School libraries

Prizing Balance: an exploration of world children's literature

NOTE:  This is a reproduction of my 30-minute (whirlwind) presentation at the Librarians' Knowledge Sharing Workshop held in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, in November 2017.  I have tried to note which slides relate to which points, within the text below.

Diversity is a hot topic in children’s and YA literature at the moment, but for us working as school librarians in international schools, it’s always been an issue as we strive to provide access to texts that reflect our varied student populations, curriculum concerns, local context, and worldview.


One of the most fertile channels for discovering new literature to bring into our schools is the annual book award shortlists generated by country-based international school librarian networks.  Most of you in the audience have participated in one or more of these, whether getting your students to read and vote on the books or working with your network colleagues to help choose books to shortlist every year. 

Of all the experiences of being in a locally-based international school teacher librarian network like ISLN in Singapore or BLISS in Bangkok, the most rewarding aspect for me has been being involved in the running of their annual book awards.  Serving on such a committee means belonging to a group dedicated to finding books that would be great book group choices for students of different ages.  I love the ongoing purposeful interaction with other teacher-librarians, as we struggle to satisfy our criteria and deadlines.

Asia seems to be where this international school library phenomenon started. (Slide 2)

When Barb Reid and I began the Red Dot book awards in Singapore, now in its 9th year, we were inspired by China with its Panda Awards and Japan with its Sakura Medal.  Later, Hong Kong, Korea, and Thailand set up awards, as did Switzerland and Germany.  More recently I discovered the Jarul Award in India, which is for picture books published in India.

All the awards listed above have varying criteria and structure:  in their number of list categories (e.g., Singapore produces 4 lists, Bangkok 3), number of titles on a list (e.g., Singapore has 8 titles per list, Bangkok 6), criteria for inclusion (e.g., published how recently - Singapore is the past 4 years, Bangkok the past 5), timing of the shortlist announcement/voting cycle, and activities related to the annual results (e.g., Singapore has had a Readers Cup competition, Switzerland produces literal Swiss cow bells (custom-cast) to send to each author-winner).

The less concrete but more important selection criteria - e.g., "excellence" but also "diversity of author, theme, genre, setting and narrative style" (Bangkok Book Awards) - are an ongoing challenge (as I will discuss in detail further on).

Each network also has its own time, space, and financial constraints regarding the process of determining a longlist and shortlist. 

Is it easy to meet in person to discuss books, or is the book group in effective a virtual one?  Does that determine how many people can be on the committee?  Who should provide input to the longlist -- and shortlist?  (What about students?)  How many people will have time to read or ability to access each longlist book in order to contribute to the shortlist decision? Given the budget/acquisition cycle in the school or country, when is the ideal time to publish the shortlists so books will be in the hands of students soon enough and long enough to be able to vote?  (And how important is the voting element anyway?)


Let's step back and consider four major models of book awards.  (Slide 5)

  • Popular Survey -- one person, one vote -- epitomized by the BBC Big Read (first famously done in 2003) and the annual Goodreads Choice Awards.  These awards are summative and democratic in nature.  One such annual popular survey for children's literature is the K.O.A.L.A. (Kids Own Australian Literature Award), which has been going for 31 years now (more re this award below).

  • Professionally Curated "Best of" Booklists -- the most obvious examples for children's literature are the annual national ones, often organized by library associations, such as the US Newbery/Caldecott, the UK Carnegie/Greenaway, the Australian CBCA "Book of the Year", the Canadian CCBC Book Awards, and the NZ Book Awards -- though there is also the international biennial IBBY Hans Christian Andersen ones for authors/illustrators.  These are summative within a year, but formative over time of a canon.
  • Book Tournaments via Brackets -- where pairs of books are pitted against each other in a series of rounds until a final winner is declared (by a judge or team of judges).  In children's literature the most prominent example is School Library Journal's annual "Battle of the Kids' Books" -- though there are adult ones as well, e.g., The Morning News Tournament of Books.  Note there is a free online app called BracketCloud that allows anyone to set up their own single or double elimination brackets, e.g., see this description of having students set their own personal reading challenges using Google Drive -- so they are the "judge."
  • One Book, One Community - Not really an award, but a popular reading initiative where a particular book is chosen (by professionals) for a group (whether grade, school, city, or state) to read and discuss within a given time span.  See this Wikipedia entry for many examples of such a shared book experience.  A powerful way to extend this would be to choose a title that has different editions, i.e., picture book version, young readers edition, and adult edition (including print, digital, and audio formats), so a wider range of readers can participate.

Most of our network awards fall into the "professionally curated" bucket.  And most of us then have the students vote for their own personal favorite such that winners can be announced.  However, a point of criticism has been that students are only able to vote for something on a list that an adult has pre-selected -- which can be called a delusion of democracy.

But what's the important thing here?  The lists?  The books?  The reading?  Student agency in determining lists?  The structured competition? 

Perhaps we need to ask ourselves:  Why?  Why did our networks set up these awards?  Why does each school participate each year?  The answers vary.

For example, the instigation for the Red Dot Book Awards in Singapore grew out of Barb Reid and I being concerned about the multiple copies of the "same old books" sitting on the shelves in the primary school reading cupboards, reflecting "classics" from the dominant culture of teachers working in our respective international schools. 

We wanted a reading initiative that would allow us to regularly refresh the book cupboards with recent literature reflecting the diversity of our community and supporting our school values of internationalism -- i.e., books worth buying multiple copies of and discussing.  The professionally curated "award" list was a good vehicle because what we really wanted was to invest in some books for a "one book, one community" reading experience.  Voting for the "best book" from the shortlist is just a diversionary tactic -- to encourage the reading.

I'm now thinking I want to complement that kind of award with an annual popular survey one -- to address the goal of kids sharing their favorite reading with the community, no matter where the books come from.   For that kind of a "children's choice" popularity contest I am inspired by the K.O.A.L.A. awards in Australia, which I learned about while visiting Cranbrook Junior School in Sydney a few months ago. (Slide 6)

Megan Light, the primary teacher-librarian there and one of the award's administrators, explained how the annual awards are structured to be both formative and summative.  The shortlists are the top 10 books that kids nominate (criteria: Australian and published within the past ten years) in four age categories.  If titles are shortlisted five times without winning, then they go into the K.O.A.L.A. Hall of Fame (a wonderful summative list along with the cumulative winners list).  Megan pointed out that the nomination process is a good excuse to discuss the award's criteria with students, e.g., what makes a book Australian, how to check the "publication age" of a book, and what age of reader is a book best suited for.


