iSchool students help community agencies develop library collections
Maya Kanzaria’s expression was one of horror when she first saw the juvenile book collection at the Onondaga County Justice Center’s library. “There were only six books in the whole juvenile collection,” she says, “and only one was in good shape. The others were in such bad shape you couldn’t even tell what they were. I felt like crying.”
Kanzaria, a graduate student in the library and information science program in the School of Information Studies, was visiting the prison library for a course called Library Systems and Processes. Assistant professor Megan Oakleaf had assigned students the task of visiting a real library and working to evaluate and improve part of its collection. By modifying an assignment handed down from another professor, Oakleaf, who was teaching the course for the first time, presented her students with a challenge that would not only drive home essential library skills, but also encourage contact with the Syracuse community.
“I thought, wouldn’t this assignment be more contextualized, more authentic, if students could do it in real life,” Oakleaf says. “Real life is messy. I wanted them to figure out how to take the theories and best practices we’d learned in class and actually apply them.”
For their projects, students selected a variety of collections at a range of sites across Central New York. One student group focused its energies on Vietnamese cookbooks at a local public library, and another on historical materials at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y. The assignment required the students to go through each collection and recommend books to discard or “weed,” choose new books to buy, and create or improve a broad collection policy that will allow upkeep to continue in the future.
At the Justice Center library, Kanzaria and her partner, graduate student Jennifer Hinz, focused their efforts on the juvenile collection that had been a source of such dismay during their first visit. Constrained by a budget of only $500 and a ban on sex and violence, Kanzaria and Hinz selected several dozen books designed to appeal to teenage, male inmates, including inspirational biographies, graphic novels, and even poetry. They combed through the Justice Center’s massive collection of unsorted donations, made up mostly of romance novels, to salvage the few titles that might appeal to the young men.
These services were a boon to the Justice Center, where the prison librarian, Jean Dwyer, works only 16 hours a week and spends the bulk of that time pursuing legal research for inmates. Dwyer, who says she plans to purchase the books suggested by Kanzaria and Hinz, called the project a wonderful help for her and an eye-opener for the students. “You can talk about real situations,” she says, “and this is a real-world situation. It showed them that they weren’t going to be walking into places where there’s a grand budget. They have to be a little bit creative.”
The assignment also encouraged students to get inside the heads of readers from unfamiliar and often challenging backgrounds. Graduate students Heather Davidson and Kaye Kerr ventured into new territory to select books for students at Delaware Academy, a Syracuse K-8 school where 45 percent of students have a limited English proficiency and many more come from financially underprivileged homes.
In tackling the school’s collection of animal books, Davidson and Kerr looked at a list of student requests, as well as information provided by publishers. They selected books on topics the kids seemed to like: dangerous sharks, cheetahs and snakes for the boys; cute koalas, penguins and dolphins for the girls. They also took into account the content, difficulty and appeal of each book. “The challenge was to look for books that were low reading level, but high interest,” says Kerr. “Many books at a low level don’t look grown up enough, and the fourth- and fifth-graders won’t touch them.”
The Delaware Academy library used Kerr and Davidson’s suggestions for weeding and will order the books they recommended at the end of the year. Davidson says knowing her work is being put to good use made the project especially satisfying. “We saw our results at work,” she says. “This is a struggling school with a struggling population. We hope what we’ve done will make a difference.”
Kanzaria echoes that sentiment. After becoming emotionally tied to her work at the prison library, she was inspired to donate books from her own collection and write a grant proposal on behalf of the Justice Center. “It was the kind of experience you would hope for in school,” she says. “It felt good that you were learning, but giving back also. The whole thing was very rewarding.”