Head in the Clouds, Feet on the Ground

In the school library world, it is important to have a vision. We need a philosophy. Developing curricular support, information literacy lesson plans, and community involvement requires a large chunk of our time. The Big Picture is all-important.

But, as Napoleon knew, an army marches on its stomach (an image I always found distracting). Lines of supply are sine qua non, and a starving army isn’t going anywhere. A library ‘marches’ on its resources. To make the vision become a reality a library needs books, databases, and other useful resources, available and at hand when needed. Uncounted minuscule details lay the foundation of library success in bringing the Big Picture to life.

We spend serious amounts of time and money keeping our resources up to date and available. Even that task is colored by our vision and philosophy, and so it should be. With our efforts to stay on top of 21st century library issues, much of that time and money is spent on managing databases, ebook bundles, and consortium pricing of e-resources, among other exciting e-topics.

In making sure that all our resources are available, we at Harvard-Westlake’s Upper School Library have been addressing a chore that, frankly, we’ve put off as long as we could. Recent revisions to our inventory procedures gave us a more complete picture of items– primarily print books– marked ‘Lost’, and so in preparation for this season’s research projects we launched a coordinated effort to clean up the catalog and replace lost items as needed.

We have always kept up with newly published titles, but have not spent as much time on older titles that have been lost. I can think of few topics more mundane, and in a library where there is no end of tasks to do, this one kept falling to the bottom of the list. Unfortunately, it got to the point where the number of ‘Lost’ titles was enough to muddy the waters and make it unclear what resources were available. The time had come to clear this up. Carpe Diem!

To say it was a daunting chore is an understatement. I pulled the list of titles missing longer than 18 months, went through and marked those we could simply delete from the catalog, and those we should reorder. Putting a priority on the titles to be reordered, I pulled those cards from the shelf-list. Yes– we still have a shelf-list, subject of an annual debate about keeping it or not, but for this project it was actually helpful in clearing up some bibliographic snarls.

A good school library exists primarily to support the curriculum. In our case most of our formal research projects occur through the History department. All sophomores choose from the same list of  35 topics. This is good for us as it allows us to build a collection to support these topics. Our History teachers are wonderful to work with; the departmental philosophy reflects the firm belief that a strong grounding in traditional research skills is key to academic success. Our students are required to use a variety of resources, in a variety of formats.

Because our students are required to really dig deep, we have a strong collection of history books. Some of these titles are new, some are older. Our students do a lot of work in the stacks. Our collection of e-resources is rich, and is another tool for our students’ use, but many of the standard titles and texts are available in print only. In addition, a strong majority of our students prefer to work with print books, even if that title is available both in print and digitally.

Ordering replacements for over a hundred lost titles was an eye-opening experience. I was surprised at the number of relatively recent titles — published within the last 10 years– that were NOT available as a new title from our primary vendor, Ingram.  I ended up ordering perhaps half of these titles from Ingram and half from Amazon, with most of the Amazon titles listed as “used”. There were a handful that were not available in any form.

As all these books came in, the cataloging procedures caused their own headaches. Slowly we developed a streamlined workflow that got the books out on the shelves in good time to be available for classes. At the same time the catalog got a serious cleaning, with a good sweeping out of old records for titles we no longer have, and upgrades to records we kept.

As we finish this project up, I am surprised at how good it feels. Like weeding the garden, like having one’s teeth cleaned, I wouldn’t call this a ‘fun’ process but it is most definitely satisfying. Lessons learned:

  • Some recent titles aren’t available from standard vendors, and some lost books aren’t available from anyone, in any format. Not everything can be replaced.
  • When reviewing lost titles, we sometimes found that updated editions or other new publications were available to replace them. This is a useful double check for our regular “new publications” selection process.
  • The bulk of our lost titles were from areas used for history research, prompting a useful review of our holdings in these much-used sections.

While we school librarians spend much of our time with our head in the clouds, pondering important philosophical issues of vision and purpose, and wrestling with big-issue topics, we need to keep our feet planted firmly on the ground in order to make our vision a reality. A good librarian is able to do both with equal flair. Occasionally I’ll hear from administrators about the importance of a librarian having vision, but I would suggest it’s important for a librarian to have both vision and a strong grasp of practicalities. Head in the clouds, feet on the ground, and you’re good to go.

7 thoughts on “Head in the Clouds, Feet on the Ground

  1. Nicely said, Shannon. We now tackle these “data integrity” issues annually, as part of our inventory process and it makes it much more manageable. The fun never ends in our profession!

    • Yes, Sandy– an annual process would (does!) make it more manageable. We just had to do that first jump to including catalog cleanup/lost book management part of the annual process. Yes– fun indeed.

  2. Thanks for your thanks. Yes– the experience was much more interesting than I’d thought it would be, as is often the case with long postponed ‘chores’.

  3. Shannon, I love that you owned up to the way lost books get pushed down the priority pole so easily. We, too, have that problem, and I’ve still to deal with it. Reading your essay has inspired me to think about it more. You are a Librarian Warrior!

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