Why I *SOMETIMES* Pull Books

Past Me wrote this post just over a month ago while on spring break. This isn’t the first time where I’ve looked at Past Me and said, “Whoa—you have no idea what lies ahead.” (See accepting AISL presidency while a pandemic loomed on the horizon.)

On Friday, the day of RISE, the half-day senior research symposium I coordinate, I received this email from the teacher who leads the Global Issues project:

On Fri, Apr 30, 2021 at 9:33 AM Chris wrote: I know its cray cray time of year, maybe we streamline it a bit…Chalk it up to crazy Covid and us creating an internal conference but I’d love to pop up there next week Wed. Thursday to get the kids resources and then we can focus on writing and revision the last week before IQ.  If you can swing that let me know, if not, no judgment!  Just honestly let me know what you think you can swing.

Yes, it’s possible for an email to both induce panic and reduce stress. For all my Type A planning, he is as equally Go With The Flow. I found him and confirmed that I could lower my involvement this month and it wouldn’t be placed on my permanent record. Considering I’ve been involved with this project since this year’s seniors were sixth graders and I was doubly involved last year while virtual, why do I feel like I’m losing my library cred? He knows exactly what I normally teach and can supplement accordingly, and the students still have two days of classes in the library, the only two days the library is open to students between AP Spanish and senior exams. They’ll search together for digital resources, supplemented by books as feels natural based on our conversations about their topics.

I have talked with a lot of people this year about being our own harshest critics. In the AISL  Libraries IRL session, we focused on the difference between factors we can control and those we cannot. And mindset fits here as well. In addition to my general eagerness to pull books this time of year…

  • The school moved up graduation by a week since it will be outdoors, and we want to avoid the Florida heat as much as possible. (You are correct to sense a domino effect on the exam schedule…)
  • Virtual students will take exams on campus, one student supervised by one proctor, almost doubling the number of proctors needed. I’m expecting five sessions rather than two. (Could this optimistically mean 10 hours of quiet work time?)
  • I am Lead Advisor for the Class of 2021 and Baccalaureate speaker the following week. (Yes I have a draft of my speech, but I’m reminded it’s not where I want it to be. Proctoring revisions?)
  • I am getting on an airplane for the first time since 2019 to fly to Maryland for Mother’s Day, causing me to miss a day and a half of school when I’d usually be working with the 6th grade. (This is the ultimate seesaw of guilt and gratefulness based on what I’ve learned about my own values in the pandemic. Family is key.)
  • In brainstorming for this year’s Global Issues project this winter, we planned an all-day “Coping with COVID” conference in conjunction with the Health Department, our global sister schools, and all 6th grade subject teachers for this Wednesday! The students are going to be so much more prepared for research the following week after watching experts talk about COVID responses from a variety of perspectives, in a format that models our approach to organizing their papers. (So instead of feeling like a delinquent, why isn’t this accomplishment where I’m focusing my attention?)

And we now transition from an honest assessment about how I’m feeling this weekend, compared with my feelings the first week of April, a week I camped near the beach far from school. I need to remind myself that this year can be a reset, and the post below will better reflect what’s happening in my library May of 2022.

While I feel like I’m backing down, I have a new “Coping with COVID” conference and a day in the classroom this week, 2 days in the library next week, and access to files on Google Classroom. Even if it’s not embedded librarianship, it’s not nothing. Anyone have tips on being your own best friend and not your own toughest critic?


Earlier this spring, a colleague and I presented at a summit on Teaching Global Writers. I’m officially the librarian for grades 7-12, but we’ve developed a transition project for World Cultures that we teach to the sixth graders in May. As we brainstormed about how we wanted to organize our presentation, focusing on our values, our goals, and our process, we had a slide about “items to consider.” This could also have been called, “what you might be concerned about,” but hey, positive language. Obviously, time was number one – for him, me, and the class. Also practicalities like how much scaffolding to offer and how to best help 12 year olds build long-term independent time management skills. But, we had this conversation more than once:

Me: I have to mention I pull books.
Chris: It’s fine. No one will notice
Me: There’s a photo of it.
Chris: Will librarians even notice?

First question after our presentation: “How do you find the time to pull the books?” First, remember we’re a smaller school with a print collection under 20,000 and only about 60 students in the sixth grade. So the scope isn’t what you might be picturing. It actually goes pretty fast. I have a million colored sticky notes in a drawer. I assign each class a color and pull out a bunch of tabs and write a student’s name from the roster on each one. Since the project is on “global issues,” a lot of the books are located near each other. So that one endangered animals book might have four tabs at the top.  I have a strong spacial memory, and I can pull a fair number based on a general recollection of where I saw them last and the shape of the spine. Until restrictions on campus guests this year, I have benefitted from a few long-term parent volunteers who I trust with the task. When in doubt, they’ll pull a few or put an asterisk by a student’s name, greatly streamlining my time.

