Searching for search terms

I frequently tell students that using the same search terms over and over again will mean they find the same information and perspectives over and over again. But in my experience, students really struggle with how to develop a range of search terms. Inspired by a post of Tasha’s I wanted to try another way to help students think more expansively about what search terms they could use.

The class I worked with on this is doing research about repatriating culturally significant objects. They’ll be learning what they can about the history of a specific object, and then making an argument about whether or not it should be repatriated. This is a research task in which finding multiple perspectives is really important – and varying search terms is going to help students find those perspectives.

I started by talking about the difference between the words in your question and the words in your answer, using an example that a student came up with. This is a concept that many students find difficult to wrap their heads around, but this example really seems to help. We talk about how [impact] is not a term specific to their answer, but the different kinds of impact sun exposure can have are useful search terms – and also how sunburn/skin damage describe different impacts than vitamin D/seasonal affective disorder.

Next, I showed students how I might approach this task. I pulled passages from a few articles they’d already read, and highlighted terms that I might use in searching; I pulled out expert vocabulary, phrases, and the names of organizations and legislation. I then gave students two articles about the repatriation of an Alutiiq kayak that was held by Harvard’s Peabody Museum. One article was from the Harvard Crimson, and the other was a press release from the Alutiiq Museum. Working in small groups, students highlighted terms and phrases that they thought could be useful in their search.

The list of terms they found was amazing! This list below is in addition to the ones I pulled out from the passages I read. This activity also allowed us to correct some misunderstandings about what might make for effective search terms.

As students shared terms, I asked them to note which article they had found the term in. We had a brief discussion about how the terms differed between sources; next time I do this I need to devote more time to this part of the lesson as it’s a valuable part of understanding how different terms help find different perspectives.

After this lesson students have a bank of search terms to return to as they search – and, hopefully, a better understanding of how to find effective search terms.


The New Mexico conference crew and I are excited to welcome the AISL 2023 conference attendees to Santa Fe in less than a month! 

When I joined AISL at the urging of Linda Mercer in 2002, she talked with me constantly about how unique the AISL annual conference experience is for independent school librarians and why I needed to go. It took me eight years to get to my first conference in Nashville. My library conference experience before AISL was ALA and AASL. As a new person at the conference, I definitely felt like I was the new kid at school. It took me several conferences and other members working to include me before I found my place. I am so grateful that I did find my people. I remain an introvert with many friends in AISL. We are hoping our suggestions will help you get the most out of your conference experience.

What makes the AISL Annual Conference unique? 


I like to set a small goal for myself to meet two or three new people that I haven’t met before. Some of my best professional friends have come from chance conversations waiting to get on the bus, walking into a school, taking a water break after a session, at breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

Social Gatherings:

  • Since we haven’t been in person for a while, we are starting off our conference with a cocktail event at La Fonda. I hope you’ll join us!
  • If you have been a member of our Mentor Cohort Program any time in the last three years, please join us for an event right before the cocktail party. 


  • If you’d like to have a dinner partner/group on Monday, meet up in the hotel lobby at 5:30 pm. Check out the list of restaurant suggestions on both the conference website and on the Sched App. Conference Committee folks will be in the lobby to assist.
  • Wednesday morning will be a great time to get some breakfast and meet in small groups before we start our day at 9:30 am. You can talk about your favorite books or dive into programming and curriculum with new and old friends. You can reach out on the Sched App too!

Bus Time:

  • Tuesday will be a great day for bus networking. The drive to Albuquerque is a little over an hour each way. 
  • Sit with someone different on the bus every trip (even stand at the front and ask if anyone is up for discussing a particular issue.)


Above all else, this is what makes our conference unique. We will get on buses and go to our local independent schools where you will have the opportunity to see several library spaces, the design and layout, furniture and space use.

  • When arriving at a new location, take a photo of the sign so you remember where your photos are from (very important when visiting different schools).
  • Ask the host librarian if you would like more information on any aspect of their space. Don’t be shy!


  • La Fonda is located on the Plaza in downtown Santa Fe. You are staying in the heart of Santa Fe with a ton of restaurants, Palace of the Governors, several independent bookstores, art galleries, retail stores, and museums. 
  • Jenny and I will continue to remind you that you are staying at 7,000 feet elevation and altitude sickness is real and can happen to anyone. It happened to me. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. If you are not feeling well, please reach out.
  • Bring sunscreen and moisturizer
  • Wear comfortable shoes – lots of dirt and gravel in New Mexico.
  • Cold weather is a real possibility. I know New Mexico sounds like it should be a warm place, but 7,000 feet elevation in the month of March can be chilly. Or not. Honestly, anything could happen weather-wise at that time of year. Check and re-check the weather forecast. Our weather can change rapidly.

