Monday, October 31, 2011

Books that disappear in the night

Halloween booklists are a familiar handout in children’s libraries. Books about pumpkins, witches, and trick-or-treating fly off the shelves at this time of year. Parents, teachers and children expect to see old favorites and a few new entries every year. But in making up booklists this year, many librarians must have been struck by the variety of what they include—printed books, ebooks, apps for the i-phone and i-pad, as well as videos and websites for streaming stories of ghosts and goblins. Will these new formats become old favorites, or will they be replaced by stories in newer formats? Will the apps of today become the filmstrips of thirty years ago crumbling in a forgotten corner of the storage closet? What is a book now and what will it be in the future.
This week the Internet Archive hosted a Books in Browsers” conference in San Francisco to explore this question. Is the print book dead? It seems unlikely, but it is worth keeping up with ideas for new formats no matter how off-the-wall some of them seem. A traditional book is written by one person and after it is edited and printed it cannot easily be changed or modified in any way even by the original author. A digital book, on the other hand, exists only as a bundle of electrons that can be altered—updated by the author, which is useful—or hacked and changed by other people, which is a problem. When librarians buy an ebook for their collection, they are purchasing it with the faith that enough of their readers have the necessary equipment and will be able to read it to justify the purchase. What happens if the technology of a book becomes obsolete? Like old tape recorder tapes or vinyl records will they become useless to the vast majority of readers who no longer have the equipment to access them? When we buy a new Halloween classic for our collection, what assurance do we have that it will remain permanently in our collection? Will it disappear silently some day because the publisher has decreed that it has circulated as often as is allowed? Will it become unusable? Should we purchase at least one print copy of each item we buy in digital format to ensure that our collection remains usable? As librarians go about their day-to-day business, especially during this busy fall holiday season, we may not think enough about the long-term strategies of collection development, but we do so at our peril. There are stronger forces than witches and goblins about to snatch away our Halloween treasures!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

How will we save the school band?

Libraries buy dozens of books and other media on topics they hope will increase students’ knowledge and improve their skills, but there are some subjects that are almost impossible to get moving off the shelves no matter how well designed the materials are. One of the worst is economics. It’s not surprising that it’s called the dismal science. Parents, teachers and other adults keep trying to instill the basics of economics into young people before they reach the age to start using credit cards and building up debts, but it’s hard to find materials that help. Now Warren Buffet has lent his name and knowledge to a series of cartoons designed to make learning economics a little more appealing. The series, called The Secret Millionaire’s Club, will be shown on Hub Channel. It is based on a series of web-based episodes that have been shown for the past year. Check out this video for a small snippet of one of these web-based animations. According to the show’s producers, the series will aim less at being a teaching tool and more on entertainment than the web episodes have done. Buffet is modest in his aims: “It’s not intended to teach kids how to read a balance sheet, it’s meant to provide a fun way for kids to understand business and develop good habits from an early age,” His approach is to set up a plausible real life problem that young teens might encounter, such as funding a school art project or band. Then he raises questions the youngsters need to answer their questions about how they might raise money. How well this format can be used to tackle other basic economic issues remains to be seen, but if the shows are well-done they would fill a real need in schools and libraries. The series starts today on the Hub channel. It has advertisers and several sponsors including the Public Library Association and the National Education Association. If you miss the show itself, the first episode should be available at on November 3. It’s well worth checking out.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Why are libraries invisible?