In choosing books for the curated-list kind of award, we adults also sometimes struggle to figure out the right age category for a particular title, but the bigger challenge is in determining what set of titles in a category will satisfy the not-so-concrete criteria of having a "broad range of books" across the shortlist, which we all agree (to varying degrees) is important. (Slide 7)

Stealing ideas from other networks' annual shortlists is the easiest path.  Hence, there is a great amount of overlap between our choices, all the while coveting works from Asia as well as works in translation.  And we are all looking for books that relate to international issues.

Refugees are an obvious topical star at the moment.  Last year Singapore chose the Canadian title, "Stormy Seas" -- a large-format upper-primary/middle school picture book for older readers with parallel storylines of refugees from Nazi Germany, Vietnam, Cuba, Afghanistan, and the Ivory Coast -- which we in Bangkok have also selected.  Interestingly, Alan Gratz (USA) came out with a similar (chapter) book called "Refugee," featuring three narratives based on Nazi Germany, Cuba, and Syria. Sometimes we're just spoiled for choice! (Slide 8) 

I recently read a 2016 Routledge academic text devoted to analyzing children's books awards, with chapters written by different experts -- Prizing Children's Literature: The Cultural Politics of Children's Book Awards.  See Slide 9 for the cover, and slide 10 for a screenshot of the table of contents as well as the purchase price.  I suggest you peruse the free preview via Google Books before deciding whether to buy, though I highly recommend the contents on the whole. 

The chapter by Claire Bradford on Australian books (now eligible for the the US (ALA) Printz award) is particularly interesting, where the conclusion is that only Australian books that are not "too" Australian succeed in the American arena.  June Cummins's chapter on how the American Newbery is not really about excellence, but is instead an identity-based award, deserves attention -- as does her argument for the use of intersectionality theory. (Slide 11) 


When it comes to generating a diverse shortlist, my best metaphor is the balanced meal (Slide 12) -- and this begs the question of what attributes or facets we should all be considering in terms of diversity.  

Luckily the people at Kirkus Review (in collaboration with Baker & Taylor, the booksellers) published some diversity collection lists last September, and I did a basic reverse-engineering of their taxonomy. (See Slides 13-17 inclusive.)

Pay attention!  Because all of us need to be considering our own library catalogs (and subject headings) in light of the work they've done, though their facets are aimed at the American context.

Kirkus tagged books by four diverse elements:  race/culture, religion, gender expression, and/or disability. (Slide 14) 

And for each of those, they then categorized the book to what extent that feature is present.  CENTRAL = central to the book; IDENTIFICATION = relevant to the plot; or INCLUSION = when the diverse element is part of the background or seems to be normal. (Slide 13)

Besides those attributes, they also looked at types of experience for the characters in the book in relation to the diversity (e.g., coming out, reckoning with, etc.) and whether they were lead characters, background characters, ensemble casts, or families.   Of course, they also considered what I would call "standard variables" -- e,g, genre, time (past, future, or present), and the age of the assumed reader. (Slide 15)

As international school educators, we also consider how books can be linked to our schools' values, mission statements, and curriculum.  For example, those of us working in IB (International Baccalaureate) schools are always on the lookout for books that reflect the Learner Profile as well as ones to support whatever PSE (personal, social, and emotional) curriculum is used (e.g., see this UWCSEA East Primary Libguide). (Slide 17)

If you're interested in a taxonomy for Social and Emotional Learning (SEL), look at the results of Myra Garces-Bacsal's ongoing project for the Office of Educational Research at the National Institute of Education (NIE) in Singapore (based on the CASEL project in the US), which she is publishing as a Social and Emotional Bookshelf on her blog.  The more raw tags for each book can be seen on her LibraryThing catalog for Gathering Books.


As international schools, probably one of the most important elements of diversity we want to consider is geographic connections, whether local, national, or regional.  Like Kirkus's distinction between three degrees of representation of diversity in a book, we might consider three types of connection -- 1) geography as it relates to the characters or setting of the text; 2) the background or origin of the author; and 3) location of the publisher.

This raises the question of, who wrote it?  And who did they write it for?  Looking a book in terms of accuracy (e.g., did they get the details right?), authority (e.g., what culture is the author/publisher from?), and authenticity (e.g., is it realistic? from what perspective? is it convincing?).  (Slide 18)

In considering a book with a particular geographic orientation, we also have to ask questions in relation to the potential reader (i.e., students in our schools).  1) Will it appeal to them?  2) Is it easily available, in the sense, will we be able to source it and get it into our libraries? 3) Is it accessible to the reader (e.g., does it require background knowledge or a glossary or translation of terms in order to be understandable? how close it it to the students' current experiences?). (Slide 19)

For example, I recently read "A Moment Comes" by Jennifer Bradbury as part of the shortlist process for the BLISS Book Awards.  It's historical fiction set during the partition of India in 1947 and features three narrative perspectives (a Muslim boy, a Sikh girl, and a British girl).  Indian terms are used throughout -- and like a good reader, I persevered and tried to get the meaning from the context.  Only at the end did I discover a glossary, explaining all the terms, which would have been useful to me as I read along (sigh).  As the name "Jennifer Bradley" isn't particularly Indian, I did a bit of online sleuthing to determine whether she was writing from a position of accuracy and authenticity -- and it turns out she spent a year living in the Punjab.  (Slide 20)

Another book I read for the shortlist was "A Flame in the Mist" - fantasy historical fiction set in samurai Japan -- which also provides a glossary in the back that I also didn't realize was there until I finished the book (sigh sigh).  My research on the author, Renee Ahdieh, revealed she is an American whose mother is from South Korea, so she has Asian roots. (Slide 21)

For authenticity and accuracy about a geographical region, translations are the best bet -- and for the Red Dot Book Awards we have always tried to include them, watching the winners of awards like the Batchelder Award in the US and the Marsh Award in the UK.  Similarly the Hans Christian Andersen Award, probably the most important international children's book award, is an excellent source of books that provide geographical (and linguistic) diversity. 

