everything is decided beforehand . . . one note follows upon another” (249).

Reflection
Difference and unpredictability in a voice (the nightingale’s song) is not valued by the emperor’s music master. The music master diagrammed the gears of the mechanical bird and praised its ability to produce a predictable, immediate response. However, creativity thrives on the convergence of unpredictable elements and the struggles to create meaning through problem-solving and making connections. This artificial songbird (artificial voice) has “something wanting,” as the poor fisherman observed, “It sounds very nice, and it is very nearly like the real one, but there is something wanting” (249).

Connection
Students in grades 5-8 enjoyed discovering the “authentic voice” as they examined  two poems, one written by our school’s Technology Support Specialist, Jennifer Hockless, and one written by ChatGPT. Each were challenged to create a poem using as many of the following words as possible: Neptune, black tie, radical, lightning, sunny-side up, herb garden. As you view the two poems, which poem do you think has the authentic voice of a human?

Students correctly selected the poem “City Girl Dreams” as written by a human, noting the personal feelings expressed in the poem. In contrast, the ChatGPT poem “Cosmic Poetic Wonders” has a predictable rhyming couplet pattern and forced wording that is sometimes nonsensical, such as “A black tie soars” and “Amid celestial rays, sunny-side up.” 

Another interesting reflection on the importance of authentic voice was shared by educator and writer Alexis Wiggins during a conference presentation at STLinSTL. Alexis Wiggins and co-teacher Ashley Bryson challenged senior film students (John Cooper School, Woodlands, Texas) to create a 3 min. movie incorporating cinematic techniques. The constraint: the movie script would be generated by ChatGPT from randomized elements, such as story conflict, location, and genre of movie. When surveyed following the project, students said they enjoyed the project but wished that they could have written their own scripts. This experience of being required to use AI-generated scripts caused students to appreciate the value of their own authentic voice.

Empathy and Connections
In Andersen’s fairy tale, each person has a unique connection and reaction to the nightingale’s song.The nightingale’s song brings tears to the eyes of the emperor and a kitchen maid describes the effects of the song: “Its song brings tears into my eyes. I feel as if my mother were kissing me” (245).

Reflection
The nightingale’s song not only appealed to their hearts, it also prompted introspection. The nightingale tells the emperor that its song will help the emperor to empathize with others in his kingdom, thereby building perspectives for wise rule and decision making. The nightingale says to the emperor, that it will “sing to cheer you and make you thoughtful, too. I will sing to you of the happy ones and of those that suffer. I will sing about the good and the evil, which are kept hidden from you” (253).

Connection
Fifth graders watched a TODAY Show video and read a news article about rescue worker Denise Corliss and her search dog Bretagne. Working 12 hour shifts, Bretagne was one of 300 search and rescue dogs that looked for survivors at ground zero following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.Though Bretagne did not find any survivors, this dog’s affectionate nature had a healing effect for the exhausted rescue workers. Veteran firefighter Chuck Jones observed the following:

“It was really heartwarming to see these big, rough firefighters and rescue people sit down next to Bretagne. Bretagne would put her head in their laps, and you’d see the tension come off their faces” (Coffey). Though advances in technology may make future rescue operations more efficient, the importance of human compassion and, in this case, the loving affection of the search and rescue dog, is crucial for healing.

Final Thoughts
Fairy tales possess truisms that speak to the human condition. Timeless stories such as Andersen’s “The Nightingale” provide a mirror for reflection, and perhaps these stories can also serve as windows to frame our vision as we look toward future possibilities and challenges of AI technologies.

Works Cited
Andersen, Hans Christian. Andersen’s Fairy Tales. Grosset and Dunlap, 1945.

Bartels, Meghan. “Can Virtual Reality Mimic Nature’s Power to Make Us Healthier?” Scientific American, 14 July 2023, www.scientificamerican.com/article/can-virtual-reality-mimic-natures-power-to-make-us-healthier/. Accessed 12 Sept. 2023.

Coffey, Laura T. “Last 9/11 Search Dog.” TODAY, 7 Sept. 2021, www.today.com/pets/last-9-11-search-dog-bretagne-s-legacy-lives-rescue-t229805. Accessed 11 Sept. 2023.