VETERAN ATTENDEES: What advice would you give members attending an AISL conference for the first time? Comment below!

If I attended LibLearnX and didn’t tweet about it, was I really there?

This year I was lucky to have LibLearnX (formerly known as ALA’s midwinter meeting) in my own backyard. I didn’t realize until the end of my two days at the conference last weekend how much I needed a professional recharge, the kind that comes with bopping around a convention center, attending sessions, bumping into familiar faces, or just milling about the showroom and flipping through ARCs. This year, I particularly enjoyed listening to featured speakers such as Nic Stone, Ibram X. Kendi, Brian Selznick, Clint Smith, and Cory Doctorow.

Like all of the speakers, Doctorow’s talk was ostensibly a pitch for an upcoming book, Red Team Blues, but most of it was devoted to a scathing critique of platform economics. Doctorow described the process by which tech companies like Amazon and Facebook attract individual users, harvest their surplus data to lure in businesses seeking targeted access to users, and then turn around and hold that access for ransom by charging businesses to appear in user feeds and searches. Doctorow frames this as a massive payola scheme, one that degrades the user experience and results in what he calls “enshittification.” Users may notice the change, but by then they have become so invested in the service that it is difficult for them to leave. If you’re interested in a better explanation than I can muster here, I recommend going straight to the source and reading Doctorow’s January 23rd piece in Wired.

NEXTConf from Berlin, Deutschland, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Conversations like this are catnip to me. A couple of months ago, I decided to delete my Twitter account. It was a move that nobody noticed and which sent zero ripples through the Twittersphere. The decision was significant to me alone, and only because Twitter was the one social media platform I participated in. I could never get into Facebook or Instagram, Snapchat or TikTok. I had the headspace for one social network in my life, and Twitter was the best fit. When I joined over a decade ago, it felt like a professional imperative. Educator blogs I read at the time extolled the importance of building an online presence, of being Googleable. A robust professional learning network promised to benefit my students and faculty by granting me access to the expertise and experience of other librarians. Twitter made it easier for me to look up and over the metaphorical four walls of my own school site to see what was happening at schools across the country and around the world. And for a long time, I really did feel all of these benefits. Like most people, I had a love/hate relationship with Twitter, but the learning that came from the folks in my timeline outweighed the silliness and toxicity that often comes with the platform. 

I don’t know exactly when that balance started to shift. I valued Twitter as a professional resource, but over time the content that drew me to the service – school librarians and  librarianship – was eclipsed by the gross and annoying stuff. I’m not saying that a vibrant and supportive community of school librarians does not still exist on Twitter. But somewhere along the line the algorithm and I fell out of sync. Maybe it was all of the doom scrolling, the close attention to trends in polarization and disinformation, that trained the algorithm to clock me as someone who enjoys being angry, anxious, and depressed. Or maybe the content I signed up for, the educators I followed, were overshadowed by the people and organizations that could pay for the privilege of reaching my eyeballs. Doctorow made the point that even though he has hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers, whether or not they see him now depends on his decision to pay for verification. His reach is held ransom. How can I know that the algorithm isn’t replacing the people I want to see with those who have paid for me to see them? Whatever the reason, I’ve been falling out of love with Twitter for a long time. 

The final straw was when Twitter’s new owner tweeted homophobic disinformation about Paul Pelosi from a source that even my seventh graders could debunk with some quick lateral reading. Then shortly after, he (unwittingly, I think?) tweeted a photograph of a Nazi soldier with carrier pigeons in a failed attempt at humor. This was the guy who was now in charge of the town square? I couldn’t stomach it anymore. I deleted my account and, after waiting out the 30 days I was given to change my mind, let my feed lapse into semi-oblivion. Now, all that remains of my time on Twitter is the residual detritus of former mentions, my handle no longer a hyperlink but rather cold, dead text. 

Steve Jurvetson, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

As Sinatra sang, “Regrets, I’ve had a few….” There are times when I miss Twitter. The FOMO is real. I worry about becoming the-last-to-know librarian, learning about new trends after they’ve wound their way through the information cycle and into Knowledge Quest or School Library Journal. Have I rendered myself obsolete? If I’m not on social media, can I even call myself a school librarian? 