One past choice -- "Moribito" by Nahoko Uehashi (winner of the 2014 Hans Christian Andersen) -- is a translation of a popular Japanese series that features a female samurai -- so a natural read-on recommendation for "A Flame in the Mist" mentioned above.  (Slide 22). 

"Bronze and Sunflower" by Cao Wenxuan (the 2016 winner and first Chinese author) has been a shortlist choice for several of the international school library book awards. Set during the Cultural Revolution, the slow-moving but heartwarming novel is part of a very popular series in China.   It's exactly the kind of book our students might not have discovered without our intervention.  One of our key functions is to expose readers to books they otherwise might have missed or books with slightly different writing styles due to cultural differences.  (Slide 23)

There is a wonderful blog and Facebook Group called the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative (GLII) which promotes books in translation. 

The founder, Rachel Hildebrandt, has recently organized people to develop online catalogs of children's and young adult literature in translation using LibraryThing.  The number of languages will only expand over time.  (Slide 24)

How are cultural differences bridged in texts?    How do authors and translators ease readers into unfamiliar territory and accommodate varying expectations (beyond the use of glossaries noted above)?

One of my favorite bloggers, Venkatesh Rao on Ribbonfarm, who usually writes about technology and business, published a blog post in 2009 called “The Rhetoric of the Hyperlink,” in which he discusses the choices available to writers in light of the issue of potentially different cultural markets.  NB: He was born in India but now lives and works in the US.

1). The Fishbowl Style - where you assume everyone is swimming in the same water of understanding - I.e. you don’t explain anything because you are writing from within a culture; 

2)  The Expository Style - where you (laboriously) explain everything as you go for “outsider” readers;

3). The Global Contextual Style - where local/global cultural analogies are made, e.g., reference a Bollywood actor, but compare them to a supposedly well-known Hollywood one;

4).  The Literary Way - what he calls the “Salman Rushdie method” — where you just write creatively and demand the reader work to construct meaning - or live with the opacity! 

Rao argues that hyperlinks offer such a great potential to writers today, to allow "Fishbowl" writing thanks to hyperlinks behind words that might require cultural explanation.  While this is common in online blog and journalistic writing, it has yet to be fully utilized in many (any?) of the ebooks available, especially not mainstream literature.  Instead the internet is assumed to be sitting there as one big online “glossary.” (Slides 25-26)


When it comes to world fiction, there’s one book I highly recommend as a tool to improve the balance of your collection and the information in your catalog (i.e., intellectual access or subject headings): "The Complete World Guide to Contemporary Fiction" by Michael Orthofer. (Slide 27-28)

Unlike the previous book suggestion, this one is highly affordable - about US$15 for the ebook or paperback — plus he has an information-packed website of reviews.  In the book, Orthofer provides a narrative tour of authors from different countries or regions. This helps me look for titles in my collection that I need to add subject headings to, e.g., "Translations -- from BLAH language -- into BLAH language" -- as well as geographic connections.  (If you are fascinated by who would produce such a labor of love, read this 2016 New Yorker profile of Orthofer.)

Another resource you might consider if you’re really interested in what makes certain books culturally specific and to what extent those books are accessible to readers from other cultures, see this Routledge academic text "Subjectivity in Asian Children’s Literature and Film: Global Theories and Implications (Children's Literature and Culture)" edited by John Stephens, a professor of children's literature at Macquarie University in Australia.

See slides 29-30 for screenshots of the chapters and authors, which cover a range of Asian countries and formats.  Unfortunately this book is fairly expensive (even rented as a textbook),  but luckily many parts of it can be read via Google Books here.


As we international teacher-librarians on the award committees come together each year to find a balanced list of titles, I’m always curious about how everyone tracks their reading over the year, looking for our variables of diversity.

Solving this problem of diversity -- what I called the "balanced basket" problem (in writing about the Red Dot Book awards back in 2014) -- can take up 80% of the time (according to the Pareto principle of 80/20 split).   In Singapore this often meant lugging bags of books to evenings meet-ups, sharing and swapping titles, in the hopes of getting someone else to confirm that a work would work perfectly to enhance our offerings.

In slide 31 are photos of some paper bookmarks we used at UWCSEA East to quickly record things about a book as we read it — what country it’s from, what values it connects with, genres, grade-level appropriateness, literary features, etc.  I use Goodreads in the same way - setting up bookshelves for each attribute.  Goodreads isn't the most perfect social reading site, but it is the most accessible.

This raises the question of how we provide intellectual access to the diversity of our collections through our library catalog.  One way to make these variables searchable is via subject headings.

For example, if we have two Follett Destiny catalogs at our school (primary and secondary) and both want to track books about gender issues, we might agree that both catalogs will use a local subject heading of "LGBT Plus - Gender roles - Free To Be@NIST" (where Free to Be@NIST is the name of the student group looking at gender issues).  This gets around the problem of teaching people what acronym to search for (LGBTQIAP+ or LGBTQ+ or GLBT, etc.).

When it comes to genre identification, our primary and secondary catalogs might use different terms when talking to students, so then we could each use a site-specific subject heading (rather than a shared local one), so only patrons of the secondary library would be able to search for and see "Genre - Realistic / contemporary fiction - NIST" -- whereas the primary library catalog might use just "Realistic fiction".  (Slide 32)

Slide 33 shows how we use subject headings to track which books in our catalog reflect values in the IB Learner Profile or ones associated with Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) -- as well as geographic connections.  (Slide 33)


So back to the problem of how our network committees get balanced baskets of shortlisted titles. 

How many aspects of diversity are we are looking for? 

