banned books week: more than just books these days

So today is Banned Websites Awareness Day.  Just as a little refresher, most schools and school libraries in the United States use filters to block access to certain content on the internet.  The problem is that these filters can be incredibly restrictive and prevent teachers and students from accessing quality educational websites, as well as social networking sites that promote communication and collaboration.  As a result, one day of Banned Books Week is dedicated to raising awareness of banned internet content.

At this point, you may be asking why, exactly, this is a problem.  Don’t we have a responsibility to protect kids from all the unsavory content available on the dark and twisty interwebs?  And what about bullying?  If we don’t block Facebook, all the mean kids will gang up on the nerds, and we can’t have that.

These are valid points.  This is undoubtedly a complex issue, and it is absolutely necessary to create and comply with policies regarding acceptable, appropriate, and responsible use of the internet in schools.  The internet can be a scary place, and there are certainly websites out there that really aren’t appropriate for schools.

But many schools’ acceptable use policies are outdated, overly cautious, or inconsistent.  Some policies haven’t been rewritten in nearly a decade, and the internet has changed so much since then.  Some schools restrict access to Blogger, but not WordPress.  And some filters are so restrictive that legitimate educational resources are blocked!

One of the main filter targets continues to be social media.  Social networking sites can be used for bullying; however, they can also be used to ask questions, communicate assignments, or continue the class discussion.  They can get students engaged in a classroom activity.  And Pinterest, YouTube, and different blogs can be amazing resources for teachers and librarians; I know that I stole found some great ideas while I perused the blogs of other teachers.

On top of these things, when we restrict access to so much of the internet, we’re really doing students a disservice.  In this age of increased technology and digital information, they need strong information literacy skills.  If we simply filter out all that is bad, we aren’t teaching them the skills necessary to evaluate sources for accuracy and reliability.  Once they move beyond the land of filters, how will they be able to tell the good sources from the bad, if we haven’t taught them?

Filtering isn’t something that should be taken lightly or repealed unequivocally.  It is a complex issue, and there are certainly some positive aspects to consider.  However, we also shouldn’t sit back and allow increasingly restrictive filters to prevent teachers, librarians, and students from accessing valuable content and using social media to make education more engaging and relevant.  A discussion on the topic is necessary, and what better time to have that discussion than Banned Books Week?

on bias and asking good questions

Everyone is biased.

During last week’s 511 class, we were given the task of going out “into the community” and asking them questions.  Some groups were assigned to talk to people in the library, while some were forbidden from going there.  Different groups were assigned to ask one of the following questions:

-how can the library help you?

-what problems are you having?

-what are your goals for your degree?

With fairly broad questions, we definitely got some interesting responses, and we decided that some of the questions weren’t all that great.

I’m not going to go into a detailed summary of what we discovered in our very official, scientific survey (because then I’d have to kill you, of course).  But another topic we’ve been discussing lately is bias, and I think that it would be interesting to examine this activity while focusing on bias.

As we all now know, it is completely impossible to be unbiased, as a librarian or as a human being.  No matter how hard you try to remain completely objective, your decisions are shaped by your worldview and your background, and even simple tasks are, in fact, biased.  Want to look something up online rather than in a book?  Bias. Prefer Omnictionary* to Wikipedia?  Bias.  A member wants to know something about Pepsi, and you’re a lifelong Coke drinker?  Bias.

So even though we can and should try our best to provide a variety of resources so that members can make their own, informed decisions, our own experiences are still going to shape how we do our job.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just something we need to remain aware of, especially when engaging in conversation with the community.

I think it’s especially important to be cognizant of our biases when asking questions.  In order to determine what communities need from their libraries, it’s kind of necessary to actually, you know, talk to community members.  And in order to truly determine what they need, not what we think they need, or what we want them to need, the questions we ask matter.