We’ll see. Maybe I’ll find another platform. Maybe I’ll go back to Twitter someday. In the meantime, I’m mostly enjoying my time away, rehabilitating my fractured attention span and finding a renewed appreciation for the smaller professional learning networks and in person learning that I’m able to take part in. I was thrilled to run into Courtney Lewis at LibLearnX, someone I always learn from, whether in person or through email. I’m looking forward to connecting with more of you at the AISL conference in Santa Fe next month. And what would I do without the AISL listserv? I may have stepped away from the larger platform, but that has only made me more grateful for the support and inspiration I receive from this community through your emails and blog posts.

I’m wondering if any of you have had second thoughts about Twitter lately? Is it still working for you? What other social media platforms are important to your professional development?

Don’t Shhh, or The Importance of Eavesdropping in the Library

As I frantically figured out what to write about for this post, one of my students jokingly offered “Well you can talk about how important it is to listen in on all the gossip that goes on in the library.” 

Me, trying to figure out what to write about.


He paled. “I… I was joking?” 

“Nope! It’s happening now!” 

And so it is. Because even though Dominic was joking, I’ve come to appreciate that one of the best tools in our tool boxes as librarians, especially solo librarians, is listening in on our students’ conversations. 

Our library is large and well-used; we have a student population of 535 boys and during the week, we’ll often have over 150 of them in the library at a time. We have study carrels, group work tables, bookcase nooks, comfy chairs, windowsills and the floor, and at our busiest they’ll be sitting on or at all of those. (Or sometimes on each other. That happens, too– does anyone else do a lot of “Every butt needs a chair” reminders?) 

It’s my first time working in an all-boys school but something I learned very quickly is a) they’re hilarious and b) they are all incredible gossips.

And oh, do they love to sit in the library and spill the tea with each other. My students gossip about which kid is bad news; which teacher is a harsh grader; which assemblies they can sleep through. They whisper about how they’re using ChatGPT; who is totally screwed for the physics test tomorrow; which weeks are going to be Hell-Weeks and which ones are going to be “Gimmies.”

Me, being super mature and just sipping normal, non-metaphoric peppermint tea.

Now, in my personal life I am of course a very serious and mature person who has no interest in gossip. But in my professional life, as someone who has to support students on a daily basis in a very rigorous academic environment, gossip is a lifeline. The kid who’s bad news? I can tell his advisor that he might need a bit of love; if I see him in the library doing work I can engage with him and make him feel seen for the work he’s doing to improve. I can cheer on nervous students when they’re up against the harsh grader, and talk to that teacher to see how the library can help support students in their latest assignment. The assemblies with a high sleep-to-awake ratio call for more crowd management, and maybe an email to that presenter offering help with slides if they want it.

Hell-Week Rush? I laugh in the face of a Hell-Week Rush.

My guys are using ChatGPT like a supercharged Google where they ask it for examples of an idea they already have, and adapt accordingly; the Comp Sci Department Chair is thrilled to hear about this and is working it into his presentation at our faculty meeting next week. The physics test means a run on our calculator supply: I should make sure they’re all charged and accounted for. The Hell-Week might mean the library needs to stay open later, or that a period after a big exam will be extra raucous as they celebrate or bemoan their performance; the Gimmies means lots of kids playing board games after school– let’s make sure none of the chess pieces have gone missing. 

The best librarians I’ve worked with were driven by the principle that librarianship is a service profession: we are here to meet and support the needs of our specific communities. Now that I’m a solo, entrusted with the care of a community of my own, it’s more important than ever to be tapped into exactly what those needs are and anticipate them. 

Hence, eavesdropping. 

And the best part is, you can do it, too, with our (un)patented system of GASPS.

  1. Gear: Footwear that doesn’t squeak is key. Get yourself a pair of shoes they won’t hear you walking up on them in (and wait for the teacher sale because who doesn’t like a sale.) The leopard print gives you a +2 to stealth. Live the print. Be the leopard. 
  1. Attitude: A thousand yard stare is helpful; if you make eye contact with students, the game is up. If it seems like eye contact might occur, immediately look at a bookshelf. Students believe that all librarians do is look at books all day; use that.
  1. Speed: Make sure you move slowly and smoothly– student vision is movement based.
  1. Purpose: Remember, you are a librarian looking for information. The information. The information to help your students. The information specially targeted to help your students. The student information. 
  1. Singing/Silence: As I walk, I will occasionally do my own theme music, but it’s kind of a spur of the moment thing– don’t force it if it doesn’t feel right. 
Actual picture of me in the stacks. Note the quiet footwear.

