My last day as a teacher at Skybridge: a reflection

Today was my last day as a teacher at Skybridge.


There are too many words to fit the last three years into one basket of feelings. Instead, I will share this:
2015-12-14 09.41.51
A few semesters ago, my students were having a real problem with negative self-talk and disclaiming their writing. “I was really tired when I wrote this/this isn’t very good/I don’t really know what I’m doing,” etc.
To combat this, I introduced the self-deprecation jar.
The rule of the jar is this: if you say something bad about yourself, you must write down three awesome things about yourself and put them in the jar. (The jar is covered with pictures of cows saying positive things that are also cow puns.)
For some people, this was harder than it was for others.
2015-12-11 18.54.50
Others were just silly.
2015-12-11 18.54.33
And others embraced it wholeheartedly.
2015-12-11 19.01.26
(Even I got caught once or twice.)
2015-12-11 19.21.46
Universally, it changed the language people used about themselves and their writing, both in the classroom and out. We adopted a culture of gleefully aggressive self-positivity. Multiple times I found myself, in graduate classes or peer groups, two hairs away from shouting “JAR!” when someone said something self-effacing.
I asked the students what they wanted to do with the jar at the end of the semester. They had lots of ideas:
2015-12-11 18.39.34
…with an overwhelmingly predominant theme:
2015-12-11 18.41.19
2015-12-11 19.24.01
But it made me sad to burn all of the genuinely great (and silly, and snarky) things they’d written about themselves. So as a concession, I bought a bunch of tiny jars. I wrote something awesome about each student in on a tiny slip of paper in tiny letters, and placed each one in a jar.
2015-12-13 21.26.49
Then strung them on copper wire and embroidery thread (to be necklaces or keychains or whatnot):
2015-12-13 21.32.54
 I know you can’t hold on forever. I know that teachers pass in and out of students’ lives. But for a little bit longer, at least, the kids will carry with them the fondness and wishes of someone who was lucky to be allowed into their lives, and was changed for the best because of it.
2015-12-14 15.27.12

Book displays: or, how to trick kids into picking up books

Okay, librarians. You’ve got a stellar collection and a devastatingly great catalog; your books are labeled and lined up on their shelves like little Dewey Decimaled soldiers. Now comes (yet another) fun part–how do you get those books into kids’ hands?

One of the most fun methods of book promotion for the crafty librarian is a book display! (Though it’s far from the only way–book talks, book clubs, movie tie-in nights and themed crafternoons are also heaps of fun, and super effective.) Any regular library user will be familiar: book displays are usually situated near the entrance of the library, the circulation desk, or near reading spaces, and are used to celebrate any theme or season–or just to get eyes on some little-loved titles–of the librarian’s choosing. Christmas? Book display! Superheroes? Book display! The color blue? ….BOOK DISPLAY!

"These books BLUE us away!" Image credit:

“These books BLUE us away!” Image credit:

Displays are a great way to make your space attractive, to help your collection seem exciting (and relevant, if your displays tie in to a popular movie release or current event) and to draw user attention to showcased items. Librarians should strive to change displays frequently. If you’re feeling daunted or creatively challenged, never fear: there are boatloads of exciting display ideas from your fellows-in-cardigans. Check out just a few here:

At Skybridge, we don’t have a ton of space, so my first display in the fiction library showcased one book each for ten different fiction genres. In theory, this allows for appeal to a wide range of students.

The genres: realistic fiction, mystery, fantasy, suspense, historical fiction, science fiction, humor, romance, dystopia and LGBTQ.

The genres: realistic fiction, mystery, fantasy, suspense, historical fiction, science fiction, humor, romance, dystopia and LGBTQ.

But oh, if we had the space, what wonders we could wreak! *Unnecessary side note: in writing this post, I learned that there is no present tense of the word wrought (it is an orphan of linguistic evolution, the past tense of a now archaic present tense word meaning work). Libraries! You never quit learning. Dazzle yourself with these beauties:

There are so many great display ideas that my wishlist file for this post costs more memory than my family's first computer had. (Image credit: Winter Park Public Library.)

There are so many great display ideas that my wishlist file for this post costs more memory than my family’s first computer had. (Image credit: Winter Park Public Library.)

