Reference Desk Observation – Part 1

The X Public School System consists of 2 K-4 elementary schools, a 5th grade intermediate school, the middle school that houses grades 6-8 and the high school. Unfortunately, the 5th grade school does not have a media center or library to rely on so all incoming 6th graders have lost a year of library experience. Therefore, this past week, all 6th grade Language Arts classes were invited to the Media Center for an orientation and tour.

Ms. Smith is the sole librarian in the school but is supported by Mrs. Jones, secretary. Until last year they had two part-time aides but these positions were cut when budgets came up for review. Instead, there are a handful of parent volunteers who come in to help with some basics like shelving and checkout.

As we were waiting for a class to arrive, a very teary 7th grader came into the Media Center, explaining that he needed to find a book and he left the one he already borrowed at home. Ms. Smith later explained to me that this student was having a bit of a personality clash with one of his teachers and was frequently sent to the Media Center to calm down. Ms. Smith asked him what he liked to read about and was answered with a shrug. She then changed her tactic and asked what his favorite kind of movies were. He said he liked Harry Potter but had already read them all but thought he might want to read Steven King. Ms. Smith replied that they didn’t have his books in but they had books that were similar. She led him over to the fiction section and showed him that all the books were alphabetized by author but that all of the horror books were in their own section. At this point the class arrived so Ms. Smith handed the student off to Mrs. Jones to help him pick out a book and sit quietly for a while until he felt better.

Ms. Smith had an agenda planned for the 6th grade orientation and carefully went over all of the basics as well as handouts that listed all of the rules and policies. Each student received a copy of the agenda, the list of rules and a new bookmark.

* Library Policies:
Students are allowed 2 books for 2 weeks at a time.
There is a late fee of 5 cents per day unless you are absent from school.
If your late fee accumulates to more than $1 it will hold up your report card and you cannot take out any books until it drops under $1.
Magazines can only be borrowed for 1 week.
This is not a quiet room (indoor voices encouraged) but you cannot be too loud or you may be asked to leave.
You can come to the media center any time during the day as long as you have a pass. These passes double as the media center’s attendance sheet in case of a fire drill.
You can come to the media center during your lunch period but you have to go to the cafeteria and eat your lunch there first.

* Book Selection
How do you find books on the shelf?
How are shelves organized (Left to right and top to bottom)
What is different about finding fiction from non-fiction?
Make suggestions if there are books you want to read but we don’t have them!
All middle school Language Arts teachers require that you read at least one independent reading book per marking period.
Students can use the PC computers anytime but the Macs are for class projects only.
The media center is open before school at 8:15 every morning.
The media center is open late Tuesdays, Wednesday, and Thursdays until 4:30 and students can take the late bus home.
Reference books are different from non-fiction books.

* How to use the catalog (searching by author, title and keywords)
The catalog give you the book’s call number, the number of pages, a summary and tells you whether or not it is currently in.

* How to check out books
Every student assigned a personal ID number.
The circulation/reference desk is where you check out your books

* Brochures
Past students have helped to make up a number of brochures that suggest titles. For example, if a student knows he likes scary books, there is a brochure that lists different authors and titles that student may like. Since past students have recorded their favorite books, the information is not coming from an adult and new students are more likely to be interested.

* Programs
Accelerated reader: Every book that has a dot on the spine is an accelerated reader book and students may take a short, computerized test for points. There are various prizes throughout the year and the student with the most points in each grade will win a $100 savings bond at the end of the year.
Lunchtime Book Club: 10 books are selected at the beginning of the year and students can sign up each month. They do not have to read every book and therefore can sign up only for the months where the book seems interesting. On the 15th and 30th of each month the group will eat lunch in the library and talk about the book. Ms. Smith does not lead the discussion so students are free to talk about any part of the book that they enjoyed.

After going over all of this information and taking some questions from the class, Ms. Smith had a scavenger hunt prepared to get the students familiar with the layout. On one side of a handout, she had a basic map of the media center. On the other, she had 12 squares with different areas of the room listed. She had set up small pieces of paper near these various sections each student initial on this paper to prove they had found that section. The room was quickly abuzz with 35 students racing around to be the first to find all of the sections. As soon as they were done, they were free to pick out an independent reading book to take home.

With this many students and only 4 adults (including myself) in the room, everyone jumped to action to ensure that each student was given the opportunity to find a book that interested them. There was a special needs student who was having a lot of difficulty locating the different sections for the scavenger hunt as well as remembering the title of the book she thought she wanted to read. Ms. Smith patiently helped her navigate the room without giving her the answers. She asked many probing questions like, “Do you remember when I said I wanted to read a book about Abraham Lincoln and why he is on the penny? Do you remember where I went to find that book?” and in the end, the student was able to find each section on her own.

Admittedly, I couldn’t stand by and let the other adults struggle to help this many students so I helped a few students use the library catalog, helped another recall the alphabet so that she could find an author’s last name, and showed another how to find a book about pro-wrestling even if he wasn’t sure that one existed.

While this may not have seemed to be a traditional “reference desk” experience as would be typical in a public library, it was clear that having an orientation was important. Not only did it give the new students an opportunity to learn how to use the media center’s resources, but each student left with a non-school book to read which helped to excite them about both reading and using the media center. Most of the questions asked were about whether or not the library had any more copies of Twilight but here is a small sample of some others that were asked during the orientation:

“Are the computers online or can we only see what is in the school?”
“How do you know if the reference book you have has the right information?”
“What is a keyword?”
“What if I don’t know of a book but it has facts about Japan that I want to know. How do I find the book?”
“Can we stay after school to do homework?”
“Which bathroom do we use while we’re here?”
“What happens if I loose a book?”
“Are we allowed to take out any book we want?”

Ms. Smith handled each question and student individually and never seemed shocked or amused by any question. In fact, she seemed happy to be getting so many questions and she pointed out that the media center is where you come when you need to find answers.

Afer we checked out all 35 students in a matter of about 7 minutes, Ms. Smith concluded by telling the students that if they ever have any questions about anything, all they would have to do is come to the media center and ask, even if it was a homework question.

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