December 2007


Libraries and childrenHey – look at this new report from one of my favorite research organizations, the Pew Internet and American Life Project. It’s called “Information Searches That Solve Problems.”

People were asked in a telephone survey where they would go to get answers to ten common life situations that could involve government services, such as dealing with a serious illness or going back to school. The Internet was their first choice. The results:

  • 58% of those who had recently experienced one of those problems said they used the internet (at home, work, a public library or some other place) to get help.
  • 53% said they turned to professionals such as doctors, lawyers or financial experts.
  • 45% said they sought out friends and family members for advice and help.
  • 36% said they consulted newspapers and magazines.
  • 34% said they directly contacted a government office or agency.
  • 16% said they consulted television and radio.
  • 13% said they went to the public library.

Stated this way, it doesn’t look that great for public libraries, does it? Yet the most surprising finding is which age group most frequently said it would use the library – the 18 – 29-year-olds of the so-called “Generation Y.” (Geez, I must be really not paying attention. To this baby-boomer, it seemed like Gen Y was all still in high school a year or two ago.) It’s a surprising finding for me, because I’ve heard so many times that Gen Y folks – who are so fixated on electronic tools, such as the Internet and Blackberries – aren’t using libraries.

So, as youth librarians, I think we should take credit for keeping this group involved with libraries. I mean, we worked with them for many years, showing them how great we all are. Right?

One more thing I found interesting was the last paragraph of this release, which discussed people we seldom see:

A major focus of this survey was on those with no access to the internet (23% of the population) and those with only dial-up access (13% of the population). This low-access population is poorer, older, and less well-educated than the cohort with broadband access at home or at work. They are less likely to visit government offices or libraries under any circumstances. And they are more likely to rely on television and radio for help than are high-access users.

If this study piques your curiosity, you can download a PDF version of the whole thing.

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SupermanOn the same day the story about library fines appeared in the New York Times, there was another story on the same page: “Superman Finds New Fans Among Reading Instructors.”

It’s kind of funny. As a male children’s librarian in the late 70s and 80s, I always thought (although I kept it to myself) that lots of my colleagues should have been buying comic books and having them available for the reluctant boy readers who needed something less threatening than chapter books to ease them into the more challenging stuff.

Now, of course, comics and graphic novels are huge in public libraries. But in many schools, they’re just beginning now to take comics seriously as educational tools – mostly because it’s one of the few ways to get reluctant boys children engaged during the mania for statewide testing.

I smiled as I read the following quote from the story, though, from someone who obviously never hungered for comics as a child:

Still, skeptics fret that in the wrong hands, comics could become simply a vehicle for watering down lessons.

“If you’re going to use comics in the classroom at all, which I have serious doubts about, it should be only as a motivational tool,” said Diane Ravitch, an education professor at New York University. “What teachers have to recognize is that this is only a first step.”

That’s right; we need more tough books that will make those kids sweat. Not.

(I find it interesting that although all the examples they give here are of reluctant boys, nowhere does the word “boys” appear in the story. It’s always “students” or “children”). I enjoyed this example of what’s really going on in New York public schools:

At Public School 59 in the Bronx one recent afternoon, students clustered around tables, plotting out their own comic strips at one of the Comic Book Project’s after-school programs.

At one table, Jamie Collazo’s and his friends’ faces lit up when asked about their favorite activity: video games like Ultimate Spider-Man, Super Smash Bros. and Wolverine’s Revenge.

“I’m a game freak,” exclaimed Jamie, 11, saying that this was “when you collect a lot of games and you can’t stop playing them.” Reading, he said, “is kind of boring to me.”

But there he was, brainstorming a tale of three powerful gods who land on Nerainis, a planet between Neptune and Uranus.

Gabriel Cid, 10, agreed that “reading is kind of boring,” but said comics were different.

And that, my friends, is the extremely cool secret – for these kids, comics are not reading. They’re way too great to be merely something adults want you to do. We need to be working harder to take advantage of that.

Books can be cool as well – but we need to be presenting them correctly. We need (yeah, yeah, you’ve heard this before from me) doing more live commercials – I mean booktalking – in the schools for kids in grades 3 – 8. We need to figure out how to get more adults to read aloud to kids in those grades. And more projects like the Comic Book Project described in this story wouldn’t hurt either.