Fabulous Banned Books Week display. (Image credit:

Fabulous Banned Books Week display. (Image credit:

Lots of libraries will do these "blind date" displays with books, especially around Valentine's Day. (Image credit:

Lots of libraries will do “blind date” displays with books, especially around Valentine’s Day. (Image credit:

My anaconda don't want none unless you got Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, hon. (Image credit: pinterest)

My anaconda don’t want none unless you got Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, hon. (Image credit: pinterest)

Steampunk! (image credit:

Steampunk! (image credit:

Spooky, scary. (Image credit:

Spooky, scary. (Image credit:

What’s your favorite book display idea? Share below!

Cataloging and the startling beauty of organization

Blessed be the catalogers. They do, despite public knowledge (see assumption: librarian = “lady who checks out books at the desk and says ‘shh,'”), exist. I follow a number of them on Twitter—they’re a hard-working, lovely, clever bunch, keeping the clockwork heart of the library ticking away smoothly and giving us all an order that lets us all sort our heads from our feet and breathe a little easier. They also do a job that—bless them—can seem dauntingly complex and more than a little bit dull. I don’t know how they do it. I’m just happy that they exist.

They also have INDISPUTABLY EXCELLENT HAIR; there is a lot to admire about catalogers. (image credit:

They also have INDISPUTABLY EXCELLENT HAIR; there is a lot to admire about catalogers. (image credit:

If you use an amateur cataloging software, chances are very good that you’ll be doing what’s called copy-cataloging rather than original cataloging. This is what it sounds like: rather than making up your own records for materials, you’ll find and pull in someone else’s. Don’t worry, it’s not cheating. It’s common practice, like the way programmers will use chunks of other people’s code.

Same laser-like focus, slightly less excellent hair. (Sorry, programmers. Image credit:

Same laser-like focus, slightly less excellent hair. (Sorry, programmers.) (Image credit:

The software I used did allow me to copy-catalog records for most of my books, pulling them from the Library of Congress and Amazon. (In fact, I cataloged only one item, a brochure on a chicken breed called Silkies from the American Bantam Association.) (I am absurdly proud of this record.)

I can even. But I don't need to. (image credit:

I can even. But I don’t need to. (image credit:

Unfortunately, as I mentioned in my resource post, many records came in incomplete. Namely, a large number lacked Dewey call numbers.

Unexpected challenge #301: Learning to hunt down Dewey call numbers. As explained on the excellent Librarians Unite!, there’s no comprehensive database listing every Dewey call number. They recommend, instead, the following:

This is how we determine what number we will use.

1.       In a new book, the Library of Congress information is often printed in the front of the book. This is the first place to start. The suggested Dewey number will be at the end of the listing and will be a 3 digit number, possibly followed by a decimal and further digits.  If this number suits your organizational system, use it.

2.       Check in your own system. If it’s a book about elephants, and you already have another book about elephants, use the same number so they will be together on the shelf.

3.       Check with other libraries to see how they number the book.  You can search for books here and then look for how libraries number them.

4.       Try to use the general Dewey Decimal system to determine where the book will fit.

Slowly but surely, the collection began to take shape. This most dramatically affected the nonfiction, which up until this point had been sorted by one category only: er… not fiction. Bit by bit, agriculture began to separate itself from religion. The biographies of Barbara Bush and Hillary Clinton nestled up side by side. Our director, walking by the shelf, exclaimed, “Oh, I love this book!” and “Oooh, we have that?”

When I was young, my mom was always infuriated by what she called my dad’s “gray” messes. A gray mess was when there were so many different things jumbled together than none of them were distinguishable anymore: nails and pennies and Band-Aids and hair ties and outlet covers and bottle caps and guitar picks… it all averaged out to gray. When our shelves looked like this:

library before 2

…it was impossible to see what we had (except for the SAT prep books, because they are purple behemoths) (NOBODY WANTS TO SEE YOU ANYWAY, SAT BOOKS). Dewey’s not a perfect system, but as the chaos began to settle, the collection began to seem like… a collection.

Displays help, too. We'll talk about them later.

Displays help, too. We’ll talk about them later.

