Reference Desk Observation – Librarian Interview

In speaking with Ms. Smith, the media specialist at X Middle School, she gave me a lot of valuable insight into the life of the school librarian. For her, reference is not the same as it would be in a public library. Most students simply want information on authors or titles whereas teachers’ needs generally require a reference interview. Some teachers prefer to save time by having all the necessary resources already pulled, negating the students’ ability to perform searches within the stacks or on databases Ms. Smith fights this adamantly and is determined to ensure that each student has basic research skills.

Many teachers ask for help with specific databases and Ms. Smith finds that most seem to be afraid of them because they do not have the skills to properly use them. She would like to implement staff training sessions but so far has been met with much resistance; most of the staff would like her to do the work for them and most of the time she is glad to help but some teachers think that her job is to be their research assistant and she simply doesn’t have enough time to do that for each teacher. Instead, she began to book appointments with individual teachers, asking for 2-3 weeks so that she can properly prepare to help them. This has helped to cut down on her stress and has helped teachers to feel she is doing more to support their curriculum.

Recently, a particularly difficult reference transaction Ms. Smith experienced was when she tried to assist a 6th grade student find an age-appropriate material on concentration camps. Encyclopedias were too broad and the databases yielded material that, in Ms. Smith’s opinion, was a little too mature for the student’s needs. In the end, with some serious searching, the two were able to find some information using a library catalog search for the Holocaust and found reference materials that better described information. Looking back, Ms. Smith thinks she would have started locally rather than in the databases because she finds middle school material hard to find; most is too mature for her students. Most often she uses the Internet and books to help the student body but she believes that all librarians should be familiar with search engines (including those that aren’t Google), databases, and the library’s collection. Knowing your own collection can greatly improve your ability to quickly help patrons.

Most services at the X Middle School take place in person, but teachers will email Ms. Smith questions and request. Students have the option to email her but very often choose to ask their questions live. Ms. Smith uses two major points to evaluate what materials should be kept in the library: does it have educational value and is it current? She is reluctant to throw away reference books but at the same time, anything that is more than 3 years old is more than likely already too old for a good reference. She tries to keep this as up to date as the budget allows. Sometimes when a student’s learning abilities are in question, Ms. Smith will secretly contact the student’s teachers to see if there is any further information that would be helpful when helping an individual student. If, for example, the student has clear issues with reading, Ms. Smith might suggest an Encyclopedia over a denser reference book. Ideally, Ms. Smith would like to never let a patron leave the media center without an answered question or the promise of getting more information.

The circulation desk (which doubles as the reference desk) uses numerous instructional strategies from walking a patron through the process of finding materials to letting the patron “drive” when at the computer. Because this is a school library, learning is the primary goal.  Ms. Smith tries to keep notes on what she’s done during the day and a general log of how many students were in the room each period, but it is nearly impossible to keep track of every question that has been asked.

Ms. Smith had started out as a language arts teacher in the district and decided to try out the position when the previous LMS retired. She received an emergency certification from a local college but went on to get her MLS to fulfill state criteria. At the time, she found that while she loved teaching, she was beginning to burn out and wanted to remain in the school environment. This seemed like an ideal situation for her and she has no regrets about her decision. Her days are completely different and full of surprises. Administration takes up a large portion of her time, as does instruction, but she says that the constant change is what makes it interesting for her.

Ms. Smith told me not to expect to work with teachers and pitch the services I can provide if I don’t understand the state standards that need to be met in each area of discipline. While information literacy is a wonderful skill to teach, it means nothing if teachers won’t collaborate and know that you are supporting their curriculum. One of the biggest services she would like to provide but currently cannot due to internal politics is the morning “Starbooks” café where students could come in early and buy breakfast while they worked on homework or read a book. While students can still come and use the media center before school starts, serving breakfast is no longer an option.

According to Ms. Smith, the best part of her job is having the flexibility in what she teaches, the day goes by very quickly, she can make a bigger impact with the entire school than with just one class, and the ability to support every other subject taught in the building. The worst part of her job is that she finds that she never stops, she doesn’t get a prep period like a classroom teacher would, and that the rest of the teaching staff often misunderstands her role and how her time is spent.

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