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!