Great resources on seeking online information

Joyce Valenza at School Library Journal just posted a great set of resources for teacher librarians. I thought some of them would also be of interest to teachers in other subjects.

(The one I hadn’t known about at all were Google’s search options, including the wheel of topics.)

Links of recent interest:

– Amazon is changing how their data can be used – LibraryThing has an excellent writeup on how it affects their uses, and what they’re doing that includes commentary on other possible implications.

Infloox is a new service that helps you see (and create) connections between something (person, place, book, event, whatever) and things that influence them.

– The US Government has a lovely site at As they say: “The purpose of is to increase public access to high value, machine readable datasets generated by the Executive Branch of the Federal Government”

– A recent science fiction anthology that avoids any works by either authors of color or women has produced a lot of commentary – and some great resources. K. Tempest Bradford pulled together some excellent resources on the issue, and on mindblowing works and other reading at (a general site for discussion within the SF community.) Check out the comments for other great resources.

A matter of books

A couple of people have asked for my opinion of today’s article about Cushing Academy (a small prep school in western Massachusetts) getting rid the books in their library. (other news stories about this likely to show up here…)

I do, of course, have thoughts. But I’ve also got some “What are you *thinking*?!” thoughts that go beyond the books.

Quick background:
I work at an independent day school serving grades 9-12. We have around 520 students this year (compared to Cushing Academy’s 445 or so, based on some quick searches of boarding school information sites.)

Our library has:

– 15,000 items
– 11,000 books or so (the rest are videos, DVDs, posters, art prints, or technology.)
– about 1,500 of those books are fiction. The rest are non-fiction selected to support classwork and research, as well as reading for personal interest.
– we make about 150-300 interlibrary loan requests each year for deep research projects that go beyond our resources – serious academic texts, mostly. The batch I did today were for books on fractal geometry and its impact on cancer cell growth, for example. Not topics in your typical school library.)

(Incidentally, the size of our library is generally considered very solid for a school of our size: stats of this kind are usually measured in books per student. Our ratio comes out to about 22 books per student, which is quite respectable, though I’d like to get it a bit higher in the next couple of years. 20,000 books in a school of Cushing’s size is therefore also quite respectable. No, it’s not university library material. But it’s also not a university, nor does it have that kind of population density . )

We live in a metropolitan area with some great libraries. The Hennepin and Minneapolis systems are on the tail end of a merger: most of our students live in the now combined library system, which has, as their website says, “Forty-one libraries. More than 5 million books, CDs and DVDs in 40 world languages”

In other words, our students are not short on other options for print materials. And yet, we still maintain that these books are critical resources.

1) The problem of books

I read, on average, a book a day. (Some weeks, less. Some weeks, more). That doesn’t include my online reading, which can be substantial. Obviously, there’s almost no way my budget – or my home bookshelves – are going to keep up with that. A Kindle or other electronic reader (and I’m thinking an iPod touch is in my future sometime this year) helps with the shelf space, but not the pretty substantial cost of new books, even electronically.

I read a bunch of my workplace’s collection. But I also do a thriving trade at my local library: I’m in there at least once a week, and never walk out with less than 5 books. (I sometimes don’t get to all of them before they’re due back, but I do read most of them.) I find all sorts of cool things by random browsing, along with the specific books I request.

I want to create that same experience – albeit in minature – for the students I work with. The chance “Hey, this looks cool” moment as you’re looking for something else. Or walk by a display. Or the chance “Oh, you’re interested in Y? Stop by, we’ve got something on that…” conversations over lunch

2) 18 Kindles? In a school of 440-odd students?

What, you want only some of them to read? Don’t get me wrong, I love my laptop (my ‘yay, stable job’ present last spring) And I read a lot on it. But it is not the most convenient thing to read before I fall asleep. I can’t prop it up while stirring soup on the stove. (Well, not safely.) And I’m really not reading it in the bathtub.

A Kindle (or a Sony Reader, or an iPod Touch, or whatever other reader of choice) helps some of that. But not quite all of it, even so. And it *really* doesn’t help if you’ve got only one per every 24 or 25 students.Yes, some students would maybe buy their own – but then we’re back to expenses to pay for new books, at least on the current ebook models. (for current materials, as opposed to classics and other freely distributed ones.)

3) And what’s this about taking out the reference desk?

People who know my workplace will now be amused, because one of the things I did this summer was take out the huge standing height L shaped reference desk (12 feet of counter space, at least.)

But it got replaced with a regular desk-height desk, with chairs and a computer and various other useful tools (pens, pencils, scissors, etc.) so that students can stop by and chat. I’m not actually seeing a huge number of changes in how many conversations I’m having from last year (when I was much more often in the office) based on this week’s stats. But I am enjoying having the very quick interactions as people wander by.

And I am really loving the casual conversations – we’ve had several times faculty have pulled up a chair, or co-workers in the media center will pull up what they’re working on, and I learn things in the process. Never a bad thing, that serendipitous learning.

