Thoughts from a Subversive School Librarian

Please welcome Pam Read (yes, that really is her name!) as a guest writer. Personally, I’m encouraged by her enthusiasm as a veteran in the field of librarianship and as a doctoral student. -Heidi

Pam Read has an MLS from SUNY Albany, and is a first-year Doctoral Student in the Rutgers University School of Communication and Information. She has worked in libraries for 24 years, including 8 years in a public library (as children’s librarian, reference librarian, and manager of a special collection), and 16 years in schools, elementary and secondary. She’s taught at all levels, from preschool to graduate school.

June 21, 2011

It’s the end of the year in my suburban high school library, always an ineffable confluence of the best of times and the worst of times; the ridiculous and the sublime. It’s just so fraught: kids are hysterically happy to be graduating and finally getting out of Dodge, or disconsolate at having broken up with someone or flunked something (or everything), or terrified at the prospect of having to leave home and family and friends and plummet off the edge of the earth (still flat in terms of their sense of possibilities) into their Freshman year of college.

For me, it’s already time to start making adjustments for the upcoming year: I am disconsolate at losing some of my favorite ‘residents,’ and breathing a sigh of relief that the really troubled ones are leaving, though I know there will be that inexorable new crop of both. (High School is not like college: there is no element of self-selection, and we welcome identified sociopaths as well as saints).

End-of-year party for a teacher: a HS Junior now working with a university professor and doctoral student on a Social Media/Twitter study

I am reviewing my usage statistics: we’re going to ditch LexisNexis Academic because nobody uses it: it’s a great database in terms of its content but a bit too ‘command line’ and fussy in its search interface for high school students (and teachers): I’m trying to talk ProQuest into letting me have DataSets for less than the $3,000+ it charges colleges, and I cannot believe we did 6000 (!!) separate loans of laptop computer-per-academic-period(s). We introduced some Nook eReaders in October – circumventing budget guidelines, fudging circulation procedures, and totally ignoring copyright restrictions – but the kids loved them and so we’re going to buy a bunch more next year (Barnes & Noble has closed the copyright loophole, and now accepts school Purchase Orders, so I will only be out of compliance in the area of circ stats).

This year has been especially overwhelming – personally and professionally, since I was going to school myself, was inundated by reading and writing and trying to develop workable connections – in my head as well as my practice – between the scholarly thought embedded in LIS and HIB, the professional guidelines and goals of my position as Secondary Library Media Specialist, and the realities of what kids are all about: what they really need from their teachers and mentors, and how I feel compelled to respond to their most meaningful information behavior and satisfy their genuine – not just academic –information needs.

It was that need to reconcile all those conflicting beliefs/experiences practices/imperatives/you-name-it that drove me into my Doctoral program in the first place: I poured out my heart to my first advisor there, and she said, “It is good that you are here. You can contribute to resolving these issues, but in your study, in your writing.”  She was calming and reassuring, and she held out the promise of eventual intellectual peace. I was hooked. And I remain hooked, after a billion abstruse articles read, twenty-something papers written, four courses passed, and a bunch of incredible new colleagues acquired.  I became convinced that I could in fact integrate all these separate selves into a librarian whose practice is grounded in scholarship, and whose goal is the very best and most meaningful of service to my adolescent patrons.

So I used my high school students as my ‘lab’: I did a couple of studies targeting social media use, and information behavior in the context of social groups within school frameworks (study halls and lunch tables), and hooked a couple of high school students up with projects going on at my university. A couple of professors used our AP classes to beta test some interesting collaborative search software (

‘Subjects’ of the study of the information behavior of school-based social groups (4th period study hall)

Results: the kids have adored being interviewed (what adolescents don’t like talking about themselves??) and are thrilled at the prospect of being published – even if anonymously. A couple have gotten interested enough in “Information Behavior” to want to work at their college libraries, or look at Communication & Information Science as a possible major.

After 25 years in libraries, it is clear to me that schools are exceedingly difficult places for children to be able to thrive, educational agendas are rarely suited to the incredibly diverse needs of individual learners, and most teachers are torn between the dictates of the job and their own (human) instincts. And as this ProfHacker piece proves, this situation is NOT limited to high schools.

In the midst of all this, however, sit librarians, uniquely positioned to accomplish a number of incredibly worthy things, if they are willing to look clearly at their situations and get somewhat subversive about their options. If you’re curious about the ways in which all this plays out – in doctoral classrooms and the wild wooly stacks and research labs of a high school library – stay tuned.

Categories: Big Picture, Professional Life

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