Hi, this is Circulating Ideas, the librarian interview podcast hosted by me, Steve Thomas. My guest today is Wendy Stephens. She’s a librarian at Coleman High School. She blogs at wendyontheweb.blogspot.com and you can follow her on Twitter @wsstephens.
Wendy, thank you for being on the show with me today.
Oh thank you for the kind invitation, Steve, I’m just thrilled to get to devote this time to talking and thinking about library issues.
Yeah and I wanted to do kind of a, for August/Septemberish, I wanted to have a school librarian on as a back to school thing and I asked Buffy Hamilton for recommendations and you were number one on the list.
Oh, that was really kind of her, I appreciate it.
The first thing I was going to ask is not library related. You just became a stereotypical librarian and got a cat.
I did! I did. I had not had a cat for many years because I’m allergic to most cats, so strangely there were some kittens found on the school campus at the school where I was and I rescued them and was thinking maybe that I would try to find homes for them. But, strangely they didn’t seem to make me have an allergic reaction and I have been one or two other cats where I didn’t get itchy and I thought well this too amazing, I’m just going to have to take advantage of this opportunity and keep this little kitten. So yeah, I have an almost 4 month old little orange male striped kitten named “Dashiell.”
And it sounded like at first your biology teachers told you it had a, it was a different sex.
Yes, which really, I guess, to be called into question their subject area knowledge, but [laughs]. It was was very funny because they said, “Oh yes.” We had him for about a day and my husband did a little analysis based on some online research and he said, “You know, I really think he’s a boy.” We decided to name him after, I’m a huge Agatha Christie fan and we had decided to name him after Tuppence Beresford in the Partners In Crime Agatha Christie series and when we discovered that he was not female, we decided to go with Dashiell Hammett which is one of my husband’s favorite authors. So, same error but different spin.
Right, yeah my wife is a big fan of Agatha Christie too and we were very excited the other day that Pretty had an Agatha Christie novels category.
Oh, a whole category. Oh how wonderful, yeah. [laughs] You could have a lot of fun with that I think.
Yeah. So I thought it was funny, I was reading over your blog and you made some comment about, that teachers are supposed to get the summer off, but you’ve had a really, really busy summer. [laughs]
Yeah, well and I will just say that’s probably true for the past five years. I feel like this summer I actually had a little bit more time off than last year. Last year I think I had 12 days all summer where I didn’t have some sort of professional obligation scheduled.
Yeah! I mean it was just ridiculous. Now, fortunately this summer hasn’t been quite as frenetic as that, but I am about to go back a couple of weeks early, a couple weeks earlier than I’d anticipated because I’m switching jobs, so they’ve given me some time to get settled and just get orientated in the library before the school year begins and then they also have a week-long induction process in that school district. So, I’ll be actually going back to school next week.
Right and I wanted to ask you about that, I mean is there anything that you could, I mean I know that you haven’t started yet, but is there anything you could talk about in relation to your new job, of things you’re excited about?
Oh yeah, yeah. I’m actually just thrilled about the whole opportunity. It was one of those things that I really did not seek it out. It’s a really small city system that has a lot of resources, that’s one thing that I’ve just really been grappling with in the job that I’ve had for the past decade, is just the lack of resources and since it’s library, libraries are a resource-based profession. For the past four years our state has given us just zero state library funding, so we’ve just really had to scramble. Some school districts have stepped in and replaced that shortfall, but then, in other school systems they haven’t. And you’re just really getting to a point where that’s starting to affect the program, especially because they’re doing the same thing essentially with technology spending as well. So, they haven’t even been able to do the normal replacement cycle for the PC’s in the classroom and in the labs. So the whole lack of resources was really getting me down.
Now this new school district that I’m going to, it’s a city system that actually just raised taxes partially because of this project. The whole community is behind it, the town just went wet and now has a bunch of restaurants that previously wouldn’t have been in the county because they wouldn’t have had that opportunity to make so much profit from selling alcohol. And that was really a direct effort of, another attempt to get money for the school systems. The most, so the school system also pulls a third of the kids are from out of district and they’re actually paying tuition to go to that school system, so again that’s a whole another revenue stream and a demonstration that it’s a pretty strong system. So, I’m really excited just about that switch. They are also very progressive when it comes to technology, they have public WiFi, they have one-to-one computing for most of the students in the system and just lots of technology resources.
Seven years ago I started talking with my prior district about student access to the WiFi networks and it was literally seven years ago that I had my first conversation with them about that and had made zero headway in all that time. So, to go to a place that has a lot more just lined up with what I am interested in in doing for my students. Another thing is they’re about to start a huge building project so I’ll be able to really be influential in that. I’m actually supposed to go meet with the architect for the first time this afternoon, which I thought was, when they called me, that I needed to go and meet with him and talk to him about the requirements for the facility, to me that’s such a tremendous opportunity and the fact that they obviously wanted someone really good for the position. So, it’s going to be a challenge because everyone there, I’m used to being, having to make lemonade out of lemons and do these very lowest-common denominator digital projects, but I’ll really have a lot more opportunity to integrate technology and really, this multi-media creation projects that I’m most interested in in this environment. So I’m just absolutely thrilled.
