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



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On Helping Parents Instead of Students

   April 19th, 2011 Brian Herzog

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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Loan Period: One Guilty Conscience

   January 13th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Returned DVDs with note "I'm sorry took these w/out checking them out"Over the last few years, we've noticed a rise in DVD thefts at my library. It seemed to happen in waves - once in awhile, we'd suddenly notice ten or so empty DVD cases on the shelf.

In general we're pretty relaxed at my library, and try to err on the side of good customer service. However, as the empty cases built up, staff started investigating ways to curtail the thefts.

But the kicker was that, when we ran the numbers, all of the security options we looked at (cameras, dummy cameras, security cases, a DVD jukebox, keeping DVDs behind the desk, etc.) were actually more expensive than just buying replacement DVDs. At least, this was true for the rate of theft we were seeing.

It seems counter-intuitive, and a little aggravating, but this is the route we took. The Circ staff was especially frustrated by the apparent "do nothing" approach, but we reviewed the numbers multiple times over the years, and replacement was always the cheapest option. Well, that combined stepped-up monitoring by staff.

And then something happened that no one expected: a stack of DVDs with a note attached ended up in our bookbox. Apparently, whoever had been stealing them got a conscience (or else, as one popular theory holds, his mother found them*). And then, a week later, a second stack of disks showed up.

We had been saving the empty cases all along, so re-adding them to the collection was easy. Hopefully, this trend will continue, and we'll end up with all of our DVDs back - just a couple years late. And we haven't noticed many missing lately, so the increased staff monitoring also seems to be working.

 


*Most of the DVDs that were stolen were Adam Sandler/Will Ferrell/American Pie-type movies, which implies the culprit(s) is probably high school boys.



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Free Books, not Free Hugs

   November 2nd, 2010 Brian Herzog

Free HugsYesterday afternoon, patrons suddenly started asking our Circulation staff why there was a man on our front steps holding a "Free Hugs" sign.

This was news to us, and since there were also a couple complaints, our Head of Circulation walked out and told the man that he can't do that on library property. The man, very nicely and politely, said okay and left.

It was a little strange, and got us thinking - why can't he do that? Our first thought was that it violated our "no soliciting" policy - but technically he was giving out hugs, not asking for them. We couldn't come up with a hard and fast rule that he was breaking, other than it was creeping out patrons and affecting their library use - which does violate our Appropriate Library Behavior policy.

But come on, hugs? I know libraries are open public buildings, and we need to make sure everyone feels comfortable using them. But when the free hugs guy gets banned, maybe dialing back the fear and restoring sanity isn't a bad idea.

But it gets better - a few hours later I saw this tweet:

All the news that's fit to tweet

Apparently he went from the library to the Town Center, where loads of people were out holding campaign signs (loitering?) - and someone called the cops on him for his "Free Hugs" sign.



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