As a former teacher, I know how easy it is to try to lead students to the answer you have in your head, based on the questions you ask.  While this does get you an answer, it’s not necessarily helpful, because it doesn’t really show you what the student actually knows.  Similarly, if you ask leading questions when conversing with community members, you’re probably going to get answers they think you want to hear, rather than what they really need from the library.  Also, if you ask questions like ‘how can the library help you?’ or ‘how can we fix things?’ to people who are already using the library, you’re probably not going to elicit responses that will help you make big changes, and you might also insult some people.

We can’t just discard our biases; our personal experiences shape how we see the world and how we do our jobs.  Now that we know how biased we are, we can make adjustments to the conversations we have.  The questions we ask (and how we ask them) are important, and making an effort to acknowledge our biases and form our questions accordingly when conversing with the community will, I believe, be beneficial in the long run.

*This is, unfortunately, not a real thing; fellow John Green enthusiasts may appreciate the reference.

Banned Books Week

Hello lovely readers! Today marks the beginning of Banned Books Week, which runs from September 30th to October 6th this year.  This is something that I think is still incredibly relevant and meaningful despite our current tendencies to seek information from digital resources.  When people attempt to ban books, they are trying to dictate what others are able to think, write and read, and this is a BIG problem, since freedom of expression is sort of protected by the Constitution and all.  Whether you prefer to get your information from good old-fashioned books or those newfangled e-readers or just your favorite website, you should have the freedom to decide what to read, what to think, and what to say about what you read and think.

Bottom line: Censorship=BAD. Intellectual freedom=GOOD!

Ok, I’ll step down off my soapbox now.  Meanwhile, if you happen to live in the central New York area and want to do something to participate in Banned Books Week, here are some local events:

-The Tomkins County Public Library is kicking off Banned Books week with a Freedom to Read Celebration on September 30th from 2-4 pm in the Borg Warner Room. This will feature a presentation by Ithaca’s writer in residence, human rights activist and journalist Sonali Samarasinghe.

-The Baldwinsville Public Library is hosting a Banned Book Week Freedom to Read Event on October 2nd from 12-1 pm in the Community Room. People can go just to listen, or can read aloud from a favorite banned book for 5-10 minutes.

-The Beauchamp branch of the Onondaga County Public Library is hosting a community read-out called “Black and Banned” on October 2nd from 3-6 pm. Community members are invited to read a short excerpt from a work by an African-American author that has been censored, or just go and listen.

-The Mundy Branch of the Onondaga County Public Library is hosting a read-aloud of passages from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World on October 2nd at 3:30 pm.

-The Hamilton Public Library and the Colgate University Bookstore are joining together to host a Banned Books Week Read-Out on October 2nd at 7 pm. Head to the Hamilton Public Library’s community reading room to hear readings and discussion of banned books.

Not in central NY, or just not able to make one of these events?  No worries!  You could head over to the Banned Books Week website to see what events are happening in your area, or participate in a virtual read-out instead.

What’s YOUR favorite way to celebrate Banned Books Week?  Let me know in the comments, or find out what others are doing on Twitter at #bannedbooksweek.

pretty, pretty libraries

Earlier this week, Jeanette wrote a post about the need for buildings that are “dedicated to quiet study, thought, and reflection in today’s noisy world,” or, to rephrase, what typically comes to mind for most people upon hearing the word ‘library.’

I think she makes a valid point.  In our pursuit of collaboration and knowledge creation in the name of new librarianship, we are told to focus on what the community needs.  Sometimes, a community needs a place people find inspiring, or a place that represents the community’s aspirations toward becoming more knowledgeable.

All of that was basically a long-winded way of informing you that I thought I’d brighten your Friday with some pretty pictures of libraries I find inspirational.

So here you go:

Clockwise, from upper left: Rijksmuseum Research Library, Amsterdam; Bristol Central Library, Bristol, UK; Paul Barrett, Jr., Library, Rhodes College; Lehigh University Library; Clementinum National Library, Czech Republic; Chancellor Green Library, Princeton University

And one more inspirational library, for good measure:

Hesburgh Library, University of Notre Dame

In my quest for inspirational libraries, I looked at a number of different lists on the topic of beautiful libraries.  Feel free to browse through a few of these, and let me know what YOU find inspirational.  Is it one of these libraries, or something completely different?