And so when you, when you first start you’re not actually going to have a physical library.
Well actually what’s going to happen is that that existing library, I think it’s going to be there until, I’ve heard a varying timeline from November to January, but then it will be demolished. I’ll be in a makeshift facility which is a former classroom that has a little, small office off of it, but I think probably at least some of my time initially will be spent whittling the collection to what I’ll really need over those 18 months, because I’ll be operating in there for pretty much for 18 months while they construct this other facility. So, that’s the timeline right now and I think that’s an interesting challenge too. We talk about shifting more and more of our services online, it will also give me more of an opportunity to go and actually teach in the classrooms, which since all the students have those laptops like I said, in some ways it’s much more advantageous to be in that sort of a classroom environment if you’re talking about database or some sort of digital project then it would be in the library that I was in before where I had 14 student computers.
Right and it’s, you already are creative, but this has forced you to be creative in ways of how you’re going to deliver a service to the students without having that traditional structure.
Yeah, I think it’s gonna remove the “library as a place” aspect of it for a little while. I understand from the Principal who actually did a lot of surveys of seniors that one of the things that they really wanted was an area where they could get together and talk and be social and social learning in a lab environment. So we’re definitely going to try to incorporate that space in the library and there is that desire there to have a space for that, but this will be interesting because it will just remove that, as much, and there still will be, like I said, a small physical collection. I don’t know if you’ve been reading anything I’ve been writing, I’m huge leisure reading support for students.
If I could only pull certain resources that would probably be what I would put in my little teeny-tiny interim space. But, again I haven’t even really gotten in there to really take a good look at the collection and see what they do have and they don’t have. And that’s going to be something else as well, working with a collection that, I always have a story, when I first came to Buckhorn, one of the first things I did was I wanted to do a new books display and I found in, this was in 2002, I found that there was only one book in the collection that has been published in the last four years and it was one of the Harry Potter books. So, that was really depressing on the front end and then I had a student come in, also the first week, and ask for, I think it was “For Whom The Bell Tolls,” I know it was Hemingway and I went over to the shelf and there wasn’t a single book by Hemingway. So I had just this awful old fiction collection which was mostly book club editions of best sellers from the 50s and 60s and the terrible thing about it was, we were doing inventory every year, taking everything off the shelf and the previous librarian had been doing actually against a paper record. I at least shifted it into the library cataloging system, but what, they were taking them off the shelf, inventorying them every year and I was would say a good three-quarters of them had only ever been checked out by one person, which was the former library aide. So all this space was wasted and devoted to these things which never, ever, never went out. So, I really donated a huge amount of my time and effort to really, developing a really robust fiction collection which is the one thing I am sad to see go, because I had read so much of it and I thought I could really do a bang up job with readers advisory using those books. And I may, that may be one of my first requests of my new administration is that they let me do some sort of book order to get the things which I most commonly recommend to students.
Right, right. And I did see, this is going to jump ahead a little bit, but it is sort of what we were talking about. I saw on your blog that you said one of the things that you are interested in is reader response theory and I didn’t know what that was, at first, by that name and I went and looked it up and I realized that’s exactly what I loved doing when I was in college and that’s what my English teachers that I loved the most, that’s the way that they taught to, the best way to interact with literature is to react, is more on the reader side than the author side and it’s more what you get out of the text than what the author is giving you from the text.
Yeah and what I love about it and now isn’t it terrific that you have this language to call something etude. You felt that connection to this, sort of that. One of my favorite things when somebody has formalized this, I, Chris Leeman who wrote, is this amazing educator, just came up with an educational colonialism. He wrote a column about it and it’s exactly, I think, the perfect term to describe so much of what’s going on at schools. But, reader response, I think, is huge and what, the thing that I love the most about the underlying concept and of course you can see so much has been done in this area, but the whole idea that we’re writing that text as we’re reading it. I really think that we’re bringing to it is influencing our reading and we had a project when I, I have, I also have a Masters in English and a project in one of our criticism classes where we had to talk about a book that we had read multiple times and how that experience would change over time as we, as we matured and I reread something which just was one of my absolute favorites from middle school the other day. It was “A Tree Grows In Brooklyn” by Betty Smith
and that was a book that I probably read every three months for three years, I just absolutely adored it. But I reread it about two summers ago and I was, “Oh my god this book is absolutely filthy, there’s so many sexual allusions, there’s so much debauchery going on in all directions,” and it was one of those things that I just had just read completely over. But, now as somebody who is working in the school environment and is very cognizant of people misinterpreting smaller things, I’m like, “Oh my goodness this is actually quite loaded.” Of course, I still thought it was a wonderful book and now I think it’s very interesting the choices that the libraries I visited when I was growing up made in terms of what they made accessible to students and at which levels and I think that’s still something I was absolutely fascinated by. I loved to go into libraries at different grade levels and see what those librarians had made available to students and that’s going to be something else that’s going to be interesting for me because I was in an environment where I had had a Principal for a long time who was really a huge advocate of intellectual freedom and he just really, I knew he had my back if any parent had ever complained about materials and I was in a community where that really wasn’t an issue either. I never had any issues with anything I purchased and I’m going to be in a much more, I hesitate to say conservative because I don’t think that that’s necessarily true, but it’s a lot more, I think that there’s a lot more parental involvement and I just worry that that might open me up to more scrutiny of the collection than I ever would have had.