Ensuring a range of genres is the usual starting place.  When I came to NIST, the Y8 team asked me to run sessions with the kids looking at these genres:  nonfiction, horror/supernatural, humor, fantasy historical fiction, realistic, science fiction/dystopia, and graphic books. (Slide 35)

But in talking to students about genres, I realized you can break them down more simply into three baskets based on a continuum, moving from unreal to real:  Unrealistic Fiction, Realistic Fiction, and Nonfiction. (Slide 36)

By applying the dimension of time (past, present, and future) to those three baskets, you can start to map more specific genres.  For example, if realistic fiction about the past is "historical fiction," then unrealistic fiction about the past might be "alternative history" or "historical fantasy" -- and nonfiction about the past is history or biography. (Slide 37)

Adding in an emotional response to a book gets you to more genres, e.g., realistic fiction in the present time could be either Mystery, Horror, Thriller, Humor, or Romance -- depending on the emotion it invokes.  Slide 38 shows some emoji-book-review bookmarks we use, asking students to consider whether a book made them cry, smile, think, or be scared.

But the basics are the three categories:  Unrealistic Fiction, Realistic Fiction, and Nonfiction.

What if each professional longlist reader for our book awards came to the table prepared with a basket of books, balanced for the following variables (while also adhering to the publication time conditions, e.g., with the past 4 years)?  (Slide 39)

  • Genres (unrealistic fiction, realistic fiction, and nonfiction)
  • Local / Regional / Global connection (whether author, setting, or publisher)
  • Diversity / Social / Global issues
  • Male/Female appeal
  • Translation
  • Format, welcoming any:
    • Graphic / Wordless
    • Verse novel
    • Poetry
    • Short stories

What tool might allow us to share our respective proposed baskets?  Barb and I dummied up a Padlet example -- see Slide 40.  It's just a suggestion.  We'll see how it goes in this next cycle of longlist to shortlist.

The geographical balance is often the hardest to ensure.  Working on the Red Dot Books shortlists, we might find ourselves with a great set of titles, but then suddenly realize when we looked more closely that we had no Australian books or no Canadian books -- and would have to go back through our longlist more carefully. How much easier if everyone had noted geographic connections as they read throughout the year.  

But we always got there in the end, as the backlist of shortlists over the past 9 years of the Singapore Red Dot books demonstrate (see them all here).  Getting the balance right takes time, but is so worth the effort.

LEADership and diversity

I've been reading and listening to Peter Senge, the leadership and management change guru, quite a bit recently.  He talks about the the root of the word "leader" being one who steps over the threshold, lifting their foot in vulnerability, and doing what's right for the whole, moving forward.  He says real cultural change is inquiry into our blind spots and letting go. (Slide 41)

We as teacher-librarians must be good leaders of diversity.  We can help our community ask, What is self? What is other?  Reading and noting what aspects of diversity resonate with each of us as we read can help.  We can't promote diversity without knowing ourselves and our own community. 

We have the power to put texts in the reach of our students that will speak across cultural thresholds.

Setting up a village school library in Myanmar

Note:  A version of this was posted October 16, 2016, on the Singapore international school librarian network's blog.

If you were asked to help set up a new school library in a new primary school building in a farming village outside Mandalay, and you wouldn't be able to visit the site until the day before the new school's grand opening, how would you tackle it?  That was the challenge proposed to me in June 2016 by a parent service/charity group at the school where I was working, United World College of Southeast Asia in Singapore.

PACE, which stands for Parents' Action for Community and Service, has built several schools in Cambodia together with the Tabitha Foundation over the past decade.  In 2016 they teamed up with John Stevens and the 100Schools organization in Myanmar to build their first school there, in Shar Pin village.  And it is the first school built by 100Schools to have a library included.


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After (the library is the far-most left room of the new building):

Shar Pin finished building IMG_7811.JPG

Luckily at the East campus there is a Burmese parent, with whom I'd done a couple of middle-school service trips to Myanmar.  Thet is not only bilingual, but highly organized, efficient, and creative.  She liaised with the Myanmar Library Association (MLA) to get us lists of recommended books to buy as well as book donations for the school.  She also got in touch with the Third Story Children's Books project, which publishes stories in ethnic languages for children in Myanmar.

Shar pin collection chart IMG_7397(1).JPG

Thanks to Thet's language and organization skills, over 400 children's books in Burmese were purchased or donated -- which we picked up once we arrived in Myanmar.  Thet and Thida, another Burmese speaker in our group, were able to sort the various books into 11 basic categories -- and the rest of us labeled them.

Fun Comics - WHITE
Cultural Stories - DARK ORANGE
True Stories - DARK RED
General Stories - LT ORANGE
General Knowledge - BLUE
Fun Learning - LT GREEN
Environment - DARK GREEN
Health - YELLOW
Teacher Reference - YELLOW TRIANGLE
Group Readers - PURPLE

Previously in Singapore, Thet and I had brainstormed what orientation the students and teachers would need, in order to ensure proper use and maintenance of the library.  We came up with a series of posters, illustrated by my talented library staff, that would serve to both decorate the library and establish the library culture for students and teachers.

Myanmar passing out shelfmarkers IMG_7810 copy.jpeg

We also created about 80 laminated shelf-markers -- using simple animal logos and different colored paper.  The children were told that when they came to the library each time, they should pick an animal and a color to keep track of where they found books.  To help them remember where in the "village of books" (i.e., the library) each book "lived" -- so they could help it get back to its right place. 

With Thet's help, I also did a talk about book care on opening day where I asked the children to consider how books are like people.  (They can be old or young, tall or small, speak different languages, have a front, a back, a spine, etc.  And they need to be treated with care and respect, especially when it comes to turning pages.)

Through Thet's connections, we also met up with a wonderful young Burmese teacher and storyteller, Tess (aka Tin Ma Ma Htet), who works as a professional development coordinator for the Phaung Daw Oo School and the Monastic Education Development Group in Mandalay --and with the Third Story Children's Books Project.

Small world connection:  Tess has also been involved with the teacher training project our Dover colleagues have done in Burma.  (See a video interview with her in 2015 here.)

Tess entertained the Shar Pin students with storytelling on Sunday, while the rest of us were setting up the library, and we trust that she will continue to visit Shar Pin to see that the books in the library are being fully utilized.

The school's official opening was Monday, October 3, 2016 -- and here are some basic shots of what the library finally looked like.  


