Library instruction, or teaching college students to fish

You’ve probably heard the proverb, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him today; teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Two of my favorite nonprofits are modeled on this idea: Heifer International founder Dan West was delivering milk to Spanish Civil War victims and realized “These children don’t need a cup, they need a cow.” Habitat for Humanity‘s mission is to eradicate poverty housing with “a hand up, not a handout,” so they partner with families to build a simple decent home purchased with a no-interest loan.

Reference is another form of service; we’re teaching library patrons how to fish for information.  Students who ask me for assistance often want to fish for themselves; they just need a little guidance. But some have always had someone else fish for them and would prefer I catch, clean, prepare, and serve up the information they need, as quickly as possible.

How to handle this kind of interaction? Gently, but firmly. The patron may be somewhat impatient in the short term if I encourage him or her to search a database (with suggestions and pointers), learn to locate a book on the shelf (sadly, some college students claim they’ve never done this, particularly in a library with LC classification), or to find citation information.

But when the library is closed or the student has graduated and needs to assess the reliability of a website, find a key piece of information for a work assignment, or even just look for a good book, I know I’ll have laid the groundwork for independent information literacy.

Class of 2012, may your fishing feed you well for the rest of your lives.

Please note, the semester is wrapping up at the Nocturnal Librarian blog. I will post less frequently during the summer months.


Making Merriment Meaningful

I love Advent, a time of preparation, hope, and light in a month dominated by darkness. When my kids were small, I looked at the season with fresh eyes. How could we share the joyful anticipation while minimizing commercialization?

My local library had a wonderful book that addressed this question: Unplug the Christmas Machine by Jo Robinson and Jean C. Staeheli. The authors suggest readers consider how and why they celebrate, then offer practical advice on making the season more meaningful and less stressful. Bill McKibben’s Hundred Dollar Holiday addresses the cultural history of Christmas shopping and suggests creative alternatives. provides tips for simplifying holidays and Leo Babauta at Zenhabits recently posted a  “No New Gifts Holiday Challenge.” There will be some used (like new) books under the tree at our house this year. I’ve suggested my family check out my favorite consignment shops for stocking stuffers.

Around the same time I was ready to “unplug” our holidays, my husband’s cousin died suddenly. We decided to make donations in his memory that Christmas, and suggested to our families that instead of shopping we give donations for the adults and one gift per child. To maintain the fun of unwrapping presents, we created certificates explaining each donation and made candy and small gifts.

We’ve made this our tradition, sometimes adding fair trade goodies. My kids are teens now. Their current gift specialties are notepads printed with original artwork and blank greeting cards adorned with photos.  We enjoy choosing donations to match family members’ lives and passions. Charity Navigator is a good place to “shop” for nonprofits.

Our Advent includes volunteering together, choosing gifts for “giving tree” recipients, and celebrating St. Nicholas Day, along with lighting advent wreath candles, baking cookies, and eating latkes at Hanukkah (part of my family is Jewish). We try to stick to one gift each under the tree, plus a family game or books for the kids. When we purchase holiday supplies or gifts, we shop locally if possible.

Our stockings are filled with treats, Heifer animals and gifts to help kids nearby or faraway, based on our interests (donations of soccer or basketballs, art supplies, books, etc.). Even young children understand giving that’s related to their own lives. We gave our nieces and nephew a donation of school supplies for Nyaka AIDS Orphan Project in Uganda last year.

Picture books about nonprofits’ work, like Beatrice’s Goat by Paige McBrier or the delightful new Christmas story The Carpenter’s Gift by David Rubel, make a nice gift to accompany a donation. Did you know the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center is made into lumber which Habitat for Humanity uses to build a home?  Rubel’s earlier book about Habitat’s work, If I Had  a Hammer, is perfect for all ages and would be a unique hostess gift paired with a donation of a box of nails.

Our Advent and Christmas aren’t entirely noncommercial, but they are simpler. My kids have grown up knowing both the excitement of receiving and the warmth of giving, and they’ve channeled their talents and passions into gifts for others. Most importantly, we shifted the emphasis of Christmas from shopping to sharing, and our merriment seems much more meaningful.