Right, right, [laughs] And I did think that it’s interesting, I’m glad, how glad I was to hear that you’re doing good work and I hear about other people in Alabama doing work and things and I think that really counteracts what I think the national image is of the south in general, but then you see all these, all the test scores, Alabama, Mississippi are always at the bottom of those lists. But, I think it’s great that people like you are doing things to, and it sounds like the state is doing, trying to do some things too in some individual cities and counties are trying to turn that around and.
That’s the thing, is there’s so much educational inequity in Alabama. There’s some really excellent school districts and then there are some which really, really struggle and they struggle even to attract basically skilled teachers. I mean, there’s some rural areas, one of my colleagues was telling me this story about that she was working in a school library media program in a university and she had to supervise the students as they went out and they did their practicum in schools and one of the women was telling her about the district where she was and they started school some really really early day, but then they also got out very late and she said, “Well what’s up with that? What kind of calendar are you on?” And she said, “Well, something like 85% of the roads in the county were dirt roads so that when it rained school was canceled.”
So basically, yeah they built this schedule for and I have friends who have gone and done teaching in parts of the state where none of the kids in their classrooms had indoor plumbing, I mean that was just nothing that any of them had. So, when you think about things like that and then I’m in fairly, a fairly affluent area, most of the people, I’m sort of the exception being somebody who is local here, a lot of people move in because of Aerospace and different defense industries that we have in this area, so there’s a huge variation as I think there are in most states and like I said I’ve been lucky that those have been the environments I’ve been working in.
And, but I do think we do have to acknowledge that a lot of times the statewide assessments are geared towards those districts where those basic cognates are a little bit more of a challenge. So, basically the state assessments aren’t terrible right, so that the overall level could be a lot higher. Now they’ve done a lot in terms of bringing in AP, there’s, it’s called AP College Ready. A huge program with tonnes of grant funding from different sources throughout the state. The school where I was working had been doing it for a couple of years and then the school where I’m going to is going to be starting it this year. Basically, they incentivized the teachers and the students. They give them money to come to extra study sessions on the weekends. They give out prizes for, like iPods and things, I mean pretty nice stuff for kids that do go to those study sessions and then if they get a passing score on the AP exam then they also give them $100 or something.
It’s a little bit of money. So, and the teacher as well. So, if you have 30 students that make 3s or higher you could get a $3,000 check which is nice for a teacher. So that’s been a great program. Now, they’ve also been picking up all the training and all the auxiliary materials, things like that, through this grant a lot of schools have really, I guess, expressed concern about whether or not they’ll be able to continue doing it once the grant funding’s up. So, who knows about that, but it is a good opportunity for a lot of students that might otherwise. And the fact that they don’t have to take the, to pay to take the AP exam, it’s already paid for, is a nice perk as well.
Well I have to imagine the, in parts of the state, it has to be hard in that the, to do these technology projects because the infrastructure isn’t always there, cause I have family that lives in northwest Florida and the panhandle so we drive through Montgomery and then go south and there’s no cellphone coverage outside Alabama and that’s got to be hard. I don’t even know what you do about that [laughs]. How do people down there have cellphones if they don’t have?
Oh I know, I know.
I mean you look at every, and you look at every carrier’s map and there’s this gap, just south of Montgomery, just this huge, there’s Montgomery has coverage and then there’s nothing.