Our role in schools is a special one. As I’m polishing this, 15 minutes before closing on a Friday, the library is full, because an English paper is due at 5 in two separate grades. If I hadn’t listened to what my kids were saying to each other, I would have closed the space early to go to the triple header basketball game that ends Spirit Week. Multiple teachers have come in to say: “Wow, it’s so crowded in here! What’s that about?” 

My students just say: “You’re open? Oh that’s amazing, I’ve got this thing I have to finish and I am so screwed.”

All photos from The Emperor’s New Grove, arguably the best Disney movie of the millennium.

In Acknowledgement

I resent that what most students know about plagiarism is merely that “it’s bad.” Lately I’ve had the opportunity to glean an insight to how students see–and often don’t see–plagiarism in the work they submit, and it has gotten me thinking.

Mostly in my own teaching and writing experience, plagiarism is fairly easy and obvious to define–we focus on quoting, paraphrasing, and summary of the ideas of other writers, scholars, and primary sources. We assume plagiarism is coming from extant print sources–the original exists somewhere to be seen and compared against.*

Until recently, I’ve had very little practice with the trouble posed by ideas that aren’t so clearly traceable–like when a parent does too much work editing their student’s paper. What is too much? Our English teachers have eloquently articulated the ways that individual word choice, something that a parent or student may see as subtle editing, can actually change the inflection or specificity of an argument enough to substantively change the meaning of the paper. Our policy is that nobody else should take pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), otherwise it is not wholly the students’ own work. But, what about tutors? If the tutor never touches the student’s document but coaches them through the argument and structure of an essay is that the student’s work, or are the ideas really the tutor’s? At what point in that process does it become so muddy whose ideas are whose that the student feels like the ideas are their own? There is a lot bound up in the question of plagiarism, editing, proofreading, and tutors. Some of it is culture, some is about equity, others about policy, pedagogy, and more.

As my school works to unify, clarify, and share our policies, I found myself mulling over how these issues play out in “the real world,” that is, in publishing and professional writing. How can I draw on long established practices that, while there are legal consequences for copyright infringement, are essentially ethical and therefore not always absolutely cut and dry?

In scholarly writing, we rely on citations for attribution. But, citations are for the scholarship and evidence, not for how the writing process was guided by the ideas, conversations, editing, and peer review of others. And yet, those other contributions are indeed acknowledged in scholarship. The opening sentence of the acknowledgements for the historical monograph, To Her Credit, puts it nicely: “This study is born from an assurance that, when we break down an act into its component practices, the essential contributions of previously unseen individuals come into view. That insight is even more true with the publication of my book which would not have been possible without the generous help of numerous individuals and institutions.” She then acknowledges the contributions of thesis advisors, graduate advisors, faculty members, mentors, and seminars, all of whom shaped the way she thought about her subject and her scholarship. The graphic artist who produced the maps, the anonymous reviewers of the manuscript, the editor and copyeditor at the press all are credited for the role they played in the finished book, along with librarians and archivists. A scholarly monograph is never the sole product of one individual. Nor, would we want it to be so. The work is improved by the contributions of others in so many ways.

Fictional works are the same. Smart writers recognize the many people who influenced their work for the better. In There, There, Tommy Orange thanks writers communities, mentors, faculty, and his editor and agent. When Leigh Bardugo thanks two folks who “helped me find the heart of this story when all I could see were its bones,” you can feel the importance of their conversations and the impact on the author and the shape of her book. She also thanks folks who contributed to her knowledge needed for the book, for “help in thinking about sleight of hand and grand illusions,” and another for “helping me finesse the chemical weevil and auric acid.” Deborah Harkness does the same in A Discovery of Witches, listing the colleagues who “generously lent me their expertise as I wandered far from my own area of specialization.”

I suspect that our students don’t read acknowledgements. Which means that they also don’t see all of the conversation, support, and work that goes into a published work of writing. If we make the contributions of others more visible we create a novel (haha) opportunity to discuss the role of authors and contributors in creating new works. Once the work, and the need to acknowledge it, is visible and modeled for students perhaps they will be able to reflect more meaningfully on their own efforts. An English teacher who is clear that a student’s paper should only be their own could, for example, have students practice drafting an acknowledgment for their essay. If a student finds that they would need to include someone other than their teacher it is a cue that someone else’s work is being co opted as their own, and that they are committing academic dishonesty.