The PACE team was amazing -- and it was such an honor to work with them.  The cost of the whole 5-classroom school?  US$72k.  The library room itself?  US$7k.  US$3k went to the library design and materials.  I can't wait to do another.

Extra:  Thet took me a local civic library in Mandalay -- the Brahmaso Library.  It's a lending library with a reading room attached.  Closed stacks.  Card catalog.  But also with a digital terminal to content provided by UK universities and the British Council.  See photos here.

Truth, Beauty, and Goodness in the Library

A phrase I have wanted to expand upon for years -- so it sat in my "to-blog-about" folder until last month when I needed a presentation topic for the School Librarian Connection - Prague 2016 conference I was helping Dianne McKenzie organize.

My descriptive blurb eventually went like this:  "An exploration of different ways school libraries support these three key values and provide a platform for 'intimations of excellence' and meaningful connections for our students.  How our spaces, resources and presence act as 'intellectual middleware' to amplify learning."

Howard Gardner gets the inspiration credit, thanks to his two books -- "The Disciplined Mind" in 1999, in which he argued that students could study just three things (Darwin for truth, Mozart for beauty, and the Holocaust for (the absence of) good -- and its 2011 re-write for the digital age, "Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed: educating for the virtues in an age of Truthiness and Twitter," in which he shifted to more general divergent/convergent characteristics (convergent on truth, divergent on beauty, and a combination for goodness -- divergent with respect to cultures and customs, while convergent on ethics).

Couldn't we apply one of those three tags to everything in our library?  Yes -- as an interesting tag -- or perhaps to highlight related books in an ongoing display area. (I'm not someone who is anxious to create new sections, e.g., just for the IB Theory of Knowledge books.  Dewey is far easier for organization.)

We are sitting on mounds of treasure.  That is our eternal problem.  (Cue the next slide:  Smaug in Tolkien's 1836 illustration -- though we librarians never want to be associated with guardian dragons.)  But how to share it?  How to let people know about the mountains of absolutely fantastic stuff we are sitting on top of?  And by stuff, I mean not just what the curriculum requires or what the student already knows they're interested in.  (Cue the slide on the intersection of desirability (students' interest), feasibility (curriculum constraints), and viability (what resources we can offer).)  What about the stuff the students don't yet know they could fall in love with?

I'm particularly interested in how we leverage potentially interesting materials.  (Cue the slide on Michael Wesch and meaningful connections....)  Which brings us to the concept of 'intellectual middleware' -- or cognitive augmentation.  Which is anything that helps make those connections.  That supports intellectual access.  Levers -- something small that helps you move something big.

Subject headings are the most old-fashioned but still useful.  Controlled vocabulary.  Human ideas, not just keywords.  Yet we have to help our users know about them.  Whether through resource lists, links, etc.  What ideas are relevant to them?

One thing our school is now pushing on several fronts is the set of 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Our students are being encouraged to make those connections, whether in the classroom or in the service learning situations.  So in the library we are starting to use that same filter.

I finished the presentation with an overview of the differences between federated search (e.g., via an OPAC like Destiny) and a discovery layer (e.g., via EBSCO).  Because that's what we're talking about -- how people discover what we have.

I had initially been introduced to the possibility of using EBSCO with Destiny at the Taipei American School and was thrilled to learn the International School of Prague had done the same thing.  UWCSEA is in the process of implementing the EBSCO Discovery Layer with our Destiny, so watch for another blog post on that front.

Dewey Designs to Share

Six years ago I asked my daughter, Maggie Appleton, to help me create some Dewey Decimal System signs for the libraries on our new school campus, the permanent home of United World College of SE Asia (UWCSEA) - East campus, in Tampines, Singapore.  At the time she was an IB Art student at the original UWCSEA campus -- now known as UWCSEA Dover.

maggie uwcsea east dewey.png

She didn't come up with them completely on her own.  I'd been searching the web for different Dewey designs and had found this retro design one I liked on Flickr by Susanna Ryan.

Screenshot 2016-08-30 21.52.35.png

But it was fairly monochrome and I envisaged associating different colors with different sections, much like the famous colored layout of rooms at Powells Books in Portland, Oregon (see colored section sign to the right). 

So Maggie got permission from Susanna to modify her icons and to change the colors.

Over the years people have asked Maggie for permission to use her designs -- and, so finally, in a creative commons way (in line with how Susanna allowed to build upon her original design), here they are -- click here to access a DROPBOX folder of all her files.


My good friend and colleague Barb Philip Reid also has a talented graphic designer (step) daughter -- Natasha Potzsch.   And she asked her for a similar favor (to be a signage servant!). Natasha's Dewey designs are also freely available to all teacher-librarians -- click here to access a GOOGLE folder of her files.


We've both been meaning to share these more widely.  So now -- go have fun.  Our daughters are pleased to have librarians use them!  (And obviously let us know if any links don't work....)

Center and Satellite Collections: connections between classrooms and the library

School context determines the relationship between classroom libraries and the main library. 

Mandala of Guhyasamaja, Akshobhyavajra, Tibet; 14th century - from the Rubin Museum of Art

Mandala of Guhyasamaja, Akshobhyavajra, Tibet; 14th century - from the Rubin Museum of Art

Every primary school classroom has a library, as do most (I trust) middle and high school English classrooms. 

But where do these books come from? Who selects them?  Who pays for them?  Who manages them (in terms of checking books out and in)?  Who inventories them?  Who refreshes them?  How are they organized (virtually and physically)?  How much consistency across classrooms is there?

At some schools, a grade or department is given money to buy books for the classroom -- and those books are labeled in some way as school property and listed in some spreadsheet for inventory purposes.  At other schools, classroom libraries are pretty much private collections, consisting of books a teacher brings with them or inherits from the previous tenant of the room.  The first situation makes it hard to know the full picture of resources across grades and departments, and the second raises equity issues. 

At our campus all resources -- whether library books, textbooks, or classroom library books -- no matter what budget has paid for them -- are barcoded, cataloged, and given a location code in our library system (Destiny).  So anyone can search and see what resources are being used where.

creating Core/CLASS Libraries

At first our MS English curriculum used the whole-class novel assignment model, so the priority was selecting and buying a set number of titles in large quantities, and the issue of setting up class libraries was postponed (with teachers using the main library as their classroom in the meantime). Then two years ago we began the switch to the Reading Workshop model, where independent reading and self-choice from a wide range of books are key.  It was time to tackle the issue of class libraries.