Web Junction logoBack in the early days of this blog I mentioned the site for the Spanish Language Outreach Program (a program that wisely – chuckle chuckle – does not use its acronym) on Web Junction’s site. I’m mentioning it again not to chuckle (sorry), but because there’s a good discussion going on on one of the site’s discussion groups called “Spanish Picture Books for Storytime” that should be of interest to anyone with a sizable number of Spanish-speaking families with young children among the folks they serve.

If you poke through these messages, you’ll see that several people presenting Spanish picture books in their storytimes are finding them often too wordy for their young audiences, and they’re looking for some briefer, punchier titles. If you have questions about storytimes in Spanish, or with some Spanish mixed in, think about joining the group.

Plus, why not put serendipity to work and do some strolling around the site? There are descriptions of several programs, such as family storytimes, that may be perfect for your community.

Libraries and childrenLibrary fines are one of the most stereotypical bugaboos in public-library land. If we pressure our customers over them too much, we can push ourselves into the repressed-librarian-stereotype zone. If we forgive everyone their sins, our bosses aren’t happy.

Whenever I give a classroom of kids a tour of the library, I always gesture around the children’s area expansively and tell students that:

“Everything you see here – the books, the videos, the computers – belongs to all of us. Your parents paid taxes so we could have them for you, and we all share them. You can check them out for free, but you have to remember to bring them back. If you don’t – BUZZ – you have to pay a fine. I don’t know why they call it a fine, because nobody I know thinks it’s fine to have to pay one. We people in the library hate charging people fines, but you know what?

“Unless we do, lots of people will say, ‘Ehh – I’ll bring that stuff back to the library when I get around to it.’ But once they have to pay some money every day – it’s a funny thing – people start bringing those books and DVDs in a lot faster.”

(Sorry – forgive my jokey style – but you get the point.) All of this leads up to…

Expressing surprise over the fact that the Queens Public Library will refer long-standing unpaid fines and unreturned books on users’ accounts to a collection agency, a story in today’s New York Times is titled “Late Library Books Can Take Toll on Credit Scores.” The story begins:

Librarians in Queens do not like to talk about the scofflaws who rack up fines for late books. They prefer to call them “clients” or “patrons” who owe “extended-use fees.” Competing against a tide of video games and cable shows, they are loath to scare away anyone who wants to read.

But their patience has limits. When provoked, they play hardball.

The story goes on to say that by using a collection agency, they’ve brought in an extra $11.4 million. But a “scofflaw” rabbi in the Rockaway area of Queens whose fines had mounted to $295 was so incensed about having his credit rating damaged that he is suing the library.

The story also mentions that the Queens Library has a “Read Down Your Fees” program for young people under 17; they can earn $1 per half hour (not an hour, as the story says) by reading in the library under the staff’s supervision. “During the last fiscal year,” the story says, “16,612 children were forgiven $24,734 in fines through the program.” (Which, um, means that the average kid who participated had $1.49 forgiven – not a huge amount, but the library’s trying to do the right thing, at least.)

I’m always glad to see libraries not too fixated on fines for kids. I’m sure you’ve noticed how, in popular-culture portrayals of librarians, there’s always some kind of reference to librarians as repressed shushers, obsessing over fines. We in libraries now must continue to do our duty to 1) not be repressed (i.e., don’t be afraid to be spontaneous, sing, dance, and tell jokes); 2) not give our users too hard a time about quieting down, and 3) forgive fines whenever appropriate, especially when kids and parents are involved. Deciding when to enforce and when to say “no problem, of course!” can be a fine balance – it’s like standing barefoot on the edge of a razor sometimes – but I think we all want this generation of kids to grow up bearing good thoughts about libraries and librarians.

Wikipedia logoShould students be using Wikipedia as a “reliable source” for their papers? Many do, and these days it seems to depend on what their teachers will accept, although not all students are certain it’s reliable. (Here’s an article on the topic from Seth Godin’s blog, and here’s the question asked on good old Yahoo! Answers.)

On Dec. 7 (I’m not sure how I missed this earlier, but oh, well), the BBC said that Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia‘s founder, told those in attendance at the Online Information conference in London that students of high school age and younger should be able to use the online encyclopedia as a resource. The BBC’s Alistair Coleman reported:

Mr Wales said the site, which is edited by users, should be seen as a “stepping stone” to other sources.

As long as an article included accurate citations, he said he had “no problem” with it being used as a reference for younger students, although academics would “probably be better off doing their own research.”