4) The question of circulation:

I’m also really curious about the circulation stats quoted in the article, because it’s unclearly written. (I’m sure they don’t mean 48 books that day, which would be really good circulation in a school that size.) That month, no. That semester, no. That year, really no.

When they say ‘children’s books’, do they mean young adult novels? (A great choice, and especially in a school that prides itself on a high international student percentage, which means that English is probably a second (or third, or fourth) language). Good YA books are particularly great breaks in the middle of a lot of academic reading, in my experience. Or do they mean books aimed at younger children (we have a few – mostly Dr. Seuss books and a few fairy tales and fables that we also have in Spanish or French.)

But I can tell you that – even in this first week of school – I’ve checked out at least 14 books to students for pleasure reading. That’s a bit high for us (the numbers will come down once homework is in full swing), but I’m quite pleased.

How do we do it? Some of it’s having devoted readers: they come in, beeline for the stuff they’re interested in, and grab a few other things that look interesting. I do my best to buy stuff that will intrigue them, and talk about what they’re looking for, and all that.

But some of it is buying interesting things, and putting them out on display so that people will poke at them. Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, or the Shadow Divers book (finding a WWII German submarine: it’s a fascinating book that combines history, extremely deep technical diving), or Stiff: The Secret Life of Human Cadavers, or graphic novels, or all sorts of other things that have intriguing titles, covers, or topics.

There are ways to encourage reading (and reading for pleasure) in all formats. But it’s also important to remember what the stats tell us. Lack of stats doesn’t always mean people aren’t using the books. (Depends on which stats you keep.) Often, books may be used in the library. Often, they’ll get pulled off the shelf, looked at briefly for a specific issue, and put back. Sometimes someone won’t want the distraction of checking it out – but will read it, in pieces, every time they’re in the library for study hall. And sometimes, things just don’t get checked out, for whatever reason.  Again, without more details than this article gives, it’s hard to tell what happened here.

I suspect it’s more complicated than “none of the books were getting used.”  And that means the answers should – in any setting that values reason, research, and good information practice – mean going deeper.

Other links and discussions that might be of interest:

– Discussion from Jessamyn West (librarian and deeply interested in integrating technology into libraries.)

– Thread discussing the article on Metafilter

Thinking about all-the-time access

I spent my afternoon in a 3 hour discussion of social media, education, and one-to-one laptop use – presentation given and facilitated by Scott McLeod, as part of my school’s workshop week.(He blogs at Dangerously Irrelevant, now added to my RSS feed along with a number of others.)

I was pleased to find that I had, in fact, read most of the major books he mentioned (though I’ve now put a bunch of them into our current book order, so other people can read them.) His list of recommended reading and viewing for us is here and includes a link to his PowerPoint.

I found a couple of things particularly interesting:

– The Internet Revolution video he showed us is a really great and specific summary of some of the changes that social media tools have brought to this generation of students. (My favorite fact: the computer in our cell phones is about as powerful as the computer that sent us to the Moon in the 60s.)

– There were three of us using our computers to take notes and do other things that deepened our understanding of the material. All of us are under 40. (Me, our new assistant in the library, and one of our grade deans.)

Me, I have a lovely set of notes, and I also got to add books to our book order on the fly. It’s a small thing, but it means it’s one less task I have to remember to do later, and it made for  a much more organic feel. (I also did a couple of quick terminology/technical term look-ups on the fly, for things that were somewhat unfamiliar to me.)

– It was my first workshop week with a personal laptop (and mine actually is personal: my school computer is a desktop for reasons I’m hoping to remove the necessity for this year, namely access to our cataloging software)

I’ve been a earlyish adopter of a lot of technology (not cutting edge, but on the early side of the broad adoption range for technologies I actually use). Two computers ago, I had a laptop, but wireless access was not widespread, so it was mostly useful for writing/taking notes in other place. The next computer was a desktop, and the current laptop, I’ve had since May. I’m amazed at how much it makes my life easier – and all the ways I hadn’t even really thought about.

I want to write more about them in future, but here’s a few:
– time and task management
– storing notes and having access to them anywhere.
– being able to store information in formats that work best for me. (I’m using a rather specific combo of programs.)

One thing I got to thinking about in the presentation (and a post for another time in any depth) is how we teach how to find the good stuff (however we define that) in a world of increasing demands for attention. I’ve been checking my various online spaces between the end of the day and an after-work meeting, and got linked to an interesting discussion of this by Elizabeth Bear, who is an author herself: see her blog for her link and some commentary. (I’m linking there rather than the original because I suspect her blog will get some interesting comments on it too.)

Some of my favorite microhistories

The fastest way to get me to post something is usually to ask me a question – and one of my IS colleagues did so earlier today. He asked if I had favorite microhistories I wanted to share.

