Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Where is the action going?

As graphic novel collections in libraries continue to grow, more libraries are also serving up the old comic books familiar to the grandparents of our current patrons. Some of these are popular with today's youth, but to many they are basically tie-ins to familiar movie and video game heroes. Now, according to the NY Times, D.C. Comics is trying to "reboot" its comic books by renumbering new issues starting with #1. Will this entice young readers to begin picking up comic books again? Optimists in the comic book publishing field clearly believe it might. Others say that superheroes have found new outlets in movies and video games and the old familiar print comics are inevitably going to disappear. Has anyone looked closely at the relationship between the traditional American comics and the manga and other graphic novels which were originally an Asian format? Do kids switch between one and the other or do they become fans of a particular genre and/or a particular set of characters? How many librarians can answer that question? I'm afraid many of us look at all graphic formats as a kind of substitute for "real books" and don't pay much attention to what it is about them that is so attractive to children. Whether or not this new move by DC Comics is successful in attracting a new audience, perhaps the flurry of news around it will inspire librarians to pay more attention to the media.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Where are the digital natives?

Sometimes it's useful to look at the way our former students and library users behave after they move out of the children's room and high school. A recent study of university students in Illinois shows that many of them have very little idea of how to search for information and a very limited view of how librarians can help them. Of course, we'd like to think the students who participated in this study were the ones who never bothered to visit the library during their elementary and high school years, but we know that most of the university-bound students do use the library. Why don't they understand more about what goes on there? According to this study most of them are still dependent on Google as their source of information, but they don't know how to do a good search of Google, much less use other databases and search engines. Have youth librarians been spending too much time demonstrating print information sources? Have we relied too much on giving out lists of resources and not helping them to ask questions about their search topic? Many teachers are unfamiliar with the sources, especially online sources, that are now available and they often don't guide students in asking the right questions. And the children, for all their glib familiarity with digital tools, are not the digital natives we've been told about. Just because they can text messages faster than the eye can see doesn't mean they can find what they need to know. We should respect their familiarity with the tools, but also respect our own knowledge of how to find information and what information is worth finding. Take a look at the Illinois study and then think about how you can ensure that the students in your library today won't be as clueless as the ones in the report.

Monday, August 22, 2011

What will boys read?

One of the questions that has troubled librarians, teachers, and parents for years is why boys give up reading fiction at an early age and turn to nonfiction (if they read at all) or to video games. Two pieces in the Sunday New York Times Book Review address this question from different viewpoints. One is Robert Lipsyte’s take on “Boys and Reading: Is There Any Hope?” in which he discusses his experience speaking at ALA. As he points out, librarians are overwhelmingly female as are young adult editors and an increasing number of authors (although there certainly are many male YA authors who are popular and prolific). Lipsyte’s thesis is that we (those professionally interested in books) are appealing to the lowest common denominators of boys’ interests and not encouraging them to question their feelings and actions. He cites several older YA books including Robert Cormier’s Chocolate Wars as examples of books dealing with complex moral questions and encouraging introspection. Lipsyte also claims that earlier writers wrote more often about both boys and girls, but now girls are almost absent from YA books aimed at boys. Now, it’s easy for librarians to come up with counter-examples, but the basic question deserves pondering. Do we spend too much time encouraging boys to read violent fantasies or science-fiction books where the emphasis is on defeating enemies no matter what the cost? Have we gone too far in pushing books that are quickly popular and ignoring some which ask their readers to questions what’s going on in today’s world? Lipsyte mentions his own book Raiders Night, which talks about the difficult subject of coaches encouraging drug-taking and ignoring injuries among high school athletes. Yet this book has been challenged and dropped from several high schools as unsuitable for its audience. The column raises many questions we ought to think about at selection time. One of the most basic is—how important is fiction as part of a reader’s diet? Is reading only nonfiction such a bad choice for boys? Is reading a novel always better than reading a thoughtful biography of a national leader or outstanding athlete or artist? But even if nonfiction offers a lot to readers, we surely want to encourage some fiction readers. Should we return to some of the older classics? This raises the eternal question of literary value as contrasted to popularity—a question librarians can never completely decide—so perhaps we should turn to the view from the female reader.

That brings us to Caitlen Flanagan’s review “Shakespeare and Austen Updated” in which she asks whether girls are being shortchanged by the YA novels published these days. Flanagan claims that girls are being denied their natural interest in romance and its relation to sexuality because books (as well as other media) focus so much on sexuality including much that is sexually explicit. Only books, she suggests, give girls a chance to imagine and think through the meaning of emotions and ponder the way they want to live their lives. Only novelists, she claims, can make us think so much about the meaning of sex and how it relates to the rest of our lives. Her thesis is perhaps more difficult to uphold than Lipsyte’s, because if we have so many female authors, editors, teachers, and librarians, why aren’t they seeing that girls are well-served? Nonetheless, if we look across the media landscape today, I think it is easy to say that girls are still being portrayed mainly as sexual objects and that feelings and relationships between the sexes are almost never dealt with in a realistic, sensitive way. It’s so much easier to take the path of showing lots of action and not much thinking or feeling. Perhaps we are shortchanging all of our teenagers by not encouraging them to slow down and examine their feelings and beliefs more often. As a start, I urge all children’s librarians to read these two articles and talk about them with colleagues. They both offer ideas worth pondering.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Who's at home on your homepage?