There was a pool of money.  And we already had some multiple copies of books (from the old model).  So each teacher began to make lists of books they wanted in their classrooms.

But what made it interesting was that the teachers had come together from a variety of cultural backgrounds -- Australia, the UK, the US, the Philippines, Canada, New Zealand, and Ireland -- and our school, though Anglo-heritage, is not tied to any one national curriculum.  So the authors and titles on one person's list of favorites for teaching middle school were potentially unfamiliar to another.

The solution was to develop a Core Library for each grade, consisting of 30 titles -- to be agreed by the group of teachers. (NB: The use of the word "core" does not mean any connection to the US "Common Core" curriculum initiative.)

These Core Libraries -- for Grade 6, Grade 7, and Grade 8 -- would be a negotiated list of the "best books" for that grade, i.e., the books kids shouldn't miss, the books to booktalk first, the characters and stories you want as a common reference point, and mentor texts.  (A manageable list of recommended books also helps with the anxiety related to the paradox of choice, especially for reluctant readers.)

Each classroom -- and the library -- would have multiple copies available of these Core Library titles.  And English teachers would commit to reading their way through the 90 titles, in order to create a shared literary experience.

The selection process involved several sessions in the library where the list was physically constructed by filling in a bookcase in the Middle School Zone that conveniently holds three 5x6 arrays of (90) books in a face-out display. 

Teachers drafted their core libraries by literally placing books on the bookcase, until all 90 slots were filled with what everyone agreed was a good balance of texts -- within a grade and across the middle school (while also taking into consideration key texts used in grade 5 and grades 9, 10, etc..)

Every year the core lists are reviewed. Last June about six books were changed in each core library.  New ones were added, some were moved to a different grade level, and others were relegated back into the multiple-copy recommended reading collection in the MS Reading Zone in the library.  (I need a better term for those titles -- but I mean books we prominently display (see below) and for which we have 3+ copies.  In some ways those books are like the Mega-Core Collection for Middle School.)

A valuable contribution to potential new Core titles or just the Mega-Core Collection comes via the Red Dot Book Awards, as the library always buys multiple copies of each title.  This year the head of MS English is buying 20 copies of each title on the Older Reader and Mature Reader shortlists to be distributed between the class libraries.  We work closely in deciding what multiple copies we are each buying -- as those are the books we also want to be promoting.

It is important to note that the MS class libraries contain far more than just the Core Library titles.  That first year teachers identified 100+ titles that they personally wanted in their classroom library, beyond the core library.  And they keep buying more each year.  Is there an upper limit?  There are certainly physical limits of what you can reasonably display and manage in a classroom. 

To see all the titles (not just the Core Library) that are in our middle school classroom libraries, search the tag "MSCL" in our catalog; likewise, to see all the titles in our high school classroom libraries, search the tag "HSCL".

Links to lists of classroom libraries for individual teachers are available via this Libguide page - Classroom Reading.  Of course, all these one click links are only possible because all the resources are included within the library system.

NOTE:  A key component of this system of distributed libraries is the Follett Destiny mobile app that lets teachers perform circulation functions on their iPhone or let students check their books in and out on the class iPad.  It also allow us to collect circulation data on books -- and to know where they are.  Having gathered all these wonderful resources, we don't want to lose track of them.

See my previous blog post on "Your mobile Destiny" re the Follett app.

See also my previous blog post on liberating your "book cupboards" -- re our management and display of multiple-copy books in the library.

Metaphors and Threshold Concepts for Research

Threshold concepts are something every librarian concerned with research needs to be familiar with.  That's why I was thrilled that Debbie Abilock (of Noodletools) and Sue Smith (of the Harker School) did a session on it at the Research Relevance Colloquium in June.  (See my previous blog posts on Research Relevance: here and here.)

I wrote up my introduction to threshold concepts a year ago - after ALA 2014 - see this blog post (just scroll down to find the section - it's too much to reproduce here, but the links are worth it).

Since then ACRL (the American Association of College Research Librarians) has officially published their Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education which incorporates these six threshold concepts.

  • Authority is Constructed and Contextual
  • Information Creation is a Process
  • Information Has Value
  • Research as Inquiry
  • Scholarship as Conversation
  • Searching as Strategic Exploration

It's hard to argue with any of them -- obvious as they may seem.  We forget how alien some of these assumed understandings are to students.  That's why I live by metaphors.  And threshold concepts have helped to focus my use of them.

I asked the audience at Research Relevance to suggest new metaphors -- and here are some responses:

  • a search engine like Google is like "trail mix" - returning results include some M&Ms, some raisins, some peanuts - while a database is like a whole bag of M&Ms -- all good results
  • a group project is like a music quartet - each contributing to the whole beautiful sound
  • a database is like a bathtub filled with water for a particular size and purpose, while Google is like a river, whose flow is unpredictable and aimless

I particularly like (the dead white male professor) Kenneth Burke's description of the metaphor of the "unending conversation" of academic discourse ->

"Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally's assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress."   [source]

Debbie and Sue spoke about giving students three information sources in three different arenas:  e.g., a tweet, a newspaper, and a journal -- by the same author (e.g., Michael Kraus).  To show how authority is perceived from different angles. 

Just as I would tell my grade 11 IB Diploma students setting out on their Extended Essays:  "go to the library's physical bookshelves, find a book, look at the author (the expert), Google them to see their most up-to-date outpourings, do they have a blog, do they tweet? -- find your experts first -- then find out where they have said what you need to cite -- and choose the most academic channel of their output."

I caution students that their biggest danger is not finding the (right? best? cutting-edge?) experts in your field.  (The Ignorance Trap: You don't know what you don't know....)  Looking for published book authors first is a safe bet.  Someone who has gotten someone else to pay to print their thoughts is someone maybe worth listening to.  On the other hand, they may be already out-of-date.  Everything depends on the context.

