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

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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Library Investigation

   July 16th, 2008 Brian Herzog

WHDH-7 logoOne of the local television stations in Boston, WHDH 7, just aired an investigative story into libraries:

Theaters and video stores usually require an age of 17 or older to see or rent an R-Rated release, unless there is parental permission. But something altogether different is going on in some local libraries. 7News' Jonathan Hall investigates.

Read the transcript, or watch the video.

This is similar to the situation we had here a little while ago (except without the undercover investigators), which prompted us to put label ratings on VHS and DVDs when possible. And it looks like the Boston Public Library, "in line with American Library Association guidelines," is on the same page as us.

Libraries do not raise children, we provide access to information. Parents raise children, and we do what we can to support that need - while at the same time supporting the informational and educational needs of everyone else in the community.

I found this news report interesting, but a bit sensationalized. I'm sure as long as there are parents and children (and news outlets in need of ratings), issues like this will never die.

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Libraries and Parents and Children

   July 26th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Movie poster for 'Thirteen'We recently have been faced with an interesting problem in my library. On the surface it seemed like a pretty simple issue, but the more we thought about it, the more complex it became.

The Situation
A mother came in and said that she had found the movie "Thirteen" (Official Website, IMDb, Wikipedia) in her (thirteen year old) daughter's room. It was overdue, which means that she must have had it for weeks. It also means that we checked out an R-rated movie to an underage child.

The mother was angry that her child could have checked out such a movie, and didn't understand why the library wasn't enforcing the MPAA movie ratings.

One unusual twist in the story is that the woman wasn't directly challenging the movie being in the library's collection (which is usually the case). She understood that it is a movie people in the community might want to see. She was just upset that her daughter was able to check it out, since the mother had seen this movie and felt it was particularly graphic and inappropriate for her young daughter.

As librarians, our collective first response was the party line: we do not censor materials, we don't tell people what they can and can't check out (based on content, anyway), and library staff certainly can't keep track of what every parent in the community allows their particular children to do. Besides, no matter we may do at the desk, kids can use the self check-out machines and we'd never know.

However, none of us felt that this answer was good enough. Yes, all of it is true, but it also felt like a cop-out. We wanted there to be something we could do, rather than just throwing up our hands and telling parents they're on their own. So, we brainstormed what could be done, and came up with options:

1. Regulate Materials Based on Item/Patron Type
We felt that there must be a way within our ILS [?] to make certain types of borrowers unable to check out certain library materials. We use SirsiDynix Horizon 7.3, and we already use Item Type codes to differentiate between feature films, documentaries, kids DVDs, audio books, fiction books, etc. Horizon also allows different borrower types. We thought that we could let parents choose to give their children a "child" card, which would prevent them from checking out anything with the Item Type for R-rated movies.

Unfortunately, after checking with our system administrator, we found that Horizon does not compare these two codes, and so this idea would not work with the Horizon software. There is a "birth date" field, which we have never used, and we're not sure if Horizon can block certain Item Types based on birth date, either.

2. Create a Separate "Adult" Video Collection
Another idea was for us to shelve any R-rated (or unrated) feature film separately from the rest of the films. This way, at least, a parent can tell their children they are not allowed to check out "adult" videos (we called it "adult" for lack of a better word. We thought about "Mature," but then had a hard time calling something like Jackass "mature"), and it would be up to the kids to obey their parents.

The drawback in this situation, apart from the snickers at the library having "adult" videos, is that it makes browsing for movies more difficult for all the other library patrons. Now, instead of having to look in two places for a movie for tonight (regular videos and also in the Children's room), they'd have to look in three places. Plus, there's the inadvertent stigma for people being seen browsing the "Adult" collection. We didn't want a solution to one problem to create new problems for other patrons.

Another issue with separate collections is that, years ago (I'm told), a nearby library was successfully sued by the ACLU for not allowing children into an adult reading room in the library. In that case, the library wanted to keep kids out to give adults a quiet place to read, but the ACLU said that the library could not discriminate based on age in this way (oddly, many libraries have a similar policy to keep adult males without kids out of the Childrens Room, but I don't think any of them have ever been sued over it). So, we couldn't use a method that barred kids from an area of the library.

3. Label Movies Clearly with Ratings Stickers
Since we didn't want to shelve these movies separately, another idea was to keep them all interfiled, but to put rating stickers on the movies. That way, parents can still tell their kids that they can only check out movies with certain stickers on them.

