By: Susannah Goldstein
Upper School students are busy, and are often juggling many things at the same time– after school jobs, athletics, college applications, arts, and other commitments. Many librarians see a drop in circulation between middle school and upper school, especially among driven independent school students. Students who know exactly which series or title they want are able to check out books quickly, but when students aren’t sure what they are seeking, coming to the library to browse and do active readers advisory feels like another item on their packed to-do list. While I do many passive readers advisory programs, I wanted to do something new that would incorporate active readers advisory but would also be high-quality and personalized.
Enter: personal book shopping programs!
Last year, I saw an article on Knowledge Quest about a high school librarian who was creating book bundles for students based on a survey. This fall, I adapted and streamlined this idea, while collecting more data. The Brearley School launched BookBoxes (still looking for a better name) this fall, and we saw immediate success with the program. I then shared the program with a few other HVLA schools, such as Trinity and LREI, and those schools have also seen great success in implementation. One key to the success of the program has been the very detailed survey– while some surveys just ask about genre or subject, the expanded survey mimics an extensive readers advisory interview. While no survey can take the place of a personal conversation, this survey asks many of the same questions we ask when we work individually with students– questions include reading mood (readers can select several, including bittersweet, humorous, introspective, and dark), fandoms, books that the student dislikes, and preferred formats. The survey takes about 5 minutes to complete thoroughly. Karyn Silverman of LREI and Bethany Martin of Trinity made helpful edits and suggestions to the survey form after adapting it to their schools.
I created a Google Form, with no analog alternative (so that the data stays in one place and requests are not missed). The survey results are collected in a Google Sheet, and I receive a notification every time a student fills out a survey. In addition to the columns for the categories on the survey, I added columns for “librarian assigned” (as we are are a team who works on this program together), “suggestions,” and “reader feedback.” We promise a one-week turnaround on the books. Once the request is filled, the student is e-mailed, and the student comes into the library to pick up the books. When the student checks out their books, we record feedback for their future requests– sometimes it’s that a student has read the book, sometimes it’s that a student has no interest in a book, and sometimes it’s that they want to remember a book for next time because they want all of them but don’t have time to take the whole stack.
- Before holidays and breaks, I send the students several reminders of the impending deadline so that the library isn’t slammed with many requests in a short time frame.
- We began by putting books in bags, but the cost became prohibitive, so we now use extra large rubber bands, with the student’s name on a piece of paper on top of the stack.
- When working as a team, we make sure that there is always a librarian who is in charge of each stack, but we all add suggestions to the spreadsheet when we have an idea for a particular student. We tell students who picked their books in case they want to follow up personally, and to reinforce the idea that humans pick better books than algorithms!
- When we are suggesting a book that we’d ordinarily hand-sell (needs some explanation), we add a post-it note with why that book is in their stack.
- We do not check out the books to the students in advance- the students sift through their stack and choose what they want to take home. Some schools check them out in advance, and either method would work.
- A week after a student picks up their box, they receive a feedback survey about their experience.
We launched in 2 grades in early October, then opened it up to the whole Upper School. Since that time, we have fulfilled 54 requests. Our circulation numbers went up almost instantaneously. Some grades saw doubling of circulation numbers, but all saw major improvement. Students have felt valued and energized about the library. A student wrote on the LREI feedback form, “Thank you so much! The fact that you would create a personalized bag of books for anyone in the high school that asks for it is amazing! I only get around to reading over breaks like Spring Break and I read a lot over Summer Vacation, and between those periods I get almost no time to find books that I will actually like. So I really appreciate this.”
In addition to students simply having more access to books, I have also seen students stretch their reading boundaries and preferences. When filling BookBox recommendations, we work hard to think “beyond genre,” in the words of Olga Nesi. The survey really focuses on reading mood, past successes, fandoms, and favorite tv shows, which allows us to think about books that would fit each reader that might be outside of their usual checkouts. Additionally, readers feel less pressure to stick with what they know when more options are presented.
On the whole, this pilot program has done so well that it has become a permanent fixture of our library, and we are expanding to 7th and 8th grades soon.