Well in the areas really unpopulated for one thing so they just don’t have that incentive to put anything in there. Now, did you know it’s not just the south, Vermont is the same way. My girlfriend who lives there was telling me that they drive up to the highway because along the highway there’s cellphone signal, so they know that they need to, you know what I mean, of course they still mostly use landlines and things like that. But, I think I visited her, it was after Midwinter was in Boston, so that was probably what, 3 years ago? And she told me at that point that they were the only street in Vermont that had broadband coverage! Her street. So, and at this, that actually, that same conference, I was part of a YALSA pre-conference and it was interesting because so many people had come in for the day from New Hampshire, Vermont and the keynote was basically on ubiquitous computing and the fact that everyone has access to cellphone information 24/7. And all these women who were from the upcountry were, “No, that is not true” and they were saying exactly what you’re saying, that we don’t even have a cellphone signal. It’s really difficult a lot of times you’re, and it’s the same thing with a lot of the kids that I was working with in terms of where they lived at home. Maybe they had to go through the telephone co-op to actually dial in to get on the internet. And they’re dealing with what we were dealing with 20 years ago in terms, or maybe even 15, but agonizingly slow connections. A few of them have satellite hook up connections which are kind of expensive. But, yeah, I mean it is a challenge. Not so much the area I’m in, but throughout the state. And I know that I was part of this statewide project about five or six years ago, it was long enough ago that I’m sure things have shifted a little, but several of the people in that project and one of the things, one of the conditions was that we were supposed to have broadband access at home and for a couple of people it was a real, it just didn’t work. They ended up having to go to school, which at least, it’s, if anything it’s been a huge boon to schools and libraries. The New York Times did that one article a couple of years ago about libraries and the roles they played in getting people online in the black belt. Do you remember seeing that one?
It was, yeah, I was actually, usually I’m a little bit more peeved with media depictions of the south, but I guess that, I thought one was really facetive. [laughs] And I do think the digital divide is a real issue, it’s funny, it’s something I really wanted to study for my dissertation topic when I started working on it, that was originally what I wanted to focus on and every professor I encountered told me that that was not an issue.
Yeah, that you could buy a computer for a couple of hundred dollars, what was I even talking about, that there was a digital divide.
Yeah, we get that a lot in public libraries too, it’s the, well why do you need the library anymore, I can just buy a Kindle. Well, even if it was true that everything was available for an e-reader, not everybody can afford even a hundred dollars for a Kindle. I meant it’s.
I know, I know. People just, they don’t have that understanding of what it’s like to live in and not have disposable income, I guess, essentially. And not only that, what I get a lot with kids at school, well the computer’s broken or it gets a virus or something’s wrong with the computer, or they can’t even, maybe they’re still trying to burn files to CDs and they can’t even figure out how to do that. A lot of times it’s a proficiency issue. Eszter Hargittai, she’s one of my favorite sociologists calls it the second level digital divide, which I do think is a real thing. The fact that you might have a computer, but if your skills are not up to, if you’re not using them daily in your job, you’re using them in a very limited way, your skills may not be where they really need to be in this 21st century competitive capacity.
Right and related that, I was, I had read the essay that you wrote for Buffy and Kristin’s Smashwords book [School Libraries: What’s Now, What’s Next, What’s Yet to Come].
Oh yeah, yeah, that was a fun project.
School library, I forget what the subtitle was, I don’t have that unfortunately. School libraries subtitle.
I just call it Revolting School Librarians. Yes, revolting librarians. [laughs]
And I thought it was, I’ve got your essay up here somewhere and I was going to read one thing that I thought was. Yeah, “The administrator who sanctions the removal of a professional librarian from his building is committing an act of cultural cowardice.” I thought that was a really strong statement and I agree with it too. [laughs]
It’s like that, I feel like there’s not an understanding from administration a lot of times toward what the librarian brings to the school and to the student’s experience.
Well, and you might just even rephrase that to say what the librarian could bring, you know? I think unless the administrator has really seen an effective school librarian in practice, which is I think a lot of the problem and going back to a lot of the factors that really gave me pause when I decided to shift the jobs from the one that I had to the one I will have. It’s a resource based profession so once you start amassing those resources, you don’t want to go to another place where you’re not going to have them and I think that that’s one reason that school librarians do tend to stay in place. You’re a solo librarian, you’re the one that’s making most of the purchasing decisions, you are, a lot of your stock and trade is really in knowing the materials that are in that one place and so as much as anything I think that is a challenge to start again. But, my experience has just been that a lot of administrators have never seen a really effective librarian. I’ve heard from administrators again and again that the librarian is the most difficult position to fill, there are so many bad librarians out there, just a real pejorative comments about the profession as a whole. People don’t make those comments about teachers because maybe the worst teacher you have is much worse than the worst librarian, but the thing is you’re exposed to multiplicity of them. With school librarians you may only encounter one or two school librarians in your entire academic career. So, you’re really going to be basing that on a very limited number of cases. In school districts attitudes vary so radically from school to school about what the school library should be. In some school library, in some districts school libraries basically exist to support something like accelerated readers, some programmatic reading solution that the school has bought into and if you took that away there wouldn’t be much there. I know in, I actually had a conversation with one of the central office administrators in my district about the different approaches throughout the district to what was happening in the high school libraries. Some of them were very well integrated in terms of curricular decision making and really working with teachers in all kinds of areas and doing the technology projects that were always my favorites. But then there were other schools where or, they really saw themselves much more as a support service, much more like the school nurse, if someone needed something they could come in and they would help them, but it wasn’t something where they were going to integrate with the instructional program as much.
