A story about a girl who does stuff

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



About mollificence

library student, writer, mom, Kindle addict View all posts by mollificence

19 responses to “A story about a girl who does stuff

  • Angela Johnson

    This reminds of the kind of questions I have seen in the Fiction_L listserv – usually adult reference questions, but with similarly vague adult versions of the requests: “The book had a blue cover, there was an old guy, and it took place in either the Civil War or Vietnam”. I always want to research these things and then go find this person later and tell them. It would be cool to do this for kids, if they were still interested in the item by the time we found the information. But how is a very good question.

  • Sinead Borgersen

    Great post. I remember asking my librarian when I was 5 to get me the same book that a friend danny had read and of course she didn’t know danny and could only try and guess at the book. What our local library does also is has a board with photos of the top kids books and stickers beside them so kids can vote on books they like. They get to vote on the books they enjoyed and other kids then get exposed to what others are reading. Like a hot or not or goodreads for the elementary set.

    • Molly McKinney

      Snickering at the “hot or not” for the elementary set. (But only a little since I have a 5th grader who’s about to go through the “maturation” curriculum–eek!) 😉

      We sometimes put the just-returned books out after they have been checked in (wish we would do it more often actually), social book checking is a big thing with the K-3 set.

      • Christina McGrath

        When I was a K-5 “librarian” (actually, just a Library Tech because that district was to poor to hire “real” teacher-librarians), I always pointed out to the kids that the really popular books were on the book carts waiting to be shelved. (clever tactic, yes?) 🙂 This was true though! These were the books that were perpetually being checked out. One year I also had a book review form that kids could voluntarily fill out and post on a designated bulletin board. They had to provide the title and author and something about the book as well as their recommendation. But I do recall many of the very types of queries you’ve described. Pretty amusing. And although we did teach kids the difference between fiction and non-fiction, the little ones needed help remembering. 🙂 Fun job working with those kiddos. Now I’m at the community college where a number of them attend. Very cool! 🙂

      • Molly McKinney

        I point them to the book cart too. 🙂 In fact, the graphic novels/comic books have their own shelf on the cart, and we always shelve them last, because often we don’t need to shelve them at all–they circulate right from the cart!

        We do teach them the basics of how the books are shelved (nonfiction/fiction, author name, Dewey Number etc.) but as you say, the little ones need a lot of help before they remember.

        Our local public library posts guides in the nonfiction section–with a guide to “most popular topics for kids by Dewey Number.” It’s a chart with info like Airplanes-629, Dinosaurs-567…I think it’s a great idea and I wish we’d do it at our elementary library.

  • Paul Barrows

    Your post made me smile while it is also very thought-provoking. I can see how traditional cataloging would not be very useful to children. Interestingly, when I “shadowed” a couple of reference librarians for an assignment in my 210 class last semester, I was surprised to discover how many times university reference librarians have to start their searches at Google or Amazon in order to help a student get started on a vaguely-understood research problem. People’s minds – at any age – don’t seem to think like traditional catalogs.

    • Molly McKinney

      I’m taking cataloging this semester as my other class and it’s an interesting contrast (to this class and also to working in the elementary library). All the focus on the classic access points, vs. seeing how people–especially our youngest people–REALLY think about the books they want or the info they need to find.

      I was (ahem) Googling yesterday because I was curious if there were many libraries left that still did have card catalogs instead of OPACs. I found this message thread on the subject in which one person said (not sure if it was sarcastic or not):

      “IMHO, people should be capable of doing research without a computer. They should also be capable of figuring out the alphabet and the dewey decimal system (or whatever system a given library uses) without having their hand held.

      All of the above, btw, should be completely intuitive. I’d do away with computer systems and make everyone do a “find a book” test. Those who failed? No library for them that way I’d be surrounded by fewer stupid people.”


      It’s interesting to think about the tension between our supposed mission (giving people access to information) and the belief that THEY should learn the way WE do it. (In my years in software I’ve seen similar attitudes among some in IT–but that’s a story for another day).

      Another person won my heart later in the thread by posting:

      “Man, in my local library, when the power goes out, there often aren’t any candles at hand. I’m not saying lightbulbs aren’t useful, but kids these days really oughtn’t be so reliant upon them.”


      (If anyone is terribly curious here’s the link to the whole thread: http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=566645)

  • Tracy Micka

    Thanks for this post- a really insightful look into the grade school library. My daughter starts kindergarten in the fall and this gives me a glimpse…It would be exiting and not an altogether unreasonable idea for her to make up her own tags about the books she reads. Interesting.