Library as Community Memory: The Nashville Flood Project

2010 Flood 007Source

About a month before I moved to Nashville in 2010, the city was, quite literally, under water.  The flood that occurred there during the first few days of May 2010 devastated large areas of the community.  Homes were ruined, schools were closed for a week, and businesses were forced to close (some weren’t able to reopen until almost two years later).

Right now you’re probably saying to yourself, ok, that’s sad and all, but what does this have to do with libraries?  Well, I’m glad you asked!

As we discussed in class last week, libraries, in addition to serving as a platform for innovation and learning, also serve as a community repository and memory.  The Nashville Public Library has enthusiastically taken on this role, as you can see if you spend any time learning about The Flood Project.

Now, I’ve had my issues with the Nashville Public Library (a story for another post, perhaps), but The Flood Project is something I think is great for the community.  Thousands of people were affected by the flood; it became an integral part of some people’s life experiences, and people are still talking about it now, more than two years later.  I know that the pain and the memories will fade with time, but people’s experiences will be preserved and remembered thanks to the library.

The library has done several important things as part of this project.  They set up a page on the project’s website where people could share their experiences and pictures.  They collected many oral histories detailing personal perspectives and experiences, from reactions to flood damage to rescue efforts to recovery after the flood.  A little over a year after the flood happened, the library opened an exhibit sharing what had been collected at that point in the process.  Most recently, a large number of images and excerpts from oral history interviews have been digitized and added to the library’s Digital Collections.
Flood 2010Source

The project is ongoing, and I’m not sure what the next steps are, although I believe interviews are still being conducted.  Whether the library features another exhibit or focuses on digitally archiving people’s memories, I think this project has been amazing, because the community has been so heavily involved.  The library saw that the community needed a way to work through and preserve this event that became such an immense part of so many people’s personal histories, and responded by creating this project.  Community members provided their photos and videos, community members volunteered to collect oral histories, and community members shared their stories.  In every way, this has been a community project.

The flood was a devastating event in Nashville’s recent history, and thanks to the Nashville Public Library’s commitment to serve as a repository and memory for the community, the people of Nashville will have their stories of destruction and rebuilding, despair and perseverance, preserved for the future.

Libraries are for reading…aren’t they?

Picture found here

I don’t hate the READ posters.  In fact, I actually kind of love them.  I think there is a definite need to emphasize the awesomeness of reading.  But I’ll get to that in a minute.  What I don’t necessarily like is that when these posters are placed in libraries, the implication is that libraries exist to promote literacy in a very narrow, traditional sense, when in fact, literacy today is so much more than the ability to read and write.

Before I came to Syracuse, I taught 4th grade.  The demographic makeup of the area in which I taught meant that the majority of students at my school were low-income, second language learners.  Most of my students spoke a language other than English outside of school, had parents who did not read English, and often entered the school with no experience in English, formal or informal.

I’m not trying to discount in any way the value of their native languages.  But reading was a definitely a struggle for the majority of students I taught.  Most of them came to me, at the beginning of fourth grade, about 2 grade levels behind where they should have been in reading.  This presented a number of obstacles.  Fourth grade textbooks (not to mention fourth grade standardized tests) are written for students who are at a fourth grade reading level (the same is true, obviously, for third grade textbooks, and so on).  In addition to this, textbooks feature a lot of really specific vocabulary that makes them even harder to read.

This was our social studies textbook. I was the teacher, and I didn’t want to read it either.

These students, therefore, came to me with some pretty negative experiences with reading.  They couldn’t read the textbooks to understand the content, they were forced to read things that didn’t interest them, and as a result of these things, they thought reading was hard and boring.  Why on earth would they want to keep at it, when they could just play a video game or watch tv?  (I mean, not in school, obviously…but you get my point.)