So, there are a lot of different approaches. I always say it has to really depend on the culture of the school and what the school expects. But if the school’s expectations for the librarian position are very low, then it creates this vicious cycle where the teachers who are then going to become the administrators maybe aren’t necessarily seeing the most effective school librarians either.
Right and so what do you think school librarians can do to change that attitude? Is it just showing administration these good programs?
Yeah, yeah, I think you really do have to highlight the exceptional programs, really and I get those administrators to think why can’t my program be like that. Why can’t and the thing is a great school library program is really only going to serve the administrators well. It’s going to reduce discipline problems, it’s going to give students a lot more of an engagement buy-in in the school community. It’s a whole, it’s just going to be a positive for the administration if they’ll allow it to flourish. I think a lot of the problem is some schools, and I’ll say this because I have taught in two different universities where they were preparing school librarians, a lot of times people burn out in the classroom, they have X number of years and with the state retirement system they know they can go for five years into the library and still draw their full retirement. So unfortunately you have a lot of candidates who are in that category, who need to stay in education for whatever reason, but, and I’ve had a few of those people that I’ve put in that area even tell me, “Look I don’t even like to read.” I, yes, okay I just don’t understand this whatsoever at all. But then, so I, I really would love to say that the library meeting programs, especially the Incape programs, the ones which aren’t ALA accredited, but the ALA programs as well because I’ve had some really negative experiences with students in those as well, they need to be more rigorous in their admission requirements. We don’t need to be churning out second-rate librarians. I’ve had several conversations with colleagues who are academics lately and they just, we don’t ever fail anyone and we don’t ever even say to most people, “Maybe this is not the career for you.” And I think that’s doubly true in the school environment as it is in librarianship sort of on the whole. But, it’s not for everyone and I think, I think we do just need to have some attrition, to have some people say, to me the library is the best job in the school. Unless you’re one of the very best teachers in the school, that shouldn’t be something which is available to you.
So, it should be this thing that people want to do, not something that people say oh I don’t want to do that because then I have to keep all the books in order, or then I have to deal with the bad kids when they send them to the library, whatever reason they don’t want to do it. I think it’s, my strategy right now is to recruit school librarians from public libraries. I had several friends who have, I’ve convinced to take this class for certification because it’s, to me it’s the most ideal library environment. You get to do everything. You get to do reference, you get to do readers advisory, you get to do instruction, you get to do technology, you get to order everything, you get to spend all the money yourself. If you want to do a program, you don’t have to go through four levels of bureaucracy to get approval, you just do the program. Yeah, to me it’s like when I hear about things that go on in public libraries, I’m, “Oh my god you’ve got to be kidding me, that’s what you have to go through to do something which seems so relatively simple to me.” But, you have so much autonomy, there’s so much running your own shop, I don’t think you can underestimate the gratification that you can get doing that, so I’ve actually, people who I think are really strong librarians saying this is a great opportunity for you to get to, to still have that practical hands-on, especially if you love teens or kids and you don’t want to lose that practice aspect, but also at the same time, really get to run your own program which is so much fun.
Right, you get to, well I think all librarians all have that little OCD thing of wanting to have everything under our control, so [laughs] that’s the best environment for that.
It really is, it really is.
I was going to ask you, oh I lost my train of thought [laughs].
Sorry, I feel like I’m going in a million different directions and I know I’m probably going in the directions you were anticipating.
[laughs] No that’s why I generally don’t write out direct questions, I just write out the list of topics so that we can just bump from whatever goes to whatever. But I don’t remember what I was going to ask you now so. We talked about how to convince administration to support these efforts by showing them good programs, how do you think, if a school librarian wants to do a great program to show their administration, how do you think they can learn about these great programs and transform their program if it’s not a great one now, into a great one? How do they learn those resources?
Well, fortunately we’re all in this era of sharing so that you can borrow so many wonderful ideas that exist online and I, people are out there documenting their own work and what they’ve been doing in their schools like never before. So, there’s never been as many examples and things that you can build from. But I do think, again every school is different, I think the best school library programs really serve the needs of the school community and I do think that shifts from school to school. I think a lot of it is just really connecting with teachers. A strategy that I’ve always found works well in my, I guess my enfranchisement of my faculty would be to, and I’ll talk about the way I’ve done this first with technology but then also with books, would be to show them the utility of a tool in a context that is not necessarily instructional. And you know, for, at my school I may show a teacher how to use a Wiki to set up a collaborative document to schedule some meetings. So then she then, by, when I’m helping her set that up, I may say, “This would be so fun because you could use it for this project where your students in second period and your students in fourth period could write to each other.” Something like that. So I’ve often found that giving them something that they need with for a professional utility will result in them exploring that tool in an instructional capacity. I’ve also found that to be true of reading in terms of, at this school I was we had a couple of different teacher book clubs.