    • Molly McKinney

      My guess is that your daughter with you as a mom will have a clearer sense of more traditional access points as well as new possibilities of tagging etc. (My kids have got the Dewey numbers down for their favorite animals). But yeah–the thing that really seems to drive a lot of reading is what their friends are reading, it’s very social (and that’s a thing to be encouraged I think).

      Some kids ask me every single week, “where are the origami books?” (or whatever). Why would they remember what shelf they are on when I’m there to help them? And then some of them really soak in the navigation system and even help other kids find books, which always makes me smile, to see them reaching out and PARTICPATING in the library! 🙂 It’s a really wide variety of how much they seem to take in about how the library works.

      I think it would be great to tap those elementary “mindspotters” in some way.

  • Judy Poe

    I can’t help it…I hate it when I can’t find what someone is looking for either. Is it Katie & the Cupcake Cure? Or any of the books in that Cupcake Diaries series?? And, not to be a pest, but keyword searches do wonders if you’ve got a 520 line in your MARC record…sometimes just entering something like “cupcake” will get you a small enough list to find the book.

    • Molly McKinney

      I did try a cupcake keyword search, I got nothing. But I just looked up that series, and I bet that was it!! Thanks!! Maybe next week I can tell her.

      Our school library doesn’t have that though, which is probably why the keyword search did not help me in our catalog (Googling “cupcake” as you might imagine had too many hits, though I might have found it eventually if library time had not run out). But at least I could tell her the book, and tell the librarian it’s been requested as well. Yay!

    • Christina McGrath

      It’s the little details in cataloging that can make a big difference for the seeker of information. When I was in that special library (educational resources for special education), I had to be very creative because I did a ton of original cataloging of equipment, kits, games, assistive technologies. Very little copy cataloging went on there. It was interesting to say the least. In many cases, an item might be appropriate for multiple providers (i.e. Early Childhood Ed, Physical Therapy, Occupational Therapy) and it was important to include all possibilities. You’re right that sometimes minor entries can make all the difference.

    • Molly McKinney

      I saw the girl’s grandmother at the school science fair and asked her if she knew what book it was–it turns out it was NOT the Cupcake Diaries series. There is another series, Kylie Jean, by Marci Peschke, and one title is “Kylie Jean Cupcake Queen.” How about that. Well, now I know two new series!

  • Michael Stephens

    Ok – I ❤ the fact you all figured out it's probably the "Cupcake" book. 🙂

    Thanks you for this look into the elementary library – a place, i must confess, I do not know that much about, other than my own experience in K-6 in Mishawaka, Indiana. Then it was called the Quest Center and there were some pretty cool books. This was the 70s, so no inline anything to help me or others find what we'd like to read!

    The bit about doing research without a computer made me want to scream!

  • Cynthia Ainsworth

    I agree with your comments about Amazon. I often have patrons who come in with a title and author that they insist is correct. After searching our catalog and not finding, I turn to Amazon and get that lovely message (did you mean…?) And come to find out the title and author were close but not quite right!

    I thought of you as I listened to Michael’s video (Participatory Service) lecture and he mentioned the Social OPAC where users can add tags to books. I realize the difficulties in incorporating something like this into a K-12 library (and I’m sure your 3rd grader isn’t going to wait around to read the book until that happens!) but wouldn’t this be an interesting solution to such a problem…where instead of catalogers deciding the “aboutness” of a book, the users do? I bet your group of 3rd graders would come up with a whole different set of “keyword” than adults might (with the exception of “cupcakes” of course!!) Cynthia 🙂

    • Molly McKinney

      I certainly perked up in the lecture when we got to the quote”the entire design should be focused at doing stuff”! 🙂

      Amazon is a really useful tool. Also for finding books that are like other books. Such as when a kid comes in and asks for what to read after Harry Potter (but has read all the other obvious ones too…Riordan, Narnia, Spiderwick, Dark is Rising, etc etc). It helps me keep up with those voracious readers who tear through everything!!

      I’d love to see some social tagging feature, but it may be awhile before elementary schools can catch up.

  • Food is Love. Libraries are Community. Why Librarians Should Take Lessons from the Restaurant Business to Heart. | Genuine Genie Library Blog

    […] They take the long view. So, yes, they want to solve your immediate problem, such as locating the “story about a girl who does stuff”, but they know that their ultimate goal is to somehow enable that young patron to be the girl who […]

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