I admit too, that astute students may parry, pointing out that many authors do thank their family members (parents, spouses, siblings) for contributions, that those authors have editors who help to copy edit and polish the authors’ writing, so why can’t they have a parent edit their work or a tutor assist them with their assignment. I can imagine that “well then I’ll just put a line on my paper that thank’s my mom for helping me proofread,” will be brought up somewhere. And that is where we open the space to be transparent about the fact that their essay project is not a published piece of writing, the appropriate person to give feedback is the teacher, and that is not just about acknowledgement but about pedagogy. That a teacher cannot help them grow as writers when their feedback is on mom’s (or dad’s or big sibling’s, etc.) words and ideas. That essay writing and other creative and information driven projects at school need to be wholly their own for a host of pedagogical reasons. Rather than enumerate those reasons, I’ll simply suggest that anyone who is having this conversation with their students has made more meaningful inroads to a robust understanding of plagiarism and academic integrity than I have seen among high school students to date.

Please share your reflections in the comments! How does your school address the too-much-outside-involvement type of plagiarism? What has worked best for you in getting students to understand plagiarism and academic dishonesty?

*I’m putting a pin in the AI wrinkle to all of this for the time being.


Sara Damiano, To Her Credit: Women, Finance, and the Law in Eighteenth Century New England Cities, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021.
Deborah Harkness, A Discovery of Witches, New York: Viking, 2011.
Leigh Bardugo, Crooked Kingdom, New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2016.
Tommy Orange, There, There, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018.

Research Season is Here

For me, the third quarter of the school year is my Research Season. Teachers of course assign small research projects all year long, and I work with them on most of those, but this time of year is when we do the big US History Research Paper. This is the biggest research project that many of our students do in their high school careers, and it is also the project where I get to collaborate the most with the teachers who teach it. Each year, we take a look at the results from the previous year, and what we’ve learned in professional development opportunities that year, and make any changes to the process that we think will help our students learn the process of research better. We’ve been tweaking this project together, year by year, for 7 years now, and here are 2 recent changes that we feel have made a positive impact.

The Synthesis Matrix

For a several years we tried to incorporate an annotated bibliography into the project, but the students never quite understood it or it’s place in the research process. Students would find things that had something to do with their topic in order to write the annotated bibliography entry, but when they started actually writing the paper, they would often need to find all new sources because they weren’t paying attention to how the sources answered their research questions. Then, in 2021 at the AASL conference, I attended a session that talked about using a synthesis matrix as an alternative to an annotated bibliography. We added it to the project last winter with great success.

Image from University of Arizona Global Campus Writing Center,

In a synthesis matrix, you place the research questions or themes in the top row, and then add each source down the side of the grid. For each source, you answer how it fits each of the research questions/themes across the top, leaving a blank if that source doesn’t fit one of your questions. Our students create their synthesis matrix as soon as we start looking for sources and fill it in as we go. If a source is blank across all of their questions, they discard that source and keep looking. It helps students see right away that just because a source talks about the Civil War doesn’t mean that it’s useful for their specific research. It also helps them see which of their research questions aren’t addressed with the sources they have so that they can tailor their future searches for those questions. As a personal bonus, I end up with fewer freaked-out students who suddenly don’t have enough sources the day before the paper is due.

Free Research Goals + 1 Minute of Knowledge

Both of the following tips came from the AISL community in some way, and they go hand-in-hand. Shoutout to Erinn Salge, who got this tip from Dave Wee and then shared it on the list-serv – every time you have students do free research in class, set a goal for students to reach by the end of class. You could do this as an exit ticket, or like Erinn you could work with teachers to add it into the classroom participation for the day. I usually just have students tell me something they found. For example, in 2 recent biography projects, students had to tell me an interesting fact about their chosen person at the end of class.

For the US history research paper, I’ve combined this with the 1 minute goal from William Badke’s Research Strategies, a book that several of us read together last spring in a discussion group (it’s worth a read, though none of us agreed with everything Badke says). Badke points out that you need a working knowledge of a topic before you can dive in to full-on research, and a rule of thumb for what constitutes working knowledge is to be able to talk about a topic for 1 minute without repeating yourself. Today, we are exploring possible topics for the US history paper, and students are reading reference sources about whatever topic/s they’re interested in. The students’ daily goal is to be able to talk about their potential topic to a partner for 1 minute; if they run out of things to say, they know that they need to read a bit more. This is all taking place before students even turn in their topic proposals, so by the time we start looking for primary sources, students should have a decent working knowledge of their topic.