They noticed that every time that they, I would, we would read a particular title for our teacher book club, it would somehow find its way into one of the teacher’s classrooms the next term, which just suggested to me that they weren’t encountering a lot of really high quality literature on their own so they weren’t able to adapt their curriculum to make it a little bit more up-to-date. So both of those took a stealth ways to enact change in a gentle way. Another thing I’ve found has been really effective is the administration really highlights the teachers which are collaborating with the librarian and it, the school where I worked there were all of these different awards that the administration gave out weekly based on exceptional teacher lesson plans or exceptional instructional strategies. And pretty soon all of the teachers would realize that if they would collaborate with the librarian on technology enhanced project, that would probably make its way into an award for them. So, that was actually another incentive because they actually got quite competitive if they hadn’t got one of those circled stars by Christmas they felt like they needed to step it up. But, and I think the administration can also sell the library by giving them the opportunity to speak to the faculty as part of, in faculty meetings, or professional development, or anything like that and really bringing them in on any sort of whole school curricular changes which doesn’t always happen. Sometimes the librarian, the existing librarian and the new administrator may not want to involve them, but I think it’s almost always to their advantage to do so.
Are there any particular, I’m sure there are lots that you can think of, but a couple of library programs that you particularly think are good that people can learn from?
Let’s see. I, well, I wouldn’t necessarily call it a program but the YOUmedia Space in Chicago which is now disseminating to more public libraries throughout the country, I would definitely say thinking about those sorts of laboratory environments for schools, that’s huge. I think that that involves a whole different segment of student too. The ones that may not have access to something as simple as a scanner, or a green screen, or something like that at home that could really make tremendous use of those types of tools. So, that would be one thing I would definitely suggest that libraries look into. Something that has been a huge boon for the library where I worked was just being extremely responsive to student purchase requests. Pretty much everything that a student asks for bar, I would say, less than a half-dozen titles which are just really, really inappropriate. But, for the best part I’ll get whatever students want. To me the fact that they requested it is just vocation enough to add it to the collection and having those things, it really makes it, the whole library a great experience and much more interactive for students if they know that they can contribute to what’s actually there. So that would be something else that I would tremendously advocate. You can do displays where students can write on an index card about their favorite book and then they’ll actually bring their friends in to do the same and to look at their index card. Things that you can do are not expensive, but kids can be so enthusiastic about.
We always do a lot of whiteboard things. We’ll put up, a question up, like, “What was the best book you read this summer?” Or, “What’s your favorite book of all time?” Something like that and the kids will, they so relish the opportunity to have fun with a bunch of different whiteboard markers and that they can really. And to me all conversations about literacy are positive because how many of those books then do I end up circulating because they were made aware of them in that way.
Right and you use, I think I read that you use the advance readers copies, the ARCs that you get at conferences to give out to your students too?
Oh yeah, yeah. That’s, a lot times I’ll pick up one specifically for students that are interested in a particular series or something like that and I do get some in the mail from publishers as well. That’s one of my biggest things I’d lose about switching jobs is the fact that my address is going to change and I’d lose so much of my mail, but yeah, and, it was interesting. I had this parent chase me across the parking lot at a school one time and she wanted to tell me that the fact that I had gotten her daughter an ARC of this book from a series that she just loved, that had meant the world to her and I thought oh to me this is a parent that’s always going to support the library and be behind whatever we want to do there. But yeah, I do end up passing on I would say probably about 95% of mine to students. Once in awhile it will be something that’s not really appropriate for them, but I think they’re a great tool. To me if I actually receive a physical ARC in the mail I know the publisher’s gone to that trouble to send it to me, I almost, I’d say 85% of those I read and probably 80% of those I purchase, so for me what better sales and marketing tool could there be than that? It’s certainly nothing like that percentage with books where I see the ad or something like that.
Right, right and I’m not going to ask about the whole ARCgate thing because that’s gone passe. I don’t think anybody’s talking about that anymore.
[laughs] I do have actually a whole theory on that and this is actually something I haven’t really seen voiced, but I think it’s all about numbers and from being on ALA council and sitting in that room, it’s all about the attendee numbers and if selling those day passes and exhibits only passes are going to increase those overall numbers, I just don’t see that changing from an institutional point of view. Although I do think it’s interesting that the vendors round table I think is on the case too.
Yeah, I was going to say it almost feels like it’s something that should be managed more on the publisher side of it, let them figure out who they want to give them to and let ALA get, let people in for whatever their reasons are and let the publishers decide who gets what.
And there’s some publishers that are doing it very elegantly, like Little Brown, they’ll give you this little slip where you can put which you would like to have mailed to you and you put your credentials and all of that and I’m not sure if everybody gets theirs mailed to them, but, to me, not only is it kind to us because we don’t actually have to carry them, but then we’re able to choose the ones we want which may not be the ones that they have at that moment at the booth either. So.