Stacks of global issues books

I’m posting this because I think that as independent school librarians, we all have procedures that might work well for our own school but not for others. This post isn’t a push for others to implement this practice. It’s actually an apology because in the presentation, I answered the how but not the why. And whys are important for figuring out if there’s a reason for the how.  Here’s why I pull books for our sixth graders.

  • This is their official introduction to me. We have one day in the classroom brainstorming project ideas, and then the students walk across campus for their first time in the Sunshine Library as budding “Middle School researchers.” They’re both excited and intimidated by that walk, and that when they arrive; there might be seniors at a neighboring table. This is my chance to make them feel a little more comfortable, an immediate sense of belonging. It’s also a pretty good introduction to me as a person who will help support their research in this project and for the next six years.
  • I present it as a present just for them. Here’s a gift to get your project launched. As with the previous point, it helps to make a good first impression.
  • Do you all work with sixth graders? I hadn’t before this project. I hadn’t even worked with Middle Schoolers before starting at Saint Stephen’s. Newsflash: they need more guidance than 9th graders! Their projects can address any global issue, meaning there’s a lot of variability. Chris and I are most productive in individual research consultations with each student, especially because many students choose topics that are personally very meaningful to them. This gives everyone somewhere to start gathering background knowledge as we talk with others.
  • By this point, you’re probably asking why I don’t have them search the catalog for their own books. This actually started because we had some turnover in the library a few years back. We had a few months without a librarian, and I wasn’t sure what was being taught or when.
    • Necessity is the mother of invention. But it’s continued because…
    • We have limited time to complete this project, and it’s basically organized on top of my daily schedule with the Middle and Upper divisions to be shoehorned into when I’m likely to be freest. This is generally when students are already reviewing for exams but before they take exams in the library. I could spend a day teaching the catalog, a skill some know and some don’t, or I could move them towards higher-level skills of source analysis. There are three days total for research before they move back to the classrooms (hello exam library!) to begin creating their paper.
    • Even when students know how to use the catalog, we have two libraries. Sixth and seventh grade materials are often interchangeable and could be found in either. We don’t allow students to cross campus without supervision, so this ensures the books are in one place ready to be used.
    • Students have chosen global issues ranging from endangered rhinos to ebola to teen depression. Needless to say, as a k-12 collection, some materials are better suited to sixth graders than others. For this project, I’d rather they have success with a book in their hands than choose a book for which they are not the intended audience. I find small successes build research confidence, which I’d argue is an essential research skill.
  • By having books in their hands within a minute of entering “their new library,” class time is spent on reading, thinking, note-taking, and analyzing. I do want to note, also, that we don’t require books for this assignment. This isn’t about giving them a place to start.
  • We try to complete the project during class time so the work is fully the student’s. The books move from the cart to the children’s hands and back again. I would like to have more accurate circulation numbers, and while I could just check out the entire collection to a “Grade 6” account, this is almost as fast and much more representative of collection use. In checking the books out, I’m getting a reminder of each student’s name and photograph.
  • Which brings me to what is probably the main reason this is worth it for me.
  • The sticky notes have their names! I love our school’s promise. “Every student is known and every student is valued.” I crisscross campus past their playground multiple times each day and I pop into Lower School classes. Even though they generally know my name, I don’t know these kids. I have yet to have a kid piece together that I know their name because of a sticky tab poking out from the top of their book rather than because I actually know them. Virtually, Google Docs and Google Classroom is also a savior for this.
Pre-pandemic research time

In foreshadowing for a future post, I will share that I am not the person you should ask about work-life balance. I frequently stay late, and I have trouble moving to “non-work” mode even when I’m home. Taking my email off my phone was an incredibly smart decision for me. But this hasn’t been something that’s taken a lot of time, and I’ve noticed a lot of benefits.

Does this ring any bells? Is there anything that someone new to your library might be surprised you do? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

2 thoughts on “Why I *SOMETIMES* Pull Books

  1. The new teachers this year were so overwhelmed with zoom school that they didn’t have time to think about what I do. Now we are back on campus, there have been a few questions about pulling books for projects, and finding resources. The library is a classroom and I can not allow students in because of student pod safety. I am pulling books more than ever before because the students don’t walk in and search the shelves.

    Do you feel that the COVID materials requirements have been relaxed?

  2. Our library is still used as a library since I’m with older students. Teachers are coming in more with classes than ever before, though they have to reserve before bringing students. Only upperclass study out students are able to use the library without their classes—a relatively small number. Students sanitize when the enter, and we have limited browsing. Since I shelve the books because of volunteer restrictions, I hold off on reshelving.

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