Replacing Dewey? Rearranging Knowledge? Perspectives on Genres in Nonfiction

Dewey is dead or dying.  There seems to be consensus in libraries across the spectrum that the Dewey Decimal System  is both problematic and outdated. Some of the many reasons cited include:

  1. Categories based in the Nineteenth Century fail to incorporate modern scientific and technological changes ranging from computers to the Space Age, and are then “plugged” in to odd, and often inconsistent, places such as 000s, 600s, and more.
  2. There are considerable biases in religion (most of the 200s are dedicated to Christianity with other religions declared to be “other” and crowded into the 290s.
  3.  The social sciences are rife with outdated and biased approaches to 21st Century problems and conditions.

For all these reasons, and many more, I decided to rearrange/genrify Dewey within my High School library.  Developing a new genre-based system is certainly not as easy as it might seem on paper.

Given the move to digital resources and limited space, I weeded a considerable number of print books from the collection.  Even so, I still had to reckon with arranging nonfiction since I was not eliminating it altogether.

What I came up with provoked philosophical and intellectual questions even as I moved titles around, playing “musical books:”

Essentially, I broke up everything and merged areas together to arrive at:

  • Philosophy and religious studies–however I merged mythology with folk and fairy tales (regardless of origins, and rightly or wrongly, readers now see them simply as another form of story)
  • Arts and music (however, sports and games are moved to a new section entitled “Daily Life” which encompasses cooking, food, holidays, etc.)
  • I created a new Health and Wellness section which includes psychology from the 100s, anxiety from the 600s, and biology from the 500s. 
  • A new civil rights section includes African Americans works from the 300s, and criminal justice reform (which could equally well go in my constitution/law/politics section)
  • A new media/journalism area now includes internet and social media as well as propaganda.
  • History now features Ancient History (all civilizations, no more emphasis just on Rome, Greece and Egypt) 
  • Middle Ages (throughout the world) This time period was the zenith of civilization for many cultures who had no “dark ages.”
  • The Twentieth Century unfortunately is broken into wars: World Wars One, Two, etc. Here, I combined all books on the subjects including literature and arts–all books on Vietnam were previously divided into American, Vietnamese, etc, similar to the Cold War which brings together related titles from the 300s and 900s, bridging disciplines and countries.

On a related note, the 800s no longer exist, with every form of literature joining novels in a literary section. Focused on the idea of story, there are subsections for novels (in turn divided by genre), short stories, poems. Dramatic works merged with theater from the 700s. As mentioned, this area also includes the myths/fairytales. It is interesting that for ages libraries considered novels “fiction” but other forms were “nonfiction.” 

My next conundrum is Graphic Novels.  I believe these are a literary form of their own right.  But what of Graphic Nonfiction?  These are not fiction.  I think I would place them in the best subject area.

This process is a work in progress.  I welcome suggestions. It has certainly opened my eyes to the complexity of revising Dewey. This process instilled a new awareness of interconnectedness and the arbitrary compartmentalization of knowledge, however necessary it is to facilitate easy tracking of materials.

Chat GPT, Write Me a Blog Post

My goal for this blog post was to have some organized thoughts about ChatGPT to share, but I think the best I can do is still just some disorganized thoughts. There is, of course, lots to talk about and think about, but I’ve been spending some time thinking specifically about the role ChatGPT could play in research. I’m going to spare myself from trying to write transitions and just go for some bullet points.

  • Students can struggle with finding an appropriate source to build background knowledge on a topic. I experimented with asking ChatGPT to give me a paragraph about different topics students are researching, and the writing it produced was full of expert vocabulary, important ideas, and potential search terms. It could be useful for modeling how to use background sources, but also for helping students find a jumping-off point when they’re new to a topic.
  • This is not an idea I came up with, but I’ve had fun playing with it: ask ChatGPT to write you the table of contents for a book about something. I was working with some colleagues on a course about media influences, so I asked ChatGPT to give me the table of contents for a textbook we could use. It gave a really solid outline of what we could think about. When using it for research, it could provide some guidance about what subtopics you could explore. You can also ask ChatGPT to expand on different chapters of your imaginary textbook!
  • I’ve played a little with asking ChatGPT directly for search terms, and am still deciding what I think about it. Admittedly I’ve given it pretty vague prompts, so the search terms have also been pretty broad. I did notice, however, that it generated search terms that represented different political viewpoints – and it also encouraged me to be more specific in my research. 🙂 
  • I think prompt crafting is going to become an important skill. When I gave ChatGPT a vague prompt, I got unimpressive answers. As I refined my request, the responses got better. The advantage of ChatGPT is that I can keep asking for refinements to the previous response. This means that I need to clarify my own thinking so I can ask for what I want – either on the first try, or by evaluating the response and making further requests. Being clear on what you’re looking for (both for yourself, and when creating a search) is such an important skill and the conversational nature of ChatGPT could provide some practice.