My assumption always is what they have at the booth is not necessarily, I mean they have a warehouse full of those things probably somewhere else.
Exactly! And that’s the thing, you really have to have no other commitments at the conference and just go there to get those ARCs if you really want to get all the ARCs you know what I mean? Otherwise you’re going to miss something and to me it’s much more, I guess, politically correct. You just approach the publisher about. Yeah, I think it’s about about the publisher.
So about ALA in general, did you have a good conference this year?
Yeah, well, I will say this, I actually only went to one session because I was quite busy, had a lot of YALSA meetings at council and ADIYA. I did go to lots of awards events. I went to the Newberry and the Prince, but I did have to leave the Coretta Scott King breakfast early to get to council which I hated that I missed Ashley Bryant because he was really why I had got the ticket. I also did get to go see Perks of Being a Wallflower which was a tremendous treat. But yeah, I had a little apprehension. I did not enjoy Anaheim the last time ALA was there and so I didn’t have good memories of that. But, this conference was quite good and I, it was just a real, a good chance to connect with a lot of people too that I hadn’t seen in awhile which is always reinvigorating.
Yeah, I was going to say it’s an opportunity to see people you don’t get to see very often and you do go to other conferences and stuff, but a lot of time they’re local? Or.
Yeah, yeah. And every conference has its crowd that you’ll see and you know the people that you’ll see six months from now at Midwinter versus the people that you’ll see again next summer at Annual. It’s not always the same crowd either.
And so since you’re on council, are you, were you happy to see that the school library thing come up and get passed?
I was really thrilled, and it was to me very heartening to see the support from the academic and public librarians and just the validation that this was a cascading problem, that cuts to school libraries would affect them and in terms of both the expectations for people coming in, just them not being used to library environments, the services that they were going to have to basically provide that would have been provided in a more specialized environment, were they a school library or a librarian. But just to hear this from them was very good and at one point one of the councilors, I wish I could remember who because I just, I thought, “Oh goodness gracious, this is so true,” stood up and said, “Is anyone opposed to this? Is anyone opposed to it?” And of course there wasn’t any real opposition, there were a couple of wordsmithing suggestions, but it was, it is nice to have that as, because sometimes I do think school librarians do feel like they’re sort of the red-headed stepchild, so to feel that support from the other divisions I think is terrific.
That’s great. And was there anything else that came up in council this year that you, I saw on your blog you mentioned that you were trying to be environmentally friendly so you didn’t print out very much stuff, so there’s only a few things that you printed out and that was one of the things that you had. A paper copy of is the school library…
Yeah, well you know I thought probably one of the more interesting things which came up were the plans to make changes to the annual conference and those were sent to committee for more examination, I guess will come back on the table in Seattle. But that was the other thing that I hung onto too, because the suggestion of having everything on one campus, having different tracks where there were less overlaps. Trying to schedule things so that all the 90 minutes or 60 minute sessions were opposite each other so that you weren’t having to leave one to go to another. It just all seemed to really make sense, so, especially since the numbers were a little bit lower and it seems like we could make much better use of the space, especially given the tremendous amount of money they’re paying for things like audio visual hookups for the conference rooms, any way that they can save on that. But, that was probably the other thing which I was the most interested in.
Yeah and I like that they’re gonna, that they’re expand, that they’re lengthening or shortening the time before the conference that you can still submit ideas because things change so quickly that it feels like sometimes people had to submit their idea for a presentation a year earlier and things move so quickly that a year earlier is forever ago sometimes.
Yeah, I’ve, this past year I’ve written up several really deliberately openly conference descriptions because I’m, “Okay, this will be the latest tools,” whatever those tools happen to be nine months from now because you’re right and that’s sort of happened to me with QR codes and for a while everything was QR codes, QR codes, QR codes and I’m, “Really? Really?” To me it was almost over at the point it really started bubble up, I guess, on the conference circuit.
Right, it’s sort of like slang, as soon as everybody knows about it then it’s gone already [laughs] it’s not popular.
I bet we get a lot of Pinterest stuff next year, right, you know.
Yeah, I’m sure we will. And then even, I remember the crunch came to a head for me at, when I went to the PLA conference this year. There was only one session on e-books in the whole conference and I was, that’s not understanding where we are right now.
Yeah, yeah, that’s and the thing is I’m sure that session was probably you couldn’t even get in the door.
Oh yeah yeah, 10 minutes before they closed the doors and couldn’t let, they wouldn’t let anybody else in.
Yes, that’s interesting. So how was PLA?
It was really good, yeah, I like it and I like that it’s actually, I like the smaller conference feel to it. It’s still big, but ALA when I’ve gone in the past, I haven’t gone in a few years to ALA but it always felt overwhelming at times that there’s just so much to do and so many people around and I think the changes that you said, like they’re putting into place, I think that will help. I mean having it on the one campus because I went, I remember when I went to Orlando for ALA and Orlando itself is just one long strip and so you’re driving 20 minutes to get to another hotel for, and it’s just, it didn’t make for a good conference experience.