This seemed to be a good option, but it also puts the Library in the position of possibly judging the content of the material. It really isn't up to us to decide what's "mature" or "family" and what's not, because it's a subjective decision and people will disagree on it. MPAA ratings are not exactly definite indicators either, but at least they are a recognized "standard."

Something interesting I learned through all of this that MPAA ratings are just guidelines and not legally-binding in any way. The mother in this case thought that we were breaking the law by letting underage children check out R-rated movies, but there actually is no law that says this. Movie theaters that enforce age limits based on ratings are doing it of their own accord, not because they have to.

In addition to stickers indicating ratings, we also talked about putting stickers on the movies marking them as "comedy," drama," "horror," etc., as we already do for many books. Of course, DVD cases are so small that the stickers necessarily need to be small, too. Also, more than two or three stickers will looked cluttered and hard to read, which would be counter-productive.

Another concern with starting a labeling program, as I see it, is in knowing where to stop. If we do start labeling movies, and parents successfully use this, it's really not much of a leap for them to want us to put rating labels on books, too (because we certainly have some that some parents might not want their kids reading). And from there it's just a short hop to internet filtering, so although well-intended, even this is a slippery slope.

The argument in support of labeling said that DVDs are different than books. When reading a graphic book, your own imagination plays a large part in how disturbing the book can be. Also, reading a book is a solitary event, and the read can put them down at any time. When watching a movie though, very little is left to the imagination - once something very graphic is flashed on the screen, it'll be in your head whether you are ready or not. Also, kids watching naughty movies is usually a group event. So, one kid, even if they know they're uncomfortable and want to stop watching, might not be able to stop because of peer pressure and not wanting to look scared.

4. Start a Viewers Advisory Program
We already have a few Readers/Listeners Advisory stations in the library. These computers are dedicated to this purpose, and so do not go out to the general internet. Instead, patrons can use them to access our catalog, recently-added books (using the Delicious Library software), NoveList, and iTunes (to listen to music before they decide to check out the CD). Also, we create printed reading guides for various subjects and authors that are available in the library, as well as having a Reading Room webpage.

Our thought was to do the same thing with movies. We could add movie review related resources to these stations (such as Common Sense Media, Rotten Tomatoes, Kids-In-Mind, Yahoo's Movie Mom), as well as creating and printing viewing suggestion guides, such as "Family Movies," "Movies for Girls," etc.

Where We Are Now
At the moment, nothing has been finalized. Since this is a pretty big issue, we wanted to make sure whatever we choose will be useful to parents, but won't interfere with other patrons' use of the library. I think we're leaning towards a mix of options 3 and 4, but the exact outcome depends on what is actually available to us, and how much extra work the Technical Services department can handle in the processing of new movies.

The bottom line for us is that we don't want to be making choices for patrons, nor do we have the staff or mandate to enforce parenting decisions on a child-by-child basis. But what we can do, what we can use our librarian expertise to do, is provide parents with tools and information to raise their own children the way they want to.

Of course, knowing how I was as a kid, it probably doesn't matter. If there was something I wanted to do, I'd continually look for a loophole or a way to accomplish it, regardless of what my parents or the library said.

challenge, challenges, children, dvds, libraries, library, material challenge, materials challenges, movies, parents, patron challenge, patron challenges, public libraries, public library, rating, ratings

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Web 1.9999999…

   November 30th, 2006 Brian Herzog

In an effort to cater to the Long Tail patrons who are still unfamiliar with internety things, my library is holding a program tonight called Joys & pitfalls of social networking software.

It is really geared towards parents who are concerned for their childrens' safety on the internet. Our thinking is that if we can educate parents about Web 2.0 tools and how they are used, they will, 1) be more comfortable with their kids using them, and, 2) be able to use them themselves to interact with friends, peers - and their own children - through them.

Our program will be presented in three acts. First, our Director will talk very generally about internet trends, citing statistics, as well as library policy regarding internet use. Next, our YA Librarian will mention what teens do on the internet (myspace, IM, etc), and provide tips on how they can do it safely. Finally, I'll bring up the rear by going more in-depth with popular Web 2.0 websites. So far, only the list of websites I'm going to address is online, but I hope to have the entire thing available soon.

internet safety, library, parents, programs, social networking, social software, technology, teens, web 2.0

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