I also had a lot of fun with my catalog. You make the catalog? You make the entries. Which means, for my users, a few Easter eggs:

utopia easter eggpride and prejudice easter egg

Titanic easter egg

(There’s also one record in the system that promises the students that I’ll eat my hat if any of them ever checks that book out.) (AHAHAHA YOU’LL NEVER FIND IT, KIDDOS.)


Physical processing, and realizing that It Is All Bigger Than Me

About three days into this project, I found myself staring at the spines of the books in bafflement. I’ve worked in libraries before, both public and technical services. Thousands of books have passed through my hands—for all intents and purposes, I thought, I was a pro! No sweat! Libraries? I can library the heck out of this library! I can… I can….

Not figure out how on earth they get the labels onto the books.

It’s embarrassingly basic, but it had never occurred to me before. The books I’d worked with in my past library jobs came already physically processed, either by an active preservation department or (as seems to be the increasing trend) by a vendor. By “physically processed,” I mean: the book cover was laminated (or transformed into that monolithic monochrome of which university libraries seem so fond); there was a spine label on the book’s side; stamps on the top and cover page; and a barcode on the back. In short: the book was physically ready to go; I just had to enter some information about it into the computer and it was basically shelf-ready.

But doing it myself! This was a new thing entirely. I crawled around on the internet a bit, found nothing expressly useful, and finally just got old-fashioned and pulled out a ruler, feeling like a veritable Laura Ingalls Wilder of the physical processing librarianship world. I measured the spine label of a nearby book, and placed an order for self-adhesive labels. (You can find the specifications for them in the RESOURCES entry. I also made a template for them, which I’m happy to share—shoot me a comment below.) Then I shot a bear, rendered the lard with Pa, and we all sat around the fire with our newly labeled books and prayed for good plowing weather.

Choosing a Font: In Which I Am the Invisible Hand

It’s startling to realize how many decisions influence every item you encounter, every day, that you completely take for granted. Look at the back of your shampoo bottle. Somebody chose the margins for the ingredients list. Somebody else put a lot of time and thought into the pattern on the box spring of your mattress. The human thought that has gone into every object you interact with every day is so baffling that it’s impossible to consider.

It’s even more shocking when you find yourself on the other side of that divide–which, in making a library, you will. Look around your space. You know all of those decisions that seem completely arbitrary? Somebody has to make them, and that somebody–dizzyingly, wonderfully–is you.

For me, this moment arrived when I sat down to type up my first(!) spine label and realized… I didn’t know what font it should be. And more than that, there was no font it “should be.” There was the font that I (not a graphic designer) was going to decide that it was, because I was the DIY librarian, and there was no one else to make this decision. It was stunning and beautiful and silly and a little heady. Because let’s be honest: is the shelf label font something that the students will care, or even think, about? No. But it is something that they’ll interact with every single day—and that will be, on a subconscious level, a small element in their greater conception of what a library is and how it should look and behave. It’s not just the difference between Times and Comic Sans. It’s the creation of the identity of something that will live (hopefully) far beyond you and (even more hopefully) lodge like a small tender seed in your students’ hearts.

(In the end, we went with Arial Bold, size 11.)

Using the call numbers generated by my catalog, I printed the labels and placed them on the books. Then I put the books in order, and….

(Insert angelic choir.)

(Insert the singing of an angelic choir.)

I am being real with you, future-librarians: this was a deeply emotional moment. Stepping back and looking at my first shelf of spine-labeled books, I had the sudden sense that there was an undercurrent in the library that hadn’t been there before. Not just a sense of authority or validity: a sense of belonging. Looking at these books, presented the way I’ve seen books presented in libraries my entire life, it felt suddenly like the books did not belong to me. Like, instead, they belonged to Libraries Generally: a sense of something greater, bigger, more active and vast and alive than just me and my little school on the edge of the Texas hill country.

Or maybe like this.  (image credit:

Or maybe like this. (image credit:

It’s very difficult to explain.