Way too much travel time, but yeah it’s interesting, I always tell people, I always feel I, in a lot of ways I always hit a much more public library type approach to my library that I had previously. It’s going to be interesting to see how that translates in a different environment. But yeah, every time PLA rolls around I’m always more interested by the tweets and stuff coming out of that than I am probably, a lot of the school library specific stuff.
Have you thought about going to PLA yourself ever?
You know, I have. I think it was in Portland a few years ago and my best friend lives there so I did think about it then, but if it’s nearby I may end up going. I do, I went to ALSC even though I’m not really a real children’s services person. I went to that a couple of years ago when it was in Atlanta just because it was pretty drivable. So I do like to sneak into other conferences because I do think you get really good ideas from those, like I went to Kentucky this past year and their school library and their state library association conferences overlap. They’re a, it’s a joint conference, so that was very interesting to me to go and see how that was functioning because they’re different here and now I’m about to think about that as a possible model for a conference, that sort of thing.
And I wanted to finish up with, I was trying to think of, I always try to think in particular what I want to start asking people with and what I wanted to end with and I was looking at your blog and I saw what you wrote just yesterday about the re-imagined classics. And I wanted to ask just in general, what about that is appealing to you? I know that’s a real popular genre nowadays, not, it started toward, I think it started with that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies thing, but it’s really, it’s stepped back from that and is not quite as crazy like that anymore where you had to throw zombies or something into it. I mean it’s just a re-imagined stories now. But what is it about that that you like?
And you know there’s been a lot of that. You can even look at John Gardner’s “Grendel,” that they’ve been, that’s been a thing that, to me it goes back to reader response. Let’s just tie it right back into that because what it really is is that the reader who is then the writer has had this connection with this text and you know Wide Sargasso Sea I guess would be a terrific one, the Jean Rhys book about, about ihe other wife in Jane Eyre. But those books, to me there’s enough in them that you can embroider this whole other world and I don’t know what it is particularly about this moment, or that might be a curse, do you think, I, there was a huge and I, I think this is actually what’s laid the fertile ground for the Pride and Prejudice and zombies, the whole Jane Austen fan bubble amongst young women is tremendous and Charlotte Bronte and all of those sorts of books that they have, I mean I think that’s a real thing that those are hugely, wildly popular amongst young people right now. So I think that really, and just other books that students may study with their, for their classes, they’ve given a lot of scrutiny to, just the idea of being able to look at it from another character’s point of view I think would already be appealing to them just because they’ve been so close to the work. To me the fact that so many of these are choosing those big romantic 19th century novels does really speak to the popularity of those in that whole Mr. Darcy loving subculture that we have out there right now.
[laughs] Right and there’s, and even in the movies they do that where they have a modern day, Bridget Jones and.
Oh yeah, yeah.
I even read something the other day that they said the director of the new Batman movie said he based it on A Tale Of Two Cities, so it’s.
Okay, yeah, yeah, definitely and you know it was funny because after that blog entry I thought about the Terry Pratchett, he just did a Dodger Wyatt book, Oliver Twist inspired. I thought, “Oh that’s one I totally forgot” but yeah, I like it if it’s a book with which I’m familiar enough which, in the, I like the fact that it’s not just for YA either. It seems like and I guess you could look at it from one point of view, make up your own book this is very unoriginal or whatever. But then, if you love a book that much that you can really derive that much pleasure from reading something that’s sort of an echo of it, or are transported to a different context that’s a lot of fun too.
Right, it’s like you said, it’s the reader response thing and you’ve had something in that book resonated in you and you want to give that back now.
Explore that world, if it’s another point of view, but maybe, then also explore that world in another, in a different culture, or different time period, or something like that, so I don’t know, I guess those are two distinct types of books if you think about it that way, they’re not the same. They’re the road through imagining, one of them is alternate point of view and the other is a little bit more shifted I guess. But, back to the Fractured Fairy Tales of, yeah, or whatever.
[laughs] And I think you’re right that I have not seen anybody do Sallinger yet and that would seem like to be the, a ripe one.
Oh I know, I know, I’m, “Okay you could do Sally, or you could do, I mean there’s Phoebe, you could do so much with that, with the Catcher and then of course I would love to see Lane’s point of view in Frannie and Zoey, that would be a terrific one, but anyway.
Well, Wendy, thank you so much for talking to me for the show, I had, I think we had a great conversation.
Oh yeah, it was a lot of fun, Steve, and I’m a big fan of the show and I’m going to be listening to it on my drive, I know, as I do my new gig, so thank you for asking me.
All right, have a good day.
Okay, bye bye.