First, a brief definition: microhistories are small pieces of a big idea, basically. Generally, they’re about a given topic (salt, color, honey, chocolate, cod, whatever.) throughout history. They tend to cover ideas and experiences from a wide range of places and times, and one of the things I love about them is all the new areas and ideas I find myself interested in after I read them. Some of them are weird topics, but odd little bits of what makes the world go often make really good microhistories, I’ve found.

You can find some other general lists here: . Below are a few of my favorites: (I used for the publication info, so these are also sorted in alphabetical order.)

Abbott, Elizabeth. A History of Celibacy. New York: Da Capo, 2001.
Yes, an odd topic – but it’s a look at the power of relationships in history, oddly enough: for a lot of recorded time, celibacy gave people options in their lives that they wouldn’t otherwise have had. That’s particularly true for women, but also in other settings. This is one of those books where every 2-3 pages is a different topic, and I continue to dive deeper into other areas as I get a chance.

Almond, Steve. Candyfreak: A Journey through the Chocolate Underbelly of America (Harvest Book). New York: Harvest Books, 2005.
A great look at a bunch of mostly-forgotten or highly-regional candies: funny, thoughtful, and fascinating.

Anelli, Melissa. Harry, A History: The True Story of a Boy Wizard, His Fans, and Life Inside the Harry Potter Phenomenon. New York: Pocket, 2008.
About Harry Potter and Potter fandom – from someone heavily involved in one of the main fan websites. Again, fascinating for a look inside a particular community and culture, and also (at least to me) entertaining in writing style.

Bishop, Holley. Robbing the Bees: A Biography of Honey–The Sweet Liquid Gold that Seduced the World. New York City: Free Press, 2006.
All about honey.

Brenner, Joël Glenn. The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars. New York City: Broadway, 2000.
A fascinating look at the two largest US chocolate companies at the time. Willy Wonka is not as far off (in terms of industrial spying, etc.) as you’d think – and some of the other factors in companies run by founders with extremely strong personalities and desires make this a fascinating read.

Finlay, Victoria. Color: A Natural History of the Palette. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2003.
One of my favorites on this list, this is a look at color. Finlay divides the book up into chapter by color, starting with black and brown, and working through red, green, yellow, and so on. She goes from the lapis lazuli mines of Afghanistan to the question of arsenic green (and whether it’s what caused Napoleon’s death.) Lots of fun and also very informative.

Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.New York: Back Bay Books, 2007.
Maybe not technically a microhistory, but it reads a lot like one. Gladwell always gets me thinking, too.

Kurlansky, Mark. Salt: A World History. Boston: Penguin (Non-Classics), 2003. One of the earliest and best-known microhistories (also, a great audio book), Kurlansky has also written about cod, and the Basque history of the world (among others.)

Lee, Jennifer 8. The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food. New York: Twelve, 2009. I haven’t actually read all of this one yet, just the first chapter, but it’s a funny and thoughtful look at the history of Chinese food in America.

Roach, Mary. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002. All about what happens to people’s bodies after they die and donate their bodies to science – there are a lot more options than you think. What made Roach’s book a best-seller is that despite the topic, she’s caring, and thoughtful about what she finds out, and shares it in a spirit of learning and understanding, rather than poking fun or in horror.

Getting started for the year again

Really, I hope to keep up with posting for the year, and I got a jumpstart from a request from a coworker.

First, though, I thought I’d share a couple of photos of the newly rearranged library: in the last week, my assistant and I have moved every book in the collection. (Sometimes more than once, due to needing to move it to temporary locations like the top of the table before the shelves were moved.)

the upper school library

the upper school library

I’m really pleased with the flow and light and all those other intangibles of setting up a space.

Behind on updates!

The last few weeks have felt very hectic – but for very good reason. I found out on April 17th that I will be Blake’s Teacher Librarian next year (after several months of formal searching.)

I’d been serving as the interim librarian since January, so this is not a huge change in some ways – but it’s lovely to finally be able to say “Next year!” (and look at both immediate and long-term plans.) And of course, now, I’m deeply engrossed in figuring out what next year should look like. (I’d been thinking about this all along, but not able to do a lot of the details.)

I am continuing to bake cookies for faculty on Thursdays (and they continue to be popular!)

Today’s are another variant on the Slice and Bake Cookie Palette recipe from the Smitten Kitchen, but I made some adjustments that have been going over very well.

  • 2 sticks butter
  • 2/3 cup confectioner’s sugar
  • pinch salt
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 4 tsps orange extract
  • 3 tsps vanilla extract
  • about 1 3/4 cups flour

Cream the butter and sugar together (butter at room temperature), add the salt, egg yolks, and extract, and cream together further. Mix in the flour (the recipe calls for 2 cups: I used a bit less, as you can see.)

I chilled the dough for about half an hour, and then formed little (tspish sized balls) and rolled them in a mix of granulated sugar and cardamom and baked for about 10 minutes at 350 F. The end result is a cakey-melt-in-the-mouth happy thing.

They’ve been a big hit so far – a couple of people have gotten as far as the library door, and then circled back for another one, which always makes me grin.