An exceedingly dull post about technical processing

Every new project requires that you reinvent the wheel a number of times; the smaller and more specific the project, the funkier and more esoteric your wheel. Inventing the technical processing wheel was, for me, time-consuming and occasionally headache-inducing. If you’ve been following the project step by step and are ready to catalog your own books in Readerware, congratulations! I’ve invented the wheel for you. It looks like this:

Not like this. This will not get your books processed. (image credit:

Not like this. This will not get your books processed. (image credit:

(If you’re not, please go outside/read a book/write a letter to a friend. What follows is, though useful, very technical and EXTREMELY NOT FUNNY. xx, k)

How to Process Books

  1. Add the book to the catalog.
    1. In Readerware, choose “Auto-Catalog.” Make sure that Library of Congress and Amazon are selected, then use the barcode reader to scan the ISBNs of the books in one by one, and hit “next.”
      1. If there is no barcode, or if the program gives you an error, you can try manually entering the ISBN and hitting enter. If there is no ISBN (this only happens in very old books—honestly, we should not be acquiring books this old except in very special cases), put the book to the side.
    2. The program will generate a list of books based on your ISBNs. Double-check the list to make sure it got everything right.
      1. Sometimes the program will mismatch an ISBN, and you’ll end up with a weird item you don’t actually have. Delete these records.
    3. For books without an ISBN, or books that Auto-Catalog couldn’t find: search for the books on Amazon. When you find the record, drag the icon next to the URL onto the “drag & drop” button in Readerware. The item will be created in Readerware.
      1. There’s a tutorial here:
    4. Congrats! You have added your book to the catalog.
  2. Optional: clean up the record
    1. If your book’s title or author are misspelled, or formatted weirdly, you can click the green arrow next to the record to enter editing mode. There, you can fix the record.
  3. Generate a call number and location.
    1. There are two ways to do this:
      1. Slower: go into the record itself. Enter a location in the location field, change the ISBN field to Dewey, and enter a call number. Or:
      2. Faster: from the main screen, click the Editing Mode button, then modify the location and call number.
    2. How To Generate Locations and Call Numbers
Genre Location How to Generate Call Number Example Call Number
Fiction Library FIC + first three letters of author’s last name FIC ROW
Graphic novels Library—Graphic Novels GN + first three letters of series title GN SAI
Short stories Library—Short Stories SS + first three letters of author/editor’s last name SS BOR
Poetry Library–Poetry POEM + first three letters of poet’s last name (editors for anthologies) POEM GLU
Reference Library–Reference REF + Dewey call number REF 423
Mature Readers Mature Readers M FIC + first three letters of author’s last name M FIC PLA
Nonfiction History Room Dewey call number, + first two letters of author’s last name. (See “exceptions,” below.) 027.009 BA
Plays History Room–Plays PLAY + first three letters of playwright/editor’s last name. PLAY BEC
Oversize nonfiction Oversize—History Room O + Dewey call number + first two letters of author’s last name. (Same rules as nonfiction.) O 613.25 BU
  1. Weird exceptions:
    1. Nonfiction: Readerware sometimes generates Dewey call numbers for you, but often will not. In this case, look up the book in the Austin Public Library catalog and use their call number. If APL does not have that particular book, search for a book on the same topic and use its call number. (It feels like cheating, but I promise, this is how Dewey works. J)
    2. If anthologies of short stories, poetry or plays belong to a series (e.g., The Best American Short Stories annual series), use the first three or four letters of the series name (e.g., SS BEST).
  2. Generate a spine label
    1. Take the list of books you just processed and export them to a spreadsheet.
      1. Go to File, Export Database, select “selected books,” and export the following fields: Title, Author, Location and Dewey Call number.
      2. Click “next” until it generates a spreadsheet.
    2. Open your spreadsheet, select all of the Dewey call numbers, and drop them into the spine label template.
    3. Formatting the spine label:
      1. Select all, and set the font to Arial, size 11, bold.
      2. Set left margin to ½ inch (it should be here automatically).
  • Align call numbers to the left-center. (Left on the x-axis, and centered on the up-and-down, or y-axis. This option is under “table tools” in Word.)
  1. Finally, format the call number so that each piece of information rests on its own line, breaking Dewey numbers at the decimal. It will look like:


(If you’re confused, grab a book from the same section of the library and copy its label’s formatting.)

