Last week I had the following exchange, and it is typical of a kind that happens to me all the time in the elementary school library:
3rd grader: Um…there’s this book…it’s about a girl….and the title is the girl’s name. I think it might start with K. Or maybe L.
Me: You think her name starts with K or L and is the title. Do you know who wrote the book? (Although I ask this, the children almost never know who wrote the book.)
3rd grader: No.
Me: OK, is there anything else you can tell me about the book? What sort of story is it?
3rd grade: Well, the girl does a bunch of different stuff in it. She made cupcakes. And went to school. And played at home…(pause) So…do you have it?
Often, in exchanges like this, Google is my best friend…or Amazon. The library catalog usually doesn’t help much. Conventional catalogs want title, author, subject. Really distinctive keywords can work (“Hogwarts”), but “ a story about a girl who does stuff” doesn’t narrow it down *quite* enough.
I can find out names of characters, or a major plot point, which can allow me to recognize the book. For example, there was the time a kid said “there’s this book..it has some animals in this city…” and I said “Cricket in Times Square?”
“There’s this book about a girl and a horse”…National Velvet? Misty of Chincoteague?
This only works for classics though, books I already know about. If this “girl who does stuff” isn’t Pippi Longstocking or Anne of Green Gables, the odds of me finding it without any title, author, or more distinctive hints about the subject matter aren’t great.
Conventional library catalogs are built around the traditional access points—author, title, subject. But children often have completely different “access points” that interest them in a book, and they don’t always know how to articulate them. Even adult library users don’t necessarily think like librarians in terms of access points—young children even less so. I can’t ask most of the younger kids if the book they want is “fiction or non-fiction”—those are terms that more often than not produce blank stares. (I have learned to say, “Do you want a story book, or a book with real facts and information?”)
When kids want a book that they don’t seem to know anything about (from a librarian perspective), it is usually because a friend of theirs checked out the book or has the book at home, and something about it appealed to them—the cover (I’ve been asked for “the purple book” or “the book with the glittery fairy on it”). Sometimes it’s just the fact that a friend has it (“the book my friend has at home.”)
I don’t like it when, despite my best efforts, I can’t find the book the child has in mind, and it happens too often. Is there a way the hyperlinked library could handle these requests better? Stephens writes, “What can we do to ensure we are best meeting the needs of our students and their learning in times of change and challenge?”
A lot of the undecipherable requests seem to be socially oriented—they want to read the book their friend read, or they want to read about something they heard someone talking about. It seems to me that tagging in a socially oriented catalog could help unearth the way that children think about the books they read. If friends or classmates could share information about the books they read, it might lead to more of them connecting to books that reward them.
Of course patron privacy is an important concern, and it is especially important with children. (Teens may understand privacy, but my experience with young elementary school children suggests to me that a lot of them do not.) Would parents and school administrators go for a student run blog, or social reading site, even within a school firewall? I have a feeling it would be a tough sell. In the case of elementary school libraries, I think techno-phobia might be the prevailing issue (and techno-banality).
But I also feel like the failure to think creatively and outside the box about the elementary school library is leading us to fail the students whose literacy (and ability to connect with materials they want) we should be nurturing most. Because of time constraints, the children don’t spend that much time in the library—a school library site that could be accessed from home could increase their “library” time via the hyperlinked library—especially if the school library is more fun because of user tagging or social sharing. (Also, because of budget cuts, the school library computers are awful. Just awful.)
Elementary library users want to read stories about “the girl who does stuff”—because they probably want to BE “the girl who does stuff.” It would be great if we could figure out ways to let them do both.
Stephens, M. (2010, March 2). The hyperlinked school library: engage, explore, celebrate [Web log post]. Tame The Web (TTW). Retrieved from http://tametheweb.com/2010/03/02/the-hyperlinked-school-library-engage-explore-celebrate/
Stephens, M. (2011, February). The hyperlinked library [White paper]. Tame The Web (TTW). Retrieved from http://mooc.hyperlib.sjsu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/StephensHyperlinkedLibrary2011.pdf