Fostering curiosity in kids (and their parents) since 2011

Guess who was not prepared for how hard it would be to juggle a job and home life?

Photo of the interior of a middle school library, showing the fiction stacks.

My new digs. (Photo: Shala Howell)

This girl.

Me in a black mask, posing in front of a shelf of books, wearing a blue plaid shirt.
Me, that first week, before the students even arrived. Look how excited my eyes are. (Photo: Shala Howell)

As you may have noticed, I have not been posting much here at Caterpickles lately. My job is amazing, and I love working with both middle schoolers and books, but I do have a tendency to use up all my words at work. But y’all have been remarkably faithful about continuing to visit my little blog, so since we have a day off today, I thought I’d spent at least part of it telling you how things have been going.

Happy Veteran’s Day, by the way.

Many of the teachers tell me that this year is pretty weird. I don’t really have context for that, but I can tell you that the library is operating a little differently this year.

We added a new Holds Shelf

If your public library is like my public library, this is not going to seem like an innovation to you. After all, public libraries have allowed patrons to reserve books online and come pick them up at their convenience for years.

But it never made sense to implement it at my middle school, because the kids could come in whenever they wanted. About a hundred kids pass through the Fletcher Library every day. We get plenty of foot traffic, and in the Before Times, it worked perfectly well to have the kids come fetch their own book.

Then COVID happened.

Last year, because the school was closed to in-person learning for most of the year, the kids got pretty used to reserving their books online and picking them up during curbside pickup on Wednesday morning. The librarians spent a lot of time training the kids to do this last year. When school resumed in person this year, we considered going back to life as usual.

But then some of our best readers told us they really liked the convenience of curbside pickup, because they don’t always have time to browse for books during the school day.

And it really had been quite a lot of work to teach them to use our website. In the end, rather than toss all that work aside, we decided to create a new Hold Shelf in our library, similar to the one the public library uses.

The kids request books online, I fetch the books from the stacks, reserve them in the system, pop them on the shelf, and email the students to come pick them up. Most of the kids are pretty good about checking their email, but some never do, so I also post a sign at the door on Thursdays to remind kids to pick up their books before the weekend.

Our Hold Shelf consists of two shelves sorted into four sections to keep books. Books are stashed on the shelf according to the first initial of the student's last name. There are two signs. The first identifies it as the place to pick up reserved books. The other reminds students to check the books out before they leave.
Our Hold Shelf on a typical afternoon. It doesn’t see a ton of traffic — on average only about 100 of the 2000+ books we check out each month pass through the Holds Shelf — but it gets fairly steady use and it gets books into the hands of kids who would otherwise never use our library, so I’m pretty happy with it. (Photo: Shala Howell)

The main difference between the way the Hold Shelf works this year and the way curbside pickup worked last year is that the students need to remember to check the books out before they leave the library. (Last year, the books were checked out for them.) But since the checkout desk is between the Hold Shelf and the door, it’s not too hard to catch them on their way out.

Since implementing the Hold Shelf, I’ve talked to a few kids who don’t feel comfortable taking books home at all because of COVID. Although our school has been lucky so far, some of these kids are hyper-aware that they could be required to go into quarantine at any time for reasons completely out of their control. The last thing they want to do is be responsible for a library book. They just don’t have the emotional bandwidth for it. They’d like to read, though, and they’d like to be able to read books that take more than 15 minutes at lunch to finish.

So they tell me what books they want, and instead of checking them out, I reserve the books for them and keep them on the Hold Shelf. When they come into the library at break and at lunch, they retrieve their book from the shelf, read it, and return it to the Hold Shelf for the next time. When they’re done, they pop the book in the return bin and I remove the hold.

It wasn’t my original intention in setting up the Hold Shelf, but it works pretty well. I know where to find their books, and they don’t have to worry that some other student will check the book out before they are done with it.