We teacher-librarians talked about disciplinary literacy -- and asking teachers in departments, "How do you construct knowledge in your discipline?"  -- and making them define it, e.g., in a Google Doc.

We talked about how students don't like sources that don't support their thesis - they don't know what to do with them.

We talked about how competence in research is a developmental sequence, like beads on a string.  You may not see all students through all the stages, where Stage 1 is concrete truth (novice), Stage 2 is opinion, and Stage 3 is a reasoned opinion.  And we recognized that these stages are not age-dependent.  (Think: Philosophy for Children -

Annotated bibliographies are often a good litmus test of where students are.  Where annotations are minimally:  Describe + Understand + Compare.

Having students think of a bibliography like a detailed ingredient list to a foodstuff or meal is still my favorite metaphor.  You may not need to mention everyday ingredients like water or salt (commonly known stuff), but you absolutely must cite anything flavorful or key to the recipe.

Threshold concepts are key.  Metaphors are key.  And school librarians need to find the right metaphors for their students.  Context is key.

The shape of face-to-face PD for teacher-librarians: Conference, workshop, symposium, colloquium?

Forms of in-person professional development can be considered genres -- and like literary genres, they evolve.  (NB: Forms of online PD are another topic.)  (What is it about us as animals/mammals that being in a room together is different than a Google Hangout?   I liken ebooks to Skype conversations - we do miss something, whether faint pheromones or just broader visual clues about the physical entity/environment.)

The big conference with keynote speakers and multiple vendor displays is the most established.  Outside that paradigm, everyone is experimenting with combinations of macro (whole audience keynote), mini (1 hour workshop/presentation), micro (20 min), and nano (5 min, lightning round style) sessions.  The degree of expected participation assumed in the design of the event also varies, from prepared presentations (whether read or spoken, with or without slideshows) to hands-on exercises to a free-flow unconference style.  Identification of themes and strands helps to tie the event and people together.

What works in one physical setting won't work in another (we all know what the lack of decent wifi and acoustics does to any gathering) -- and the composition and size of the group has an enormous influence on what is effective and what isn't.  (Can I say here that the app I'm waiting for is the one where everyone can speak into their mobile device and it acts like a microphone such that the whole room can clearly hear the question being asked.... If you know of one, contact me immediately.)

The online support for any event is also terribly important.  A decent website, available both before and after the event - with all the relevant backup materials - goes without saying, as well as well-publicized hashtags, so people not able to attend can easily eavesdrop.

As a teacher-librarian, I participate in events designed with teachers in mind (e.g., Learning 2.0 Asia, EARCOS Teachers Conference and Google Apps for Education (GAFE) in Singapore) and events designed with librarians in mind (e.g., the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) and the American Library Association (ALA)), but the best for me are the hybrid kind -- where teacher-librarians get to meet and exchange ideas and experiences related to both teaching and to librarianship.  

Local network after-school meetings provide that kind of in-person contact.  Here in Singapore we have ISLN (International Schools Library Network of Singapore), as other cities do -- Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Hong Kong, China, Japan, etc.  But more dedicated time together with other teacher-librarians is definitely worth it.

In the region, there are several recurring events, e.g., the Librarian Knowledge Sharing Workshop (LKSW) (now coming up to its 4th year , back in Kuala Lumpur where it started); the School Librarian Connection, initiated last year in Hong Kong, up for repetition somewhere, perhaps Singapore; the Shanghai librarians conference; and in Taiwan this November an EARCOS-sponsored weekend on Tech-Integrated Libraries

The large-scale version of these are the International Association of School Librarianship (IASL) and the ECIS Triennial Librarians Conference -- though timing and distance are sometimes a problem.

To give an idea of the range of ideas explored in the small-scale regional professional gatherings, see this summary sketch-note from the February 2015 Librarian Knowledge Sharing Workshop in Bangkok -- by Maggie Appleton.

And to give an idea of who attends these events, see this "Who We Are" Google Doc from the November 2015 School Librarian Connection conference in Hong Kong.

This past June I attended the 2-day "Research Relevance: K-12 Library Instruction for the 21st Century" Colloquium in California.  Hats off to Tasha Bergson-Michelson, Jole Seroff, and Debbie Abilock - and all the others who organized the event that brought over 80 teacher-librarians together in Palo Alto at Castilleja School, just before the ALA annual conference started in San Francisco.

I was lucky to be attending, both this colloquium and ALA, with a small cohort of international school teachers - the ever-ebullient Kate Brundage from the Singapore American School; the online-wonder Dianne McKenzie from Hong Kong; my new parallel campus secondary teacher-librarian at UWCSEA in Singapore, Kurt Wittig, previously in Cambodia; and a new UWC-related friend, Michelle Fitzgerald from Japan.

Research Relevance was a good combination of  experiences.  We started off with a communal exercise using raw creative materials -- based on "Build a World" from the Gamestorming book (which was inspired by the classic picture book for kids by Ed Emberley - "Build a World"). 

Our task?  To build our ideal library as symbolically or literally as we wanted.  We then did a gallery walk with each table explaining their creation to others.  Depending on your group and attitude, could have been painful or fun.  (Dianne and I had fun....)

Dianne McKenzie working on our "ideal library" - which we called a "prosumption palace" - a place for both production and consumption.... (not original, but I forget where I first heard it)

Making things is quite trendy in the school/library world.  So we all enjoyed a tour of the school's makerspace -- the Bourn Idea Lab.  Click here to see my Google photo album.

Hands-on experience and group interaction were admirably built into the two days.  For example, someone demo'ed a "write-around" exercise - where you move between tables, visually commenting on provocative snippets.

And when there was a session on exploring the difference between taking paper written notes vs. notes on a tablet using a stylus vs. notes typed on a laptop, the organizers had tablets and styli (those Latin plurals always look awkward, don't they?) for people to play with.  And every session ended with us writing Post-It note reflections publicly displayed.

The residuals?  A Twitter stream (#ResearchRelevance) and a Google Folder of presenter materials --  (a bit dense to navigate - only for the dedicated).  I'll relay my own pertinent take-aways about teaching and leading research in a separate blogpost.

