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I Believe in Libraries: Your Librarian as your Autodidact Ally

I Believe in Libraries
Your Librarian as your Autodidact Ally

By Cara Barlow

“I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for ten years.” ~ Ray Bradbury, New York Times, June 19, 2009

In 2009, the time of that quote, science fiction writer Ray Bradbury was eighty-nine years old. I’m pretty sure if he had been born fifty years later, he’d have said that he believed in “libraries and the Internet.”

Libraries have changed dramatically in the past fifteen years. The medium-size public library I work in today has computers with Internet access, wi-fi available for patrons, online databases that you can access in the library and from home, downloadable mp3 books and ebooks, music on CD, and movies and more on DVD. Library resources have expanded as our world has expanded. What hasn’t changed is the over-arching goal of libraries – to provide their public with access to the resources to self-educate, entertain, and explore.

Libraries have long been havens for autodidacts, and that continues to be true. Bradbury’s experience is not unusual; I’ve seen it happen many times in the twenty years I’ve worked as a reference librarian.

Your librarian can be your autodidact ally.

Like any other group of people, librarians are a mixed lot, but many work in libraries either because they are autodidacts themselves or they enjoy helping people find answers and sharing knowledge. There are also librarians who have negative, stereotyped ideas about homeschoolers or life learners. The good news is most of us are not like that – we welcome everyone and are expert at helping you. Here are some of the ways we can help.

  • Connect with geographically local resources. Librarians who have been at their jobs for a year or more have had time to cross paths with lots of people in the community. This means that if they don’t know the person who can help with a chess club, or where you can find the history of a local pond, they’ll know someone who can help you. And you don’t need to physically go to the library to ask for their help – a phone call or an email works.

  • Find resources in your library or the library community. Librarians are big on sharing. They talk with each other, put resources online, and send materials from library to library. Sometimes the library I’m at doesn’t have what a patron needs, but I can get it for them from another library or can track it down somewhere else in the state or online.

  • Offer you space to meet. Most public libraries have a meeting room that is available for nonprofit groups to use. If you need a place for a group to meet, libraries are often a good option.

  • Offer programs or give you the opportunity to present programs. If you go to your library’s website, you’ll probably find a calendar with a listing of the library’s upcoming programs. Most, if not all, of the programs will be free of charge. Libraries also often welcome life learners doing programs. I know unschooling teens who have started a Dr. Who fan club at their library and a few years ago I ran a workshop on making composting worm boxes.

How to find little-known online resources that most public libraries have.

Many of the traditional reference books that used to be on the shelf are now available through the library websites as online databases – the content is the same, it’s just the format that’s different.

Some of the online databases are fun. The library I work in subscribes to a online language program called Mango, which helps you learn over thirty different languages, including Hindi, which I really want to learn, and today I noticed a new addition: Pirate. We also have one called Global Road Warrior, which has current information on traveling to other countries, and Tumblebooks Library, a collection of animated talking picture books, puzzles, and games for young children.

There are also online databases that offer sample tests including SATs, Police Officer, PRAXIS, etc.; remedial math and English courses; and help polishing resumes.

This is only the tip of the iceberg of what’s available if you have a library card and a computer with Internet access. It’s worth it to spend some time on your library’s website familiarizing yourself with what’s there.

Tricks to finding books about your special interests – at libraries, online, and through booksellers.

Between being a librarian and a life learning parent, I’ve become pretty good at finding resources that I think my children will enjoy. Here’s the process I use if I’m looking for books. It works for music, movies and games too.

I start off with a title that they’ve already read and enjoyed. First I go to and search for that title. Once I find it, I scroll down and browse through the “Customers who bought this item also bought” section. I’m looking for items that would appeal to my children, have attractive cover art (I know it sounds kind of silly, but it’s important) and ratings of four or more stars.

I like doing this in Amazon because they have an enormous collection of titles – larger than any library. I also like that the books are rated by readers and many titles have the “look inside” option. Amazon’s search capabilities are wonderful; even if I make a typing mistake or don’t remember the exact title, it will still usually find the book for me.

Once I find a title that looks promising, I go to my online library catalog and search for it. If my library consortium (group of libraries that share resources) doesn’t have it, I search the statewide catalog. You can usually find your state- or province-wide online catalog by Googling that library and going to their website – there will probably be a link to the catalog from there. You will either be able to request the title online using your library card number or should call your local library to request it.

If I want to purchase the book – I try to buy the book if I think that it will be read multiple times or if I’ll have to pay a hefty interlibrary loan fee to get it – I go to Bookfinder is an aggregator of online new and used booksellers.

You enter the title you’re looking for and your zip code. Bookfinder will return with a list of new and used copies for sale, sorted from least expensive to most expensive with the shipping calculated in. The downside to Bookfinder is that it doesn’t include music and movies. For those I go to

The short version of privacy and intellectual freedom: know your rights.

Many life learners are rightly concerned with protecting their privacy. There are some basics that it’s important to know about your library records and privacy.

Your library should not be keeping past records of items you have checked out. Most libraries delete your past circulation transactions as a way to protect your privacy. They should also not share your list of current items you have checked out – not with the police, your spouse, or your parent. This is also true of children’s circulation records.

Here’s an excerpt from the American Library Associations’ Policy Concerning Confidentiality of Personally Identifiable Information About Library Users:

“The ethical responsibilities of librarians, as well as statutes in most states and the District of Columbia, protect the privacy of library users. Confidentiality extends to “information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired, or transmitted” (ALA Code of Ethics), and includes, but is not limited to, database search records, reference interviews, circulation records, interlibrary loan records, and other personally identifiable uses of library materials, facilities, or services.”

The other thing to keep in mind is that is that parents are responsible for being aware of what their child is reading and viewing – the librarians will not police what your child is viewing or borrowing.

“The primary responsibility for rearing children rests with parents. If parents want to keep certain ideas or forms of expression away from their children, they must assume the responsibility for shielding those children. Governmental institutions cannot be expected to usurp or interfere with parental obligations and responsibilities when it comes to deciding what a child may read or view.” ~ American Library Association Intellectual Freedom & Censorship Q&A

Almost all libraries take protecting adult intellectual freedom and confidentiality very seriously. There is some variation with protecting children’s. If this is a concern of yours, ask what your library’s policy is toward children’s intellectual freedom and confidentiality. I’ve worked at libraries where they took children’s intellectual freedom and confidentiality very seriously, and at libraries where filters were put on the Internet; book, computer, and DVD use was restricted by age; and parents were given lists of what the child had checked out.

The public library is one portal, among many, to accessing the world. It’s not free – it’s supported through your tax dollars – but it’s a nearby, low cost way for you and your family to access information and support your exploration of the world.

Cara Barlow grew up in Michigan and Ohio, moving to Boston when she was in her early twenties. She now lives in Southern New Hampshire with her husband and daughters Anna and Molly. She spends her time fostering an unschooling life for her teen daughters, working part-time as a librarian, and enjoying the friends, adventures, and experiences that come her way.

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