  1. Shelve it!
    1. Print your labels and affix them to their books. I like to do mine 1/4″ from the base of the spine. Cover with a clear label protector (or colored, if you’re doing genre- or some other kind of fancy labeling) (known in the industry as FANCYPANTS labeling)
    2. Shelve your books in their section in alphanumeric order!
      1. For letter-based call numbers (fiction/plays/poems etc), just go in alphabetical order by call number: FIC BOO before FIC BYA.
        1. When several authors have the same last name, alphabetize them by first name as well. (Laurie Halse Anderson’s books will come before M.T. Anderson’s books, even though their call numbers are both FIC AND.)
      2. For number-based call numbers, go in numerical order.
        1. A trick! After the decimal, go in order by digit. This means that .300 is less than .45. Yes, this is perplexing (we had to do a quiz on this to shelve books at my undergraduate library–a test that, purportedly, no one got a 100% on). Just go digit by digit. Is 3 less than 4? Yes. Then place it first.

…told you.

Documentation like this is actually hugely helpful to write up. Not only does it firm up the process in your mind, but it helps all volunteers, assistants and predecessors process materials—potentially leaving you free to come up with displays and programming. (Known in the industry as “the fun part.”)**

**Just kidding, catalogers. I love and appreciate all that you do. Please, please keep doing it.

What do you listen to while you do technical processing? Share below? (I like Radiolab.)

Weeding: the good, the bad, and the MUSTIE

Way back in the very beginning of Operation Skybrary, I rolled up my sleeves and stared down the four heaping shelves in the English classroom. They contained about five hundred books between them, a vague mélange of fiction and nonfiction that the school had haphazardly accumulated over the years. The library was filled with real literary gems. But it was also filled with books that seemed to have appeared purely by accident, as though a book god once sneezed and inadvertently populated our shelves with musty 1980s problem novels and comic books in Japanese.

photobomb by art teacher Johnny

Also, people’s heads were always in the way.

The collection was little used by the student body—partly, everything was so crammed in and disorganized that the individual identities of the books were rendered invisible. Additionally, the presence of so many out-of-date or developmentally inappropriate texts were devaluing our users’ view of our entire collection. These problems were only exacerbated as donations began coming in. It was time for a weeding.

Which of these books is younger than our students? (Trick question.)

Which of these books is younger than our students? (Trick question.)

Weeding is the way libraries keep their collections relevant, current, and usable. For those tiptoeing into the profession for the first time, especially those entering librarianship out of a reverent love of books, the prospect of getting rid of books may induce chest-clutching and hang-wringing. I’m sorry, my darlings. Ready your spoonsful of sugar so that you may swallow this medicine: INDIVIDUAL BOOKS ARE NOT PRECIOUS. A healthy, relevant, usable collection (and, by extension, a happy, engaged, informed community) is.

In weeding my would-be collection, I used the popular MUSTIE criteria:

M=     Misleading: factually inaccurate
U=      Ugly: worn beyond mending or rebinding
S=       Superseded by a new edition of by a much better book on the subject
T=       Trivial: of no discernible literary or scientific merit
I=        Irrelevant to the needs and interests of the library’s community
(E=       Elsewhere: the material is easily obtainable from another library)*


*E is in parentheses here because the Skybrary is not part of a school or public library system, and therefore items are not easily obtainable by this library from another library. (But without it, the word is MUSTI, which seems like the name of a high school sitcom character in the 90s.)

90s girl

Musti like, totally loves old book smell? (image credit:

There’s a lot in this little acronym, all of it useful. Old and beaten paperbacks of easily obtainable classics were pulled from the collection. So, too, were business books written before the advent of e-mail, an operator’s manual for a riding mower, and a travel book about beautiful Czechoslovakia.

The most difficult letter to navigate is, at least in my mind, the I: “Irrelevant to the needs and interests of the community.” This may include books that are not academically or developmentally appropriate for your students. It may also include books that your students are capable of reading, but just plain aren’t interested in. Breastfeeding guides, witty comedies about the misadventures of dating in one’s 40s, or books on middle management may fall into this category, for example—or not. Get to know your community, and have a sense of what’s of interest to this age group.

Remember, a great librarian engages in what is commonly referred to as the CREW method: Continuous Review, Evaluation and Weeding. Your library is a living, breathing entity. Checking in on it regularly, rather than once a year, will keep it healthy.

What’s the best thing you’ve weeded? Share below!

john cena

This is mine.