Now that summer is ending and children are headed back to school, it's a good time to look at your webpage and ask yourself whether it is up-to-date and ready for the busy season ahead. Kids and their parents often size up a library by looking at the homepage and noticing how user-friendly it is. If the school library or children's department has a welcoming homepage, this sets the tone for the service people will find when they enter the building. Brian Matthews, writing in Library Journal gives ten suggestions for looking at your page and assessing its impact on viewers. He doesn't talk specifically about children, but the advice he gives is useful to anyone who uses a webpage as a marketing tool for an institutional service. Look at your library's page--is it attractive? clean and easy to read? constantly changing and offering new information and pictures? We can't spend all of our time these days arranging book displays and posters around the library. What is on our digital portal is just as important as what is on the physical entrance to the library. As new students come into your school library, or new patrons into your department, watch them to see whether they can easily find what they are looking for. Try out your page on friends and the children of friends and relatives. We are often surprised at how other people see the sites we find so useful and convenient. Don't take anything for granted. In this fast-moving world your homepage is the front door to your library for many people Make sure it has a welcome sign on it.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Constantly changing

One of the words sweeping the online world these days is “perpetual beta” a state defined in Wikipedia as the keeping of software or a system at the beta development stage for an extended or indefinite period of time. Perpetual beta is sometimes used as a complaint when software changes so quickly that it confuses or intimidates the user, but more often these days it’s identified as a desirable trait for software, individuals and institutions. But how often have children’s librarians considered their departments as being in a state of perpetual beta?

In an invaluable post on August 10, 2011, in The 21st Century Library blog, Steve Matthews discusses how the concept applies to libraries in general. He writes, Considering that the various external social factors that influence the environment of a 21st Century Library are in perpetual evolution, it seems reasonable to think that the appropriate response would be a ‘perpetual beta’ model of the 21st Century Library. Although librarians often write about change and how we must prepare for it, perhaps we haven’t pondered the continuing change we’ll have to cope with. Whenever a change is made—whether in the way we deliver storytimes, the way we arrange books on the shelves or the way we respond to reference questions—we tend to breathe a sigh of relief and feel a sense of completion. At last we have it right! But the truth is, nothing is ever finally right these days. No sooner is one change made than another one appears on the horizon. We’ve integrated the books with the DVDs on our shelves, but suddenly DVDs are obsolete and we need to find a way of integrating streaming videos with our print collection. How can anyone cope? Well, one thing is sure—we can’t do it alone. We have to let our users or potential users (and their parents) help us. Perpetual beta means groups of people working together to make our services as responsive and valuable as possible.

How should children’s librarians respond to the challenge of being in perpetual beta? Dr. Matthews offers helpful advice: "Remember futurist Alvin Toffler’s Forward to Rethinking the Future, 1999, “The illiterate of the 21st Century are not those that cannot read or write, but those that can not learn, unlearn, and relearn.” Librarians should be the VERY LAST profession who might be considered illiterate because they are incapable of unlearning those conventional principals and practices and relearning the unconventional ideas and innovations that are necessary to keep the 21st Century Library relevant, thriving and providing 21st Century Library services". We children's librarians have an advantage in learning, unlearning and making changes because our patrons are young and do not come with fixed ideas about what a library should be like. We can build a valuable 21st century library service by harnessing their flexibility, listening to their voices, and constantly experimenting with new approaches. Listening and responding is our greatest tool—listening to our patrons, to their parents, and to our colleagues—paying attention to how our services are actually being used. If kids don’t come to the library is it because we don’t have the materials they want? Because we don’t give them the services they need? Because we come across as rigid sticklers for rules? Being in beta is an exciting but difficult experience and we won’t always get it right. But it is the only way we will keep our libraries functioning as a vital service in coming years.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Finally some good news for librarians

The major media hasn't picked up the story yet, but the ever-reliable Publisher's Weekly has reported an important legal change that affects many libraries.Some of us remember that when the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) was passed in 2008, books were not exempted from the requirement for health and environmental dangers. The law was written to ensure that toys (especially imported toys) did not pose a threat to American children, but the language included children's books. Luckily the requirement for expensive testing was temporarily put on hold, but now at last books have been formally exempted. There will be some exceptions for books that include toys as part of their package, but the overwhelming majority of books bought for libraries and schools are straightforward books that pose no problems. It's great to see government acting with sensible common sense and coming to the aid of publishers, libraries and schools and especially children! Three cheers all around!