Sunday, October 14, 2012

Great Expectations: Children and Non-Fiction

One of the more interesting and challenging aspects of helping kids find non-fiction books is that their expectations often far exceed either library budget or the scope of the publishing industry. For example,  I've had questions like:

"We have to make a model of the Congo River Valley for class. Do you have a book on how to make a model of the Congo River Valley using things like papier mache and sticks? 
"Do you have any children's biographies on Machine Gun Kelly?" 
"I'm doing a project. Do you have a book about the history of root beer and how to make root beer?"

These questions are almost always compounded by the fact that the teacher wants them to use a book source and not any websites. While I firmly believe in the importance of teaching kids how to research using print materials, I always bristle at teachers who seem to believe that legitimate research excludes anything that may be found on the web. It is so, so, so important to teach kids how to use the web for academic work! With books, there's this (perhaps undeserved) idea that print is free from error, whereas the web is a handful of facts scattered in a minefield of lies. There are some really great resources on the web and it is just as important to teach kids how to identify and use those resources in addition to print resources. There are also many web databases that offer digitized versions of print books and journals. I cannot tell you how many times I've had this conversation: 

"This isn't quite the same thing as a website. This is a digitized version of a book--you are accessing it through the internet instead of looking at the print copy. If you looked at the print copy, it would be exactly the same as what's on the screen--you're just accessing it differently." 
(skeptical look) "I dunno, my teacher said I can't use more than three internet resources..."

However, I've digressed a bit from my initial point, which is that kids have high expectations for very specific materials. I have learned how to reform their question and show them how to use a number of resources to find the information that they need: "Well, I'm not sure that we have a book that is specifically about making a model of the Congo River Valley, but let's take a look at some of these craft books..." For the most part, this works well: the kid gets some information and hopefully learns a little bit about how to find information in the library.

And occasionally, I'm quite pleasantly surprised by what I find during this process. Case in point: this weekend, a girl asked me for help in finding some books on a rare kind of frog. I pulled a couple of non-fiction books before wandering over to the reference section where I found it: a full three-page article about the rare frog. I was thrilled--I hadn't expected to find anything beyond a passing mention. So perhaps the lesson here is that hope in reference work is sometimes rewarded--ask for the impossible and sometimes you might find it.

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