For those of us who are concerned with libraries and make them a part of our lives, it’s often discouraging to discover how many of our friends and neighbors don’t make libraries a central part of their thinking even when they try to encourage their children to read. I was reminded of this again reading a blog post by a mother concerned about her daughter’s reluctance to read. Mia Wenjen, the blogger, started by pointing out that the loss of the Border’s chain of bookstores is going to affect the reading habits of many children. There’s no argument about that and librarians and teachers across the country are mourning the loss of one of the few bookstores serving many communities. Nonetheless, in describing her technique for turning her daughter into a voracious reader, I was surprised at what a small role the library played. First on the list of steps to take to encourage your child to read was to make regular trips to the bookstores to buy books. There is nothing wrong with that, but very few families these days have access to bookstores; for many the only place to buy books is the scanty space in a big box store. Besides that, very few families have the money to spend on buying children’s books regularly. Another technique mentioned was for a parent to start a reading group. Again, this is a fine idea, but many libraries already have reading groups for children and they have a wide selection of books to support them. A reading group in a home is likely to have very limited access to books unless one or more of the families involved has an unusually wide selection of books at home. What was the problem with the library? Well, the short three-week borrowing period seemed to be the major one. That time was often too short for the girl to finish her book. Perhaps libraries should think about encouraging parents and children who find the borrowing period too short. Most libraries offer renewals online and by telephone, which lengthens the period to six weeks or even longer if others are not clamoring to take out the same book. Do we publicize this flexibility enough? Perhaps a renewal notice in each book that goes out would help some families. Most of all, the problem seems to be that many families that are trying hard to encourage their children to read do not know about library services available to them. Librarians often look around the busy library and notice the children who are there reading, sharing books, enjoying programs. They don’t see the children who rarely enter the building. Just because we work there every day doesn’t mean that all members of the community understand how many books and other materials are available. Mia Wenjen is right; the loss of so many bookstores is affecting the reading habits of many children in our communities. Now is a great time for librarians to step up their PR efforts and try harder than ever to remind people that despite financial cutbacks and hard times, the public and school libraries are still the best reading support in the community. We need to push that message out more than ever before.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Thinking about poetry

Libraries are probably the most poetry-friendly institutions in the country. For generations, youth librarians have introduced children to the pleasures of Mother Goose and the fun of Shel Silverstein by reading, performing, and encouraging children to react to the magic of words and rhythms. For the past decade and more librarians have organized poetry slams for teens, poetry clubs for tweens, and poetry week celebrations for the family. But we are seldom given credit for helping to keep the art alive. The New York Times in a recent article about poetry performances in New York City introduces us to a number of other venues where poetry is celebrated and not only read aloud but performed. It is a good reminder of the importance of oral performance for most poetry. New York isn't the only city with a number of of performance places for poets--San Francisco is a good example of a poetry-friendly city that offers public poetry in bars and restaurants. Why are bars such a popular place for poetry performances? No doubt it is the legendary ability of alcohol to loosen the tongue and inhibitions. Libraries have never been famous for that, and of course we don't recommend wine and cheese in the children's room, but the idea of food and informality might be something we could borrow. Why not have a popcorn and cider poetry performance for Halloween? Don't stick to the routine of having the librarian read from poetry books in the library, invite young readers and authors to perform their own poetry or read their favorites from the collection. Give young patrons a chance to practice their pieces beforehand. Record their offerings on video that can be linked to the library website and shared with the community. Let kids make their own poetry videos in other venues if they like--sports poetry on the football field or tennis courts, perhaps--and show them in the library. Link them to your Facebook page. Libraries have been keeping poetry vital and alive for a century, now that we have so many ways of sharing it, don't let that tradition die.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

How social should libraries be?

Social media has been hotly debated by parents and other adults ever since youngsters started flocking to it and spending (it seems) hours posting silly and sometimes disturbing messages and photos on it. At first some school districts and public libraries assumed that Facebook, YouTube and Twitter were time-wasters and students should not be allowed to use them in schools and libraries. But social media crept into our lives and gradually made it difficult to separate personal fooling around from serious learning. Now there is a movement to reverse the trend to ban websites from schools and children’s libraries. The American Association of School Librarians this year inaugurated a Banned Website Awareness Day designed to call attention to the problem. In a report on the growing trend toward freer access for young people to social media and other websites and the New York Times published an article this week describing some of the ways teachers use social media to advance studies. For example, in one Advanced Placement Biology class, lab groups created a Facebook thread to share data and collaborate on projects. Many educators believe that today’s young people will work in environments where shared projects are the norm and they will have to learn to use the tools of collaboration. By exposing young people to social media and to websites that might be considered offensive in schools and libraries, teachers can help students learn how to use the Internet safely and where to draw the line on offensive material. As generations of adults have learned over time it is almost impossible to shield young people from questionable information; it is far better to help them learn how to evaluate it. Librarians have been in the front lines of the fight against book censorship for many years; now is the time for us to extend our concern for books to other materials. As digital material in many formats becomes more and more a part of the life of young people, we should help them to decide how to handle it rather than try to build walls around our libraries. We are all interconnected now, so we might as well get used to it.