“You can ban kids from listening to rock ‘n’ roll music, but they’re going to anyway,” he added. “It’s the same with information, and it’s a bad educator that bans their students from reading Wikipedia.”

Somehow Wales’s logic in that last sentence seems puzzling. Although I’m not a teacher, I wouldn’t have problems with students using Wikipedia as part of their research. But I would have problems with students using it as their only resource on the topic of a paper – and you know that plenty of them will do just that. 

I also think that students should be educated in how Wikipedia is created and edited by a mixture of scholars and just plain folks who can post things that aren’t necessarily true.

But if you’ve read a Wikipedia article recently, you will see that statements presented as facts without a source are now marked as such in many articles. I think that Wikipedia can teach kids about the process of scholarship. And I still think that students should verify their facts in another source, such as the Britannica or World Book, whether it’s the online version or the version you can knock your knuckles on.

LittLe Mommy Golden BookYou know how it is with the Web – you end up traveling around from link to link, until you find something fun. It’s serendipity at work. This afternoon I ended up at the BookFinder.com Report for August 2007, which includes a list of the Top Ten Lists of used books in demand in various genres.

Of course, I scrolled down to the list of children’s books, to be greeted with ten titles I wasn’t familiar with. Number One on the list is Lion’s Paw by Robb White, about two orphans’ adventures on a boat during World War II. The least expensive copy is going for about $200 on Amazon. 

Number Two is The Pink Dress by Anne Alexander (Doubleday, 1959), which looks like a pretty standard teen romance – but copies are selling for over $200 on Amazon. 

Number Three is Little Mommy by Sharon Kane. There aren’t any copies in the New York Public Library catalog, and I found out why once I looked at Amazon – it’s one of those classic Little Golden Books of baby-boomer childhoods past. Amazon’s description of the book includes:

THE “LITTLE MOMMY” in this story is an adorable little girl. We spend the day in her charming company as she cares for her dolls, treats their ills, gives them a tea party, feeds them dinner, and puts them to bed.

I’d never heard of it. But I guess that’s because at about the time this one came out, in the early 60s, I was a little boy who loved my plastic dinosaurs and Tonka trucks, and would have taken one look at this book and said, “Uck.” But Little Mommy‘s so popular these days that it’s going to be released again in April 2008.

So I guess that collecting obscure children’s books can be profitable – as long as you know which ones to keep. It appears that the famous ones – the ones that win awards – aren’t the ones. Instead, keep the ones that everyone else wears out and throws away.

Copyright symbolRight after I posted about the Junior Achievement survey yesterday on the shaky ethics of many teens, I discovered an article by technology writer David Pogue in the New York Times about young people (in his case college students) and their disdain for following copyright law.

In it, Pogue describes some talks he’s given in which he tries to demonstrate how the ways people in which use of the products of digital arts and entertainment lead to some slippery personal definitions of when one is breaking copyright law. With people over 30, some will feel that if you rent a DVD from Blockbuster and make a copy, that’s breaking the law, and others won’t. But when he spoke recently at a college, almost no one thought that making copies of digital movies and music was a bad thing.

He claimed amazement (although I know Pogue can’t be that naive), and concluded:

I don’t pretend to know what the solution to the file-sharing issue is. (Although I’m increasingly convinced that copy protection isn’t it.)

I do know, though, that the TV, movie and record companies’ problems have only just begun. Right now, the customers who can’t even *see* why file sharing might be wrong are still young. But 10, 20, 30 years from now, that crowd will be *everybody*. What will happen then?

Following up yesterday’s survey, it does make for an interesting question. But keep in mind a wry comment from that mistress of wry comments, Dr. Ruth Gordon, a longtime school librarian and ALSC member, who commented about this issue on the ALSC-L listserv:

I spent a great deal of time trying to explain copyright law to teachers and told them about some really interesting – and expensive – cases in the courts.  I posted copyright rules in the simplest language possible on each reprograph machine.  Some listened and read; others could not have cared less…. No–nothing new under the sun and if we go back to the history of printing we’ll find one person happily stealing – and selling – the work of others.  In fact, I am sure someone stole the artistic ideas from Lascaux and sold them to an interior decorator in the late stone age.

Do I believe that copyright is going to die permanently? No. And I, like Pogue, certainly don’t believe that copy protection is the answer; there’ll always be someone clever who will find a way to defeat it. But I do feel that any of us librarians who can explain why copyright exists should take whatever opportunities we can to let kids and teens know why we need it.

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