or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

On Helping Parents Instead of Students

   April 19th, 2011

Parents with studentToday's post is a response to an email I received (thanks, Amber). She said she just started working in a public library again, and asked if I had any advice on helping parents when they are looking for resources for their child's homework. This happens often enough that I've actually written it into our reference policy.

The best-case scenario is when the parent comes in with the student, and I always try to engage the student as much as possible. After all, it's the student that knows what their assignment is and what kind of information they need - not to mention I am trying to teach them research skills at the same time.

The situation that can be the most difficult is when the parent comes in alone. It is certainly a good thing to have a parent involved in their child's education, but more often than not, I get the distinct impression that the parent is just doing the child's homework for them - which makes me uncomfortable.

Here are some of the tactics I use any time an adult asks for information on the underground railroad, or the Black Plague, or a very specific animal, etc:

  • Ask them if this is for them or for a homework assignment
    Rarely do people let you know right away that their question is for their child's homework assignment, but the quicker you know where you stand, the better
  • Ask if they have the homework assignment with them
    Maybe one person in a hundred actually does, but it can help a lot. For awhile the school library staff were emailing us assignments as they got them from the teachers, but this dropped off after they had staff cuts
  • Ask how much and what type of information is required, and the nature and length of the project
    If they don't have the homework assignment with them, this is the next best thing - but it's still rare that a parent would know very many details. However, sometimes they know that they need just two books*, or that they need photographs, or that the project is a three paragraph biography, etc. Whatever they can tell you will help, because there's a big difference between a five page paper and a poster.

    I also use this question to try to limit the amount of books the parent takes - some parents just want to take every single book they can find on the topic, and let the child sift through them once they get home. This is bad because often more than one student has the same topic, so if the parent says they need just two books, I try to hold them to that to leave resources for other kids

  • Ask for the age/grade of the student
    Obviously this is important in selecting the most appropriate resources, but also tells me right away if adult or teen resources are even applicable, or if I should refer them to the Children's Room
  • Ask when the assignment is due
    The answer to this is usually "tomorrow," but not always. This is especially helpful to know if I'm having trouble finding books on the topic - if the project isn't due for a week or so, that opens up the option of requesting books from other libraries. If there isn't time for that, I do remind patrons that they can drive to other libraries and pick up materials there (thanks to being in a consortium)
  • Give them our guide to accessing databases from home
    Also very helpful when I'm having trouble locating resources in the library, but this of course is limited to people who have internet access at home. I always give my speech about how databases are not an "internet source," and also write down the specific name of the databases that will help. If there is time, I show the parent how to search the database and that there is relevant information - and if we get this far, I always email one of the articles we find to them from the database, to remind them when they get home to use it
  • Tell them to have the student call or come in if they need more help or have questions
    Of course, it is ideal to work directly with the student, even if it's just on the phone. Sometimes students come in the next day after school, but I have had kids call later that night after their parents got home, asking where in the books they brought home is the information they need. I walk them through using the book's index and table of contents, and that is often enough to get them started

I'm curious to find out what other tactics are useful for this situation - it's something we face all the time, so please share your success stories in the comments.


*The absolute worse-case scenario, but one I've been seeing more and more, is when the project is already done and they just need a book source for the bibliography. Generally this confession comes from the student rather than the parent, but I probably hear this once or twice a month. I mentioned this to a middle school teacher who tutors a lot in the library, and she was shocked - enough that she said she'd bring it up at the next curriculum meeting.

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7 Responses to “On Helping Parents Instead of Students”

  1. Elizabeth Says:

    “*The absolute worse-case scenario, but one I’ve been seeing more and more, is when the project is already done and they just need a book source for the bibliography.”

    I work in a library at an urban community college, and I run into this situation at least once a week (not that the students always confess, but I can usually tell). I am one of four librarians who regularly work with students at the desk.

    I think it reflects a trend in the teaching of writing toward simply putting words on the page, and not worrying about where that information comes from. Some of our developmental English classes don’t even require one source in their short essays.

    As a librarian, I am not sure how to correct this. But clearly it’s a problem with deeper roots than I thought if you’re seeing it at the middle school level. Very worrisome.

  2. Marianne Says:

    Parents doing their kid’s homework is always discouraging, but I won’t ever forget the time an elderly woman, struggling with a cane, asked for my assistance with the copier. She needed to copy the want ads for her fifty-something-year-old son who had lost his job as a school administrator!

  3. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Elizabeth: the only thing I can think of is to make kids document their project each step of the way – that way, they can go back afterward for book sources. But rigid timelines don’t work for all students. And the Northwest Tree Octopus can only go so far.

    @Marianne: that is sad on many levels. But you’re right, it’s not just parents/kids, it’s also grandparents, adult/adult, etc – lots of variations in one person doing another’s work for them.

  4. Heather Booth Says:

    I think your steps are great. I sometimes have the parent call the student while in the library in order to clarify requirements. And when giving contact info, be sure to relay any email address, Facebook contact, or other digital method for the student to communicate with the library.

    We are see the documenting backwards epidemic a lot lately too. I think it’s a complicated problem. Many of the teachers I’ve talked to have a very specific way they are asking the kids to take notes and research, have deadlines for specific parts of the project, have requirements about what kinds of sources they can use and how to *prove* they used these sources (ie – notes and a citation from a reference book is not enough: they must bring the book in to class, which limits other students’ access). They don’t have enough time in the school day to let the kids use the school library, and they’re so overbooked after school that they rarely seem to make it in to the public library before their citations are due. Until research instruction becomes more of a priority in our educational system as a whole, I think it’s only going to get worse.

    @Marianne, I’ve also worked with parents of teachers who come in doing their “kids'” work. It’s very frustrating. And illuminating.

  5. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Heather: I like the idea of having the parent call the child for more information – I’ll keep that in mind. And I think you’re right about teaching research – if the kids are left to fend for themselves, they’ll do whatever they need to to get by, just like anyone else. I don’t know what teachers can do about it, aside from the benchmarks like you mentioned. Well, that and making more time during the school day for them to actually do actual research.

  6. Cari Says:

    I have started making the assumption that the person is asking because they are doing their own paper. That gets them changing their tune very quickly when they realize I am directing them to college-level resources for their fifth-grader! It’s sneaky, but it helps me figure out how to proceed. And since we have a lot of adult students, a lot of times my assumption is simply correct and I’m able to work from there, too!

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