“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
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
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
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
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
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
I start off with a title that they’ve already read and enjoyed. First
I go to Amazon.com 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 www.bookfinder.com.
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
The short version of privacy and intellectual freedom: know your
Many life learners are rightly concerned with protecting their privacy.
There are some basics that it’s important to know about your library records
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,
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.