I’m aware of the ethical and practical concerns around ChatGPT and AI (and my colleagues can assure you that I will share them at even the hint of an opportunity), but I’m also aware that our students will have access to these tools as they move through the world. I’m hoping we can skip the years of hand-wringing (*coughcough* Wikipedia *coughcough*) and instead help shape the conversation about how we can meaningfully and ethically make use of these tools.

So, how are you thinking about the role ChatGPT can play in your work?

Promoting eBooks

When our library first started acquiring Overdrive eBooks several years ago, I felt we had to make an effort to advertise them, to justify the cost. As creative forms of advertising have never been my strong suit, I stuck with basic flyers, but I knew I could get creative with the content. Of course, Overdrive does provide subscribers lots of publicity materials, and we have used some of theirs, but I wanted to include some with a more personal touch.

I love to write and I love injecting humor into anything I do with the students, so my first round of flyers, posted prior to a break, imagined all sorts of place you could be bored and in need of a book. Here’s a sample:

The next time around, not wanting to repeat myself, I kicked it up a notch. I started thinking up more ridiculous situations in which a book might help—and eBooks are always available! Here’s a sample:

Still, there’s only so much you can do with flyers, and there’s no guarantee that people will look at one flyer in the usual mosaic of them on doors and windows. So I decided to create short videos to share before winter and summer breaks, screening them at middle school announcements to a captive audience. In the beginning, I created the videos with PowerPoint, following a similar format to my flyers. The videos showed times when students might need a book, and ended with more information about Overdrive/Sora (Overdrive’s school app) and how to download books.

After running several of these, I wanted to try something different. Over time, I experimented with an online comic creator (sadly, I forget which one, and I cited all of my other images but not the comic creator!), used a school green-screen and the Keystone Kops, and an iPad-app stop-motion Harry Potter animation combined with our green screen. All still involved ridiculous or realistic reasons—such as Harry Potter being locked in by the Dursleys or an annoyingly perky mom—a student might need a book in a hurry. I posted these videos on a free account on Vimeo.

While those were all fun, they did take a decent amount of effort to put together, since I’m not naturally technically adept. Being always busy, I started looking for ways that took less time, and as a bonus, involved more members of my school community. I started with a fairly straightforward (but still silly!) video skit with the head of the middle school about how easy it is to use eBooks, and wouldn’t that be more fun than watching paint dry? Then came a skit with the then-current 5th grade listening to a pedantic story hour inspired by Robert Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee.”

I have always found Geico ads really funny, as they appealed to my deadpan sense of humor. I realized I could model my videos on some of their premises, such as their “…It’s what you do” ads. In one of my lunchtime contests, students write excuses about why their homework is late. So I wrote a skit in which students used these student-written excuses in class, and then the camera panned to two “reporters” who opined that if you’re a student, you make excuses, but if you’re a kid on vacation in desperate need of a book, you use Overdrive. “It’s what you do.” Other videos I did with this premise involved Broadway Kids in science class, and a Latin class’ celebration of Saturnalia with the sacrifice of a stuffed sheep.

Another premise I used, though I can’t remember if it came from Geico, was what you can count on during quarantine. Students I recruited shot their own videos and sent them to me, and I put them together with some help from our Communications Department. Still another Geico premise I used was “How happy are…?” With help from several homerooms, I filmed skits about Pi Day and Star Wars Day. Last month, I used the premise of Geico’s “Did you know” ads to write a skit about Roombas in the forest, filmed with the help of our green screen.

At this point, I have changed a couple of things about how I create the videos and their content. In terms of creation, I found that individual students and homerooms are eager to participate, and I love involving students and teachers as a community-building activity, and as promotion for the library and the librarians in general. I also found that if I collaborate with the Communications Department on filming and editing, the videos look a whole lot more professional than the ones I film on a library iPad! I’ve also pulled in our Drama Department for costuming sometimes, in a further collaboration.

In terms of content, I realized that many videos ran too long, partially because I get carried away when I write skits, and partially because I always appended details about how to access eBooks through Overdrive/Sora. After consulting with Kelly, our head librarian, we decided that since all of the access details are on our website, videos should include only a slide telling students to consult us or the library website for more information. While I do wish I could give students more direct information on how to use the Sora app and access our eBooks, I realize it’s fairly dry, detailed information that would only hold the attention of those actively attempting to access eBooks. So now I focus on attempting to fix in students’ brains the fact that we have a few thousand eBooks, and that the Sora app is the way to access them.

