Reader's Paradise

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How the Upper School library contributes to a great education
From the Fall 2009 Caller

By Sue Phillips

Before school on a foggy fall morning several students enter the library and gather quietly at their favorite table. Others are tucked away at study carrels near the windows, reviewing their notes for a quiz, or reading a chapter before the busy day begins. By 10 a.m. the room has long been humming with activity as waves of students enter and exit, use the copy machine, track down a short story, or ask the librarians for help in citing a source for their essay draft. A shy freshman approaches to ask whether the library has any good books set in the Middle Ages, and while the librarian helps her with some recommendations, teachers trickle in to find a quiet place to scan the New York Times or write comments on students’ recent in-class writing assignment.
Librarians are collaborators who know that the key to success is rooted in a thorough understanding of the academic life of the school. We must be curious and persistent to seek out the information that we need to reflect and enhance Catlin Gabel’s intellectual climate. The process begins with a solid knowledge of the curriculum, and we engage in regular conversations with colleagues and departments to establish a firm understanding of what the faculty is teaching, and how their assignments change from year to year.
New programs provide opportunities to enhance the collection. When Peter Shulman and Dan Griffiths began teaching their interdisciplinary environmental studies class, we added a substantial number of titles to our collection on topics such as recycling, alternative fuels and energy, habitat preservation, and environmental ethics. Sometimes new areas of knowledge emerge in a discipline and receive thought-provoking attention in the classroom. Students learn about nanotechnology, for instance, and come to the library for help finding a book or an article to feed their interest. The arrival of the outdoor program several years ago led to a surge of interest in books on outdoor survival and adventure, and we make certain that these books are prominently on display at least twice a year. When the new Chinese language program begun, the library began purchasing classics in translation as well as a good range of bilingual titles on Chinese art, social issues, and culture.
Sometimes an assignment presents a perfect opportunity to collaborate. The English department has worked closely with the Upper School library for years to enhance student learning. When the English faculty introduces their students to the poetry of William Butler Yeats, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, or the British Romantic poets, they inform the library, and we place a selected group of books on reserve for the students to consult. Gradually, as students become more sophisticated and independent learners, we offer them more complex and powerful tools. Students in senior electives in English work with their English teachers and a librarian as we show them how to use academic databases such as JSTOR to find journal articles on a closely defined topic. While the initial classroom visit is a small group experience, many of the students later visit the library to consult one-on-one with the librarian, and to obtain feedback on their search strategies. This spring, many of Patrick Walsh’s students in the U.S. Constitution course sat down with a librarian to locate electronic and print information on case law for a classroom debate. Many of these students had already had exposure to database searching through their fall English electives, and they were able to rapidly translate those skills to another discipline. The goal of this teaching is to give students the confidence and specific skills they need to locate reliable information on any subject of interest to them.
Librarians firmly believe in the importance of independent reading for information and pleasure as part of the private intellectual life of a student. We know that during the academic year it can be difficult to make time to read for pleasure, so we create busy and varied book displays throughout the year, with particular emphasis before the school holidays and summer break. Our summer borrowing program, introduced several years ago, helped get books and magazines off the shelves and into circulation over the summer for students, faculty, and staff to enjoy. This June, hundreds of titles were checked out, and we spent a considerable amount of time consulting with students and adults to fill their arms with summer reading. To our delight, the staff of the school are regular and energetic participants, making summer borrowing a truly schoolwide program enjoyed by students, parents, bus drivers, development staffers, faculty, and many others.
Everyone knows that Catlin Gabel students are intellectual and inquisitive. Over the years, as we welcome students daily in the library, we begin to gain their trust, and they tell us more and more about their interests. A few years ago, one student expressed an interest in game theory, and we bought several books on the topic that have checked out regularly ever since. Several students have acquired an interest in classic British mysteries, so our collection is growing. Students can and do request specific titles and authors, and smile with delight when they see that we are listening, and that we frequently make purchases on their behalf. The Karl Jonske ’99 endowed fund, established in memory of a Catlin Gabel alumnus who was a prodigious reader, permits us to purchase more than a hundred new titles each year that are chosen specifically to enhance the library’s selection of books for independent reading pleasure.
By the time our current students graduate from college and begin their professional lives, the specific search tools they are now using will change, and new technologies will alter the appearance and function of traditional sources of information. Books in print are very likely to be around for a long time, but we will continue to see developments in ebooks, the electronic dissemination of news, and the digitization of millions of pages of print materials available through searchable databases. New ways of packaging information, electronically and otherwise, are not values-neutral. Fortunately, Catlin Gabel students are well prepared for these challenges. They have learned how to evaluate online sources for commercial advertising and bias, and have the skills to think critically, define their questions, and make competent and ethical choices. It all begins with a shy freshman visitor who thinks the library is just a good place to read, and culminates in an assertive, thoughtful, sophisticated senior who knows how to research a topic, defend an assertion, cite a source, and recommend a favorite book to others. This makes being a librarian a great and interdisciplinary joy.
Sue Phillips has been Upper School librarian since 2004.