While I’d like to avoid this blog becoming a gripe-fest, I feel the need to address this particular topic because it’s a perennial problem that I happen to be dealing with at the moment.
Yes, it’s term paper season again.
I actually like helping teens research their term papers. I usually find that I learn something new, even if I’ve researched the topic in the past. I like interacting with young patrons who don’t visit the library on a regular basis. It’s my opportunity to sell them on all that the library has to offer.
Here’s the problem.
Roughly half of the term paper topics I look up are for high school students, but are done with parents or grandparents. (I really should start keeping statistics. I would not be surprised if that number has been creeping higher every year.) Here’s a sample interaction. See if you can spot the problem.
Librarian: Hi! How can I help you today?
Parent: My son is doing a paper on Japanese gardens and I told him I’d pick up some books for him.
L: Okay. What grade is your child in?
P: He’s a junior.
L: What class is this for.
P: I don’t know. English, I think.
L: Can he use magazines or journals? What about electronic resources?
P: I don’t know.
L: Okay, well, we’ve got some really great reference books that talk specifically about Japanese gardens. I can pull them and you can make copies of the pertinent information, or take some notes. Shall we start there?
P: Don’t you have anything I can check out?
L: I’d be happy to check our catalog and go to the shelf with you. How many resources does he need?
P: I don’t know. I’ll just take whatever you have.
L: Okay. *checking catalog* It looks like that’s been a popular topic and a lot of our books that cover it are checked out. Would you like me to bring some over from other libraries? I can have them here in 2-3 business days.
P: *long, annoyed sigh* Fine. But can you give me something to take home today? Just give me something on gardening or Japan.
L: Let’s go to the shelf and see if there’s anything around 712.609, the Dewey number for Japanese gardens. If not, we’ll see if we can’t find something else that will get your son started. Also, know that if your son would like to come in, I’d be happy to look through the reference books or show him how to access our electronic journals. He can do that from home.
P: He plays sports. He doesn’t have time to come to the library.
Yep. This is an interaction I’m currently having several times a day. It’s a no-win situation. The parent is frustrated, the child isn’t getting the best information (or sometimes any information, if the parent gets frustrated enough) for his paper, and I’m so disgusted that I want to spit.
I’m not going to tell anyone how to parent. I think sports and other extra-curricular activities are important for a child’s development. However, when a parent puts sports (or drama or Spanish Club) above schoolwork, there is a problem. It’s not just about the assignment. Yes, it’s good to learn about Japanese gardens and yes, it’s important to learn to write in proper English, but more than that, these assignments teach students how to research and how to ask for help with their research. It’s a tool they’ll need if they go to college. (Unless the parent plans to go to their college library and do their research for them. Don’t laugh, because I know academic librarians who swear that it happens.)
It’s also about learning to balance what one wants to do with what one has to do. Work-life balance is an absolutely vital skill for success. More employers are starting to realize this, and are starting to include benefits to help their employees have a successful work-life balance, like flex time, the ability to work remotely, and extended paid leave for family issues like illnesses or births.
If you must come to the library to get research materials with your child, for the love of Pete, have any and all details of the assignment written down so I can get you the most, best information possible. And don’t be in such a hurry. Research takes time. Also, if you’re not sure about something, no librarian worth their salt is going to mind you stepping out of the building for a few minutes to call your kid and ask about issues you didn’t anticipate.
Here’s my plea in a nutshell: make your kids do their own work. You’re not doing them any favors by encouraging them to trade academics for extra-curricular activities. You’ll thank me when your son, now a college freshman, doesn’t have a breakdown mid-year because he can’t manage to effectively research and write papers on Japanese gardens by himself and is failing his classes.
Filed under: On Being a Librarian