Of course, the big question is whether the videos actually increase eBook usage, but that would be hard to assess. We have about 2,300 Sora eBooks, and in the past twelve months we circulated 1,687 to 219 users, or about 30% of our total student/faculty/staff population. We’d love to see more usage, naturally, and may start thinking about even more ways to promote our collection.

I think at this point the purpose of the videos, in no particular order, is: 1. Remind students about eBooks and Sora; 2. Remind students about the library in general; 3. Build a positive representation of the library in students’ minds as a place with not just resources, but a sense of humor and a warm welcome; 4. Build community by offering students and teachers the opportunity to participate and see themselves on the big screen; 5. Build community by collaborating with other departments to improve the videos; 6. Connect with the wider school community when the Communications Department posts the videos on school social media; 7. Have fun!

How do you promote eBooks at your school? Let us know in the comments!

Librarian, Meet the Left-Handed Whelk

The job of librarian is one that continues to show up on polls as one of the most trusted professions.

Like many independent schools, my school has several signature programs intended to distinguish it from other area schools. Since our campus includes a bayou that is just south of the Manatee River, which feeds into the Gulf of Mexico, all of our students learn a ton about marine ecosystems. At the high school level, the Marine Science signature program includes the required 9th grade Biology course followed by three years of Marine Biology electives. Marine 3 is a research-based seminar in which students design and complete a year-long study; they ultimately write a paper, create a scientific poster, and present their findings at RISE (Research and Independent Study Expo) in early May. Five to ten students pursue this path each year, which earns them the Ocean Academy graduation distinction. Many continue their marine studies in college.

RISE: Marine Presentations

Enough with the advertisement—oh wait — let me also share with readers that teachers are requested to supervise student boat and kayak trips, so we also get to spend classes out on the water with students!

Just an “average” monthly boat trip for the students

If you ask our students why they’ve chosen to devote many of their electives to the Ocean Academy distinction, you’ll get a variety of answers.

“Concern for our planet.”

“Love the teachers.”

“My older brother said it was like a family.”

“Labs on the water.” “Get to fish during school.

To recap the past few paragraphs. Ocean Academy graduates have had some sort of Marine focus in science classes each year they’ve attended the school, and students in Marine 3 have taken, you guessed it, 3 years of Marine Science. Also librarians are a trusted profession.

I think this is a powerful program for all the reasons students mention. As a coastal community, we’ll be affected by climate change sooner than some further inland, and many of our families are deeply connected to local waterways. Because it doesn’t have an AP designation, it draws those students most passionate about marine science, not the ones most focused on their GPAs and the weighted bump they receive from AP courses.

So many seahorses

They aren’t always the ones who have excelled in previous History and English research papers, the projects more typically associated with the library.

So unlike the world they are close to entering of university research and discipline-specific librarians, they are stuck with me. I’m no academic slouch, but I lack almost all of their marine knowledge. I last took a science course that wasn’t labeled “information science” in the year 1999. They know more than me. Years more.

But they often don’t trust their own deep subject-specific knowledge, and our first few classes together are always an interesting dance of questions and responses. Many assume I’m asking them questions I already know the answers to, as I would with courses where I have more of a background. “Why is Lady Macbeth jealous?” “How did planes influence WWI?” etc.

Bayou on a foggy morning

But this is a different use of the librarian’s knowledge. When I ask what they mean by a ghost crab trap, I want to know the definition so we can look up synonyms. For their paper on cast netting, I am being serious in asking if they need to plan their collection time around tides or time of day — or whether either of these factors even matter when monitoring water quality? I’m curious if a “water goat” is something used at the individual or municipal level because we are eligible to apply for grants if this is something that would make sense to purchase for our bayou.  And when they tell me they are looking into a whelk’s “left-handedness,” come on, that’s just like click bait for librarians to follow up with more questions!

This is one of the first times that they are the content experts, and I want to help them learn to own that expertise. The teacher will help with experimental design, but I can use the “reference interview” to get a handle on the scope of their experiment, specialized vocabulary related to their topic, and ways to search in scholarly journals. I can help them parse an academic paper and design an academic poster, even if I can’t assess if all the information is factually correct. I can tell them “I don’t know” and that some questions are better directed to their teacher. In this project I’m no longer teaching them information skills as they progress; instead, I’m helping them build their confidence in using the library as a targeted resource to stay up to date on their topic. It’s the closest they can get to researching in a college library while still in high school.