And it keeps me from losing books when kids do things like this:

Behind the front row of books, you can see Pilu of the Woods, lying on its side, clearly pushed back where a student hopes no one will notice it.
Someone “reserving” Pilu of the Woods behind the books in the Graphic Novel section to read at a later time. (Photo: Shala Howell)

Or this…

A shelf labeled 362.2 Ano in our nonfiction section. The book on display is Addiction and Overdose by Connie Goldsmith. Tucked into the shelf is Thunder from the Sea by Joan Harlow. That book belongs in the fiction section.
In case you can’t peer in to read the spine labels, what you’re looking at is someone “reserving” Thunder from the Sea by Joan Harlow by hiding it in the Addiction and Overdose section of Nonfiction. There is a handy chair for reading in relative privacy just opposite this shelf. (Photo: Shala Howell)

Look, just because *you* never look at the nonfiction section doesn’t mean *I* never do.

Fun fact: It was by asking the kid who hid Thunder from the Sea why he was hiding books in the nonfiction section that I figured out that I needed to use the Hold Shelf to keep books for kids who didn’t feel comfortable taking them home. Instead of being an annoyance, he’s now one of my best customers.

Opening up the Hold Shelf to kids to use to stash their books in between bouts of reading in the library seems to have calmed this sort of behavior down.

We also offer socially acceptable fidgets

We open our doors at lunch to students who want to come fetch books, read quietly, sit and play games, or just hang out in clusters with friends.

There is a lot of anxiety bubbling out of the average student who walks through our doors. I don’t know how it compares to previous years, but almost every middle schooler I deal with feels like they are just a few cracks away from breaking.

Of the 70-odd students who come to the library every day at lunch, at least 10 bring some sort of fidget with them. Others repurpose stuff they find in the library like the pencils on our supply table, checkers from our Connect 4 games, and our perpetually incomplete packs of playing cards into fidgets to keep their hands occupied at lunch. Still others bring Rubik’s Cubes from home.

After a while, I noticed that the kids with the Rubik’s Cubes would always be surrounded by other kids staring longingly at their Rubik’s Cubes and asking if they could have a turn. Sometimes the answer was yes. But sometimes there was friction.

We had a couple of Rubik’s Cubes lying around our house that we weren’t using, so I decided to bring them in and add them to the Games Shelf. They were immensely popular and lasted about two days before they wandered out of the library.

I was telling my brother about this, and he pointed out that I worked in a library. Just because we don’t bother to check out the other games on our Games Shelf didn’t mean we couldn’t check out the Rubik’s Cubes.

He convinced me to give it another try. So when a generous donor gave us a collection of 12 Rubik’s Cubes, I created a sign out sheet to track who borrowed them and when. Every day when the cubes roll out, I ask one of our student helpers to take the names and track whether the cubes actually come back. It’s working like a charm so far. Something about making kids write down their name makes them much better about bringing the cubes back when the bell rings.

12 rubik's cubes: six 3x3s, two 2x2s, one 4x4, one 5x5, one pyramid, and one round one with 11 pieces on each side.
Our library’s collection of Rubik’s Cubes. It’s been several weeks now, and we still have them all. It feels like a miracle every single day. Thanks, Paul. (Photo: Shala Howell)

Some of the kids who check out the cubes actually solve them. Others use them to learn how to solve them (my checkout station includes three simple solution guides a student found for me online). Still others use them to make pretty patterns. And then there are the final set, who just want something to hold and keep their hands busy during lunch. In other words, they’re being used as socially acceptable fidgets.

We’ve only had one break so far, but fortunately, another student had already volunteered to be my Cube Repairman. I messaged him the day it happened, and he stopped by after school to fix it for me.

I could go on, but…

There’s a lot more I could tell you, but hopefully this gives you a tiny taste of what life is like for me these days. Come to my library for the books if you like, but if you’d rather not, you could just play games, draw, flip through magazines, help make the library better, catch up on homework, or chat with your friends. We aren’t that into the Silence in the Library thing here at Fletcher. That said, if you’d rather run or climb, I will ask you to take a break outside.

See you around the stacks.

2 Responses to “Guess who was not prepared for how hard it would be to juggle a job and home life?”

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