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Library Secrets for Back to School

Summer is almost over. In the libraries we are girding our loins for the start of the school year. No more happy families picking up audiobooks for road trips; it's time for the after-school junior high crowds (heaven help me) and . . . dun dun dunnnn . . . school assignments.
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We asked famous librarian Miss Nemesis for the dirt on school assignments, oblivious teachers, and what you can do to help your child get the most out of the library this year. Miss Nemesis has worked for many fancy libraries, birthed an adorable baby, and walks around emitting the delicate scent of freesia. She does not tolerate shenanigans.

middle schooler with backpack

"The library is the worst group of people ever assembled in history. They're mean, conniving, rude and extremely well read, which makes them very dangerous."--Leslie Knope, Parks & Recreation.

Summer is almost over. In the libraries we are girding our loins for the start of the school year. No more happy families picking up audiobooks for road trips and kids claiming their summer reading prizes. It's time for the after-school junior high crowds (heaven help me) and . . . dun dun dunnnn . . . the school assignments.

Wild-eyed parents will rush in, sometimes with child in tow, because they just learned about a book report or similar that is due tomorrow. If these parents are lucky, they will actually have the correct information about what this assignment is and what is needed. Some are not so lucky, like the father who came in alone holding a piece of scratch paper with "Julius Caesar" written on it. No idea if he was looking for a book title, encyclopedia article, a biography for a book report, three sources of information for a history report, nothing. At my suggestion, he called his son and found out that the assignment was to read the playJulius Caesar by William Shakespeare. Because we so would have ended up there.

Another unlucky thing that will happen to parents and children is that sometimes the teachers assigning the projects are not quite on top of what is going on in the world of books and information.

Perhaps the teacher made a really great book list during her first year of teaching in 1992 and then never updated it, which means that 70% of those titles are out of print and the remaining 30% are, well, lame.

A teacher may choose an arbitrary page number requirement, not realizing that number of pages will likely = y reading level--a level that may be over some of his student's abilities.

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The teacher, dealing with budget cuts that prevent her from purchasing class sets, may have assigned the same book to every student. There will not be enough copies in the library. I feel sick when families leave me and head over to pay full price at the book store, but that's what happens when you are under the gun. If you have time, try Amazon Used or

Your child's teacher might be a Luddite who thinks that "electronic sources" are code for "Wikipedia articles written by Stephen Colbert." It's too bad, since this is where your child will find the most current information (in electronic sources, not from Stephen Colbert). These teachers will restrict the amount of "computer sources" your child can use. Another reason for this may simply be that they don't have the time, resources, or inclination to teach the kids how to access and evaluate information on the computer. My advice? Get to know what electronic resources your library has already purchased for your use. Get on your library's homepage or ask a librarian. There will be magazine articles, encyclopedia articles, newspaper articles, maybe some "homework help" pages for kids and teens, all kinds of things that your library does not have in paper. Then, when your child is citing his or her sources, just include the original magazine/newspaper/whatever source--there's no need to mention that you used a computer to get to it. No lie, the first time I touched a piece of paper during my master's thesis was when I printed the thing out. There is some awesome stuff out there.

Sometimes, though, it's the parents who make things difficult. Most parents are lovely, but the un-lovely encounters seem to fall into two categories.

The first parent (more likely to be a mother, I don't know why this is) is the parent who wants to be absolutely in charge of her child's reading. If I ask him a question about what he is looking for, she answers. If I ask him what kind of books he likes, she answers. Or she tells me that he likes such-and-such but shewants to see him reading this other thing. This rarely goes well. In situations where the child is not suffering from crippling shyness or some other difficulty that really does require Mom to be the voice, I do my best to get him away from her. Once it's just the two of us and they actually are allowed to open their mouths, kids start telling me what appeals to them, and then I can find them something they will love. Sometimes, just to be ornery, a kid will refuse a great book when Mom or Dad offers it to them but then happily take it from a librarian. Don't ask me why, I'm just glad it works.

If the first parent acts like the child isn't there, the second parent acts like I'm not there. Dads are more often guilty of this. They will come in with their child but won't know exactly where to go. So they ask me for help, but it's in a "Hi, point me to the 900s but don't make eye contact or talk to me because I have this COMPLETELY UNDER CONTROL and I don't actually need you" sort of way. Of course, if I left it at that they would wind up lost in the adult section staring blankly at shelves of WWII volumes rather than in the children's biography section, which is what they are actually trying to find and is on the other end of the building.

This is when I want to say, "Hey, Dad? How about you let me do my job. Your kids will still respect you, I promise. Go teach them to fish or shoot a gun or something afterwards if you're that concerned. Also? You are a dad bringing his kids to the library to help them succeed in school and be readers. You already win."

So good luck to you, parents. Librarians are dying to help you out, so ask us. There may be a few grouchy solitaire-playing exceptions (*coughyou-know-who-you-are-and-if-i-were-your-boss-i-would-END-youcough*). But I promise that the rest of us will scale buildings to get you or your child matched up with the very thing that you want or need. It's like a drug for us.

And a quick word to the junior high kids out there? I am nice, but I don't negotiate. You have been warned.


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