Why (and How) to Set Up a College Library Visit for Middle Schoolers

It can be surprisingly easy—and incredibly worthwhile—to arrange for middle schoolers to conduct a day of research at a college library. This academic librarian shares her insider know-how.
  A tour of the library reference area, Robert Fitzpatrick always keeps the students from Rumney Elementary School (Rumney, NH) engaged.   photo: Bruce Lyndes

A tour of the Plymouth State University library reference area. Academic librarian Robert Fitzpatrick keeps students from Rumney (NH) Elementary School engaged.   photo: Bruce Lyndes

Until recently, it was rare for me to see students younger than college age doing research in the academic library where I work. School research visits were not prohibited, but they certainly were not encouraged.  But several years ago, a phone call from a local eighth grade teacher changed all that, and now our library regularly hosts younger students working on a variety of projects. While our library has accommodated younger students working on simple exercises, the most common grade levels have been six and higher. Middle schoolers, in particular, are well suited to soak up information literacy skills. After running several such visits, I have found the results have been worth the time and energy, both for me and the visiting teacher librarian. The visits establish a crucial link between K–12 and higher education.

First things first

It’ll be hard to get buy-in from an academic librarian without being able to tell her or him what you want to accomplish. You don’t need the final assignment rubrics, just the subject area and the specific outcomes desired from the one day of research. For example, one group of 8th graders worked on a science project on growing vegetables in containers.  During the academic library visit, each one was tasked with finding two to five sources (monographs, magazine articles, or authoritative websites found with Advanced Google) that contained information on the best growing conditions and fertilizers for their plant. Investigate your academic library options. If you are in or near a college town, that university’s library is a logical choice. If you’re in an urban or suburban area with multiple colleges and universities within striking distance, approach a community college or smaller four-year college, rather than a university with 10,000-plus students and a six-floor library. Now it’s time to pitch your idea to the academic librarian in charge. Remember:  They, and by extension, their schools, have good reasons to want to work with you on this. First, with shrinking higher education budgets, colleges and universities are under pressure to demonstrate their contributions to taxpayers. Some regions, especially in the Northeast, are seeing a sharp decrease in college-age residents, a trend that is expected to continue until the end of this decade.  Your visits will give them the chance to showcase their campus to prospective applicants.  Also, academic librarians will welcome the opportunity to see how those future students search for information. They want to participate in developing essential information skills that some new university students lack in their first year out of high school.

Finesse the details

Once you have the assignment in hand and an academic librarian on board, you can begin planning the specifics of the visit.  Here are tips to consider: Time it right. Conferring with the librarian, select a date when the library building is not very busy.  A day when classes are not in session (winter break, spring break, or immediately after graduation) is ideal. Avoid midterm and final exam crunch time. Leverage lunch. If you can, spend most or all of the school day at the library. That way, students have time for a short tour, as well as that perennial motivator, lunch. The kids will like the novelty of a new cafeteria, and prices are bound to be reasonable.  The librarian may be able to arrange for a reduced group rate at the dining hall or snack bar. Invite her or him to eat with you. Fine-tune your prep.  Working with the academic librarian, finalize the details of your assignment requirements and determine which available resources are most appropriate. For example, students from most of our visiting schools already have access to a variety of Ebsco databases, so I spend more time instructing them in how to use other resources only available in my academic library building. Make an early introduction.  Invite the academic librarian to your school in advance of your visit.  I’ve found that meeting the students and library media specialist and visiting their media center in advance has been tremendously helpful in gauging how to best meet their needs. Get all hands on deck. Line up additional chaperones. Invite your school library media specialist, technology integrator, paraprofessional staff/aids, and parent volunteers. The academic librarian may be able to enlist help too. For example, I recruit our social studies and history majors to help with students working on history-related projects. Pack smart.  Remind students to bring pens, pencils, and a notebook. Other handy items include a USB or flash drive for saving documents, coins or small bills for the copier, and snacks/water (if the latter is permitted in the library building). Touch base.  The day before your visit, give the academic librarian a final head count of both students and chaperones. Ask any last-minute questions, and confirm the time of your arrival.

Enjoy a successful library research day

The big day will pass quickly in a whirlwind of activity.  Follow these tips to maximize the fun and learning. Leave early. Allow ample time for the students to settle in before getting to work.  The librarian will need to share a few housekeeping details. I was surprised at how long this actually took, and I often joke with the group that if they can successfully log on and get to the library website, the hardest part of the day is over! Home in.  Ask the librarian to offer short instructional sessions on one or two—tops—resources and give the students time to practice. This approach works far better than taking more time to demonstrating several resources all at once. I ask for a student volunteer to do the typing while I demonstrate the resource.  And while it is tempting to do a rehearsed search, I do spontaneous searches using the student’s suggestion. The search may not produce perfect results, but that is precisely what I want the students to see.  Research takes time and patience, and a successful search right off the bat sets up unrealistic expectations. Let them roam.  Allow the students freedom to find books and other resources on their own without assistance. Most academic libraries have maps available. This is a terrific chance for them to learn about the Library of Congress classification system used in higher education. Students from Rivendell School (Orford, NH) find their own books from the stacks (photo credit, Bruce Lyndes)

Students from Rivendell School (Orford, NH) find their own books from the stacks.   photo: Bruce Lyndes

Make memories. You take pictures on other field trips, right? Relax the rules and let the students take a few shots with their phones.  I ask them to take pictures of themselves and their friends working in the library and email them to me.  Occasionally, students ask me to pose for pictures with them.

Assessment and planning for the next visit

It’s important that you assess the effectiveness of the research visit while it is fresh in your mind.  Here’s what to consider. The final outcome. Was the assignment too difficult or complicated?  Would another subject have worked better?  Did the librarian tailor instruction to your needs?  Did you have enough time?  Answers to these questions will help you plan for next year.  Remember, the first visit is always the most challenging for everyone. Follow up. Academic librarians, like all professional educators, need to account for their time, and they are just as concerned as you that the visit was productive.  Stay in touch!  Invite the librarian to see the final projects. I remember being invited to see a student’s final exhibit project on the transcontinental railroad gleaming with the symbolic gold stake she had created from one of the pictures we had found.   At another school, I saw tomato, sunflower, and pea plants that students had grown in the greenhouse using the resources we had discovered. Academic librarians don’t always get this opportunity. Trust me: we love seeing the results of research done in the library. If a visit isn’t practical, send pictures. Show off.  Remember those pictures you took?  Share them with school administrators and parents; post them on your website.  Ask the librarian to have the college or university’s public relations staffer send out a press release.  Write your own press release!  We’ve had great success in sharing news about our visits through articles in local publications.
Anne Jung-Mathews is the Outreach Librarian at Plymouth State University, Plymouth, NH.
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