Non-fiction books – the good oil and why to drill for it

I followed with interest the discussion last week on the school library listserv on how some schools are handling the issue of purchasing non-fiction material for their school libraries, and it was very thought-provoking. If there is one thing I’m certain of, it’s that library staff are in a rapidly changing environment and it is very good for us to be challenged in the how and why we make decisions in our libraries.

I make no bones about it – I am a huge fan of quality non-fiction print resources, both for recreational use as well as to support the curriculum.  I am also the champion in my school for the use of quality online resources.  How I make decisions and go about purchasing print resources has undoubtedly changed over the past two or three years, and we will all need to continue to review our buying plans and decisions as our options alter.  What we do need to do is to get smarter about what we purchase and then make sure these titles are well utilised by deliberately promoting them to our teachers and students.

One of my biggest concerns is the growing gap between the resources available to our students, especially for research purposes, and their ability to find and use information.  I’m finding more and more frequently that many student’s literacy levels are impeding their ability to not only locate but then comprehend suitable material. I’m sure this is no different for primary-aged students, where there is a real shortage of quality information available on line at the right reading level for these kids.

At my school I have intentionally purchased print encyclopedias at different levels in an attempt to be able to provide just the right resource for the right student at the right time. I have two sets of both the full World Book Encyclopedia as well as the Student Discovery Encyclopedia and several specialised sets as well.  So much quicker and easier than getting students logged on to a computer and having to wade through a myriad of choices before, finally, hopefully finding something suitable in less than 2 minutes. (After all, will they even be prepared to invest that amount of time?!)

We must avoid falling into the trap of relying on circulation statistics alone to determine how well our non-fiction collection is being used.  Many books are used during class time without being issued to students.  To seriously have a good, clear overview of how well any area within our non fiction is used, we need to look further than what’s being issued.

Just in the past week I encountered a situation with one of my Year 10 classes, who were partially through their In My Backyard research assignment on Pacific Island countries when our internet access was unavailable for the entire period.  I had previously taken a session with this class on the various print resources available to them, suitable for this particular assignment.  The plan for this period had been to demonstrate the Australia/New Zealand Reference Centre, through EPIC as a quality online resource available to them, which naturally went out the window.  I was heartened to see how well this class adapted and used the reference section for the rest of the period. Their teacher even commented on how successful the lesson had been, considering the lack of access to the internet.

There is a danger in throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  We must resist thinking we must be gearing up for the advent of “book-less libraries”.  My philosophy is that it’s not “either/or” it’s “both” when it comes to the variety of resources available for research.  If we don’t provide the “either/or” we’re doing our school community a disservice.

I have designed and collaboratively teach information literacy units at both Year 9 and Year 10 levels.  In order to reinforce the benefits of using books, the Year 9, Top Secret Assignment through English is 95% print-based.  Both the student and staff evaluations feature predominantly how successful using books (specifically biographies and encyclopedias) is.

I don’t envisage doing away with our non-fiction collection – instead I dream up ways to promote it and link it to the curriculum. Our teaching colleagues are stretched and I know they value any professional input we as librarians can have to the planning of their research units. We know what the good oil is – we just have to stake our claim and show others how to drill for it!

10 thoughts on “Non-fiction books – the good oil and why to drill for it

  1. Excellent response Senga. I’ve also had times when the Internet has gone down and have found that the students have used their time much more efficiently using print sources. Yes we continue to need a variety of sources, but our buying of non-fiction is now more focussed on the curriculum and the buying plan.


    1. I think this makes an excellent case – and we all have our own stories – as to why there should be an integrated approach to teaching information literacy skills in all schools ….. I feel another blog post coming on!!


  2. I completely agree Senga. I had a similar situation last week where the internet went down and I ended up teaching Astronomy to a year 7 class when the teacher could not be found. Fortunately I had the encyclopedias you suggested and had resourced the 520s over the last 5 years. The girls were great and just got on with it and learnt how to use books (perish the thought) effectively completing their tasks with 5 minutes to spare. The Internet had come back on in the meantime so we goggle squared the planets to compare and contrast the information they had found in the books against the Internet information.

    At my interview for my current job 6 years ago I was asked what my first purchase would be if I got the job. I said a new set of encyclopedias knowing that the current ones were very old. Asked why, I replied that after 18 girls had taken up places at the computers the 19th girl wanting information would need text resources.

    My comment would be that computers are not infinite, most schools do not have enough to meet the information needs of their students and until everybody has access to online resources when they need them non-fiction most definitely has and will continue to have great value.

    Well said.


  3. Excellent post, Senga. I agree that the challenge lies both in finding and making the resources available in all formats, and more particularly in working with staff and students to ensure that they understand the place of each in their research. Success for students in research is often more assured in the ‘known’ environment of print – because we have put so much thought and effort into the selection process to ensure that success. How often have we seen kids totally surprised by how effective it can be to use a ‘book’!


    1. Now the challenge is to have good concrete examples in our librarian toolboxes to demonstrate to our teaching colleagues why this is still so important! With all the talk of laptops for every student the emphasis could we shift completely away from teaching the skills of using contents pages, indexes, glossaries and timelines. Maybe we need to compile a list of reasons why more often than not, at the beginning of a research task “Book is Best”


  4. Thanks Senga, good food for thought.
    I love my non-fiction section but have to make the effort to sell it on
    a regular basis. Last week I had a class in to use the computers, one
    of the students asked if he could look in books and the teacher said ‘no
    we are here to use the internet’ he must have realized as he was saying
    it how wrong it sounded so he turned to me and said ‘maybe if Mrs Salter
    can find anything’. Luckily I was up for the challenge!
    My biggest difficulty is being ambushed with a topic I have little info
    on, if only they would give me the time to get books from National
    Library and the local public. I can’t help them if they don’t plan
    ahead, which unfortunately happens too often. This is where the
    internet can get the upper hand, because you will always find something,
    even if it isn’t appropriate, helpful or even useful.
    I’m glad you blogged on the topic, last week on list serve it seemed
    like non-fiction sections were on their way out, but not in my library.
    Lisa Salter


    1. Your last point is precisely why it is good to have these conversations. It would be a tragedy if school librarians, due to isolation and pressure from within, feel compelled to eliminate their non-fiction collections, Let’s carry on sharing the good practice ideas and discussing those big issues. Brainstorming and collaborating is power!


  5. It has less to do with whether the ‘Net is up or down, and more to do with a range of resources, allowing different skills and viewpoints. Plus I find the ‘Net is sometimes very superficial – non-fiction books often give a more in-depth viewpoint. Keep them on the shelves – and keep bringing in new ones!


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