If you are interested in considering forms of conferences from an anthropological point of view, here's an interesting Medium article by the organizers of a conference on "Genres of Scholarly Knowledge Production."  It considers conferences from an international university humanities perspective, but you can't help but apply it to our own school teacher/librarian PD experience.  E.g., the reliance on one screen and a slideshow.  The front of the room focus.  Thinking how to make the most of human beings being together.   Contemplating how the infrastructure of a conference affects the content and impact of the event....

Crowd-sourcing, cameras, and summer reading

For the past two years I have solved the problem of summer reading lists by crowd-sourcing recommendations from our community via "Summer Shelfies." 

We set up a photo booth area in the library (with help from the Art Dept. and Dave Caleb, one of our digital literacy coaches who is a serious photographer) -- for backlit flashes against a white backdrop -- the kind of lighting that makes all of us look like models.

Individuals or whole classes line up with a book in hand and get captured on film.  I then post the results to a Google+ Photo Album.

POSTER - MS HS Summer Shelfie 2015 (1).png

Click here to see this year's results so far: -- and last year's:

This year we asked for another possibility -- a #bookface creation.

The results can be seen here:

Your mobile Destiny: taking advantage of apps

There are three mobile apps for Follett's Destiny library system that deserve greater attention. 

And -- because my mantra is "make the virtual visible" -- the three posters below sit prominently on our front desk as visual marketing props for any student, parent, or teacher who chances by with queries that could be solved by downloading them. 

(Feel free to copy/modify the posters for your own Destiny environment -- click here for a Dropbox folder with Mac OSX Pages and PDF versions.)


QUESTION:  Do you have the book "__________"?

ANSWER: Do you have the mobile app that lets you search our catalog?

I then pick up my iPhone, tap on this app, and type in the title they're asking about.  If we do have it, there's no need to scribble down the call number -- it's in my hand as I walk them to the shelf.

This app is particularly useful when out in the wide world.  I tell people to check if we already own a title -- before buying a book online or at the bookstore. (Why waste your money?)

A secondary benefit is that you can see your current checkouts, if you opt to login.

When patrons ask how to get the app, I just point to the poster.


SearchIncludes Library, Digital, and One Search.

Library search results show whether a title is IN or OUT -- and gives one Call Number -- the top one in the list of Available copies. 

NB:  What you can't see is the list of all copies and their Sublocations.  A real shame - as we have popular titles in multiple locations.  Another shame is that Subject Headings are not shown for titles.  But perhaps in future versions.

My Lists and Public Lists:  Very useful. Books searched for can be added to "My List" from within the app.  NB: Visual Search categories/lists are not accessible via the app.

My Bookshelf:  This accesses the three bookshelves available via the Destiny Quest interface:  Now Reading / Want to Read / Have Read.  It would be great if these lists were part of the traditional interface.

Account:  Very useful.  Users can see titles on hold, titles checked out, fines, and their checkout history.

FollettShelf:  Online access to ebooks, allowing users to read books instantly.  (For offline access, they will need the K-12 Brytewave app shown further on....)

Top 10 and New Arrivals:  Unfortunately, these are the Destiny equivalent of click-bait -- catchy titles that fail to deliver real value.  It would be wonderful if we could limit these by other data fields, like Circulation Type.  E.g., New Arrivals only shows the last 15 books cataloged -- and, because our catalog contains ALL texts within the school - whether library books, textbooks, professional books for departments, etc., new arrivals in general aren't of general interest. For the same reason, our Top 10 usually reflects unsurprising results, such as textbooks.

*UPDATED June 13: I just learned that Top 10 can be limited by Patron Type circulations, by Material Type, and by Call Number range -- and "in library use" can be included, if desired.  So my apologies to Follett!


TEACHER:  Someone left this textbook in my classroom.  Who is it checked out to?

ANSWER: Do you have the mobile app that lets you teachers not only see who a book is checked out to -- but lets you check books in and check books out to students?

At our school, the Destiny catalog contains all bar-coded resources, including textbooks for departments like Mathematics and Science as well as hundreds of FVR (Free Voluntary Reading) books in English classroom libraries.  So all our teachers are mini-librarians, checking books in and out to students in the classroom, using their iPhones or iPads and this incredibly useful app from Follett.  Yes, it does mean a training session or two, but the effort is worth it, given all our satellite collections and the fact that teachers have 24/7 access to our library (thanks to magnetic door keys) so they can check out whatever books they want whenever they want.

I impress patrons all the time by walking them to a shelf to retrieve a requested book -- and immediately check it out to them while standing there in the aisle -- using my iPhone and this app.


CHECK OUT:  Search for a patron, tap on "Scan" and then the mobile device's camera scans for the barcode -- and voila! A transaction is complete.

CHECK IN:  Tap on "Scan" and scan the barcode -- with an option to "record in-library use" On/Off.  The only thing it doesn't do is tell you who the book was checked out to, if anyone.  (Maybe in a future version?)

PATRON STATUS:  Very useful for quickly showing a patron what they have out.  Again, the only patrons who have the Access rights to this app are Library Staff and Teachers. 

ITEM STATUS:  All our teachers can use this function to pick up a school/library bar-coded book found anywhere on campus and see who it is checked out to.   I use this app function when closing up the library at the end of the day - on books found lying around - rather than just scanning them in.  So I can email a student and say, "Hey, your Psychology textbook was left on a table in the library - come pick it up from me tomorrow."

*UPDATED June 13:  SNEAKING IN AN INVENTORY?  We are asking some of our classroom teachers to help us with inventory, by giving them some old iPod Touches (ones no one seems to be using), with the Follett Destiny app installed on them, so students can scan and "Check in" all the books to be found in their classroom.  (Kids love to scan barcodes -- and I tease them that it's training for them to work in a shop some day....)  The scans will update the "Date Last Accounted For" field for items -- which the inventory function looks at.  (The "Item Status" function doesn't update the date field.)


QUESTION:  Do you have ebooks?

ANSWER: Yes -- and did you know there's an app that lets you read Follett ebooks offline?

I'm not sure how many patrons are using this app, but I need to make sure they know it's available.  Hence the poster.

It would be useful if we could get statistics on how many patrons accessed our resources via these apps.