I worked really, really hard to create an environment that celebrated reading of all kinds, and to help each kid find books that were appropriate for his or her level and that were on interesting topics for that particular kid.  I spent a lot of time and money on my classroom library, filling it with books from all genres, all levels, fiction and non-fiction, comic books, magazines, WHATEVER I thought my students would read.  And here is where the read posters come into the picture: 4th graders are heavily influenced by popular culture.  I was doing everything I could to get my students to read, and if I thought that a poster featuring a celebrity reading might help me, then that poster was absolutely going up on my classroom wall.

The thing is, though, that I didn’t want my kids to learn to read simply because I believe in the joys of reading for pleasure (I mean, I do.  But that’s another topic entirely.)  I wanted them to be readers because reading is a skill that is vitally important to the acquisition of information, and I knew that if I didn’t help them to become proficient readers, they would be cut off from so many things.  They would struggle with doing research for school, finding jobs, reading books AND finding information online, to name just a few things.

This was one of the main reasons I wanted to pursue a career as a librarian.  I’ve always known, on a theoretical level, that literacy is important, but as a teacher, I saw firsthand that students are not getting the literacy instruction they need, and that we can no longer define literacy in the traditional sense of reading and writing.  I want to help improve the literacy of students, and by this, I don’t just mean teaching them to read.  I mean showing them that knowing how to read can open up so many other avenues of information for them, from the joys of Wikipedia to using databases for scholarly research.  I also mean helping them to learn about credible sources, collaboration, crediting others for their work, and the risks that inevitably come with such expanded access to information.  Students need instruction in information literacy as much as they do traditional literacy.

So I don’t hate the READ posters; I think they can serve a purpose.  But I would agree

Our own version of a READ poster (personal photo)

that in a library, which is so much more than a place for reading, a different campaign would be appropriate.  Professor Lankes suggested ASK.  I don’t think it needs to be limited to one particular word.  I would offer INVESTIGATE, or CREATE, or COMMUNICATE, or even IMAGINE.  The point is that libraries can and should promote literacy, but literacy these days is so much more than just reading.

beyond the bookshelves? what does that even mean???

Picture found here

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved libraries.  I can remember going with my mom to check out books when I was young, and being forced to leave against my will, because I could have spent whole days there.  While other kids in elementary school loved gym class, or art, my favorite specials class was library.  Even now, one of the first things I do when I move to a new place is obtain a public library card.  One of my favorite things about my new apartment in Syracuse is that it is walking distance from a library.

To say that a library is just a physical location where I can go find new books to read, though, is to severely limit both the scope and impact of libraries.  Similarly, to say that librarians are just people who check out books, or help people find books, is to limit the influence and abilities of librarians.

I love books.  I don’t think that’s a secret, and I don’t think that books are going anywhere in the near (or distant) future.  But libraries aren’t just about books, because knowledge isn’t obtained or created simply through access to books.  As we discussed in class, knowledge is created through conversation, and librarians are facilitators of that conversation.  That facilitation doesn’t have to take place in one particular, static location; it can occur wherever librarians happen to be.

In order for librarians to fulfill their mission, which is, according to Professor Lankes in The Atlas of New Librarianship, “to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities,” it is definitely necessary to make sure that physical libraries have resources that are relevant and in-demand in the community.  However, it is also necessary to move beyond the bookshelves, to go out into the community, and to facilitate knowledge creation wherever the greatest need for it is in the community.

Picture found here

In some places, that may mean creating a LibraryFarm, where people can check out a garden plot and grow their own produce.  Or it may mean bringing books to people in remote villages with the help of two donkeys.  Perhaps going beyond the bookshelves means traveling with a team of medical professionals to train rural health workers.  Or, in some places, it may be as simple as offering something a little unorthodox for checkout, like, for example, a cake pan.

As I mentioned earlier, knowledge is created through conversation, and the great thing about conversation is you can take it with you anywhere.  You don’t have to be within the walls of a physical library to facilitate a conversation, and in some cases it’s best for the community if you get out from behind the stacks of books and take the conversation right to them.

I will always love and advocate for books.  But as a future librarian, my goal is to facilitate knowledge creation, and that can take place anywhere, from inside a library to far beyond the bookshelves.