That’s another story…
Two teachers describe how they set about using the computer to help people find the books they want to read.
Brenda Swindells who teaches in a middle school in Bradford has her system
UP AND RUNNING
A one-year secondment to work for a diploma in Professional Studies gave me the opportunity to link my main line of interest – fiction for children – with something I was totally ignorant about – computers.
I had always promoted the use of fiction in school and produced booklists for staff recommending titles to use with different age groups. I was frequently asked to suggest a suitable story to match a particular topic. The booklists were often lost and sometimes ignored because it was quicker to ask me. If I was going to research literature across the curriculum it seemed a good idea also to investigate using the computer which is so good at storing and organising information and making it easily accessible. If I could make it work, the computer would obviously be more efficient than either my memory or my booklists at meeting my colleagues’ needs.
First of all I had to select a database. The one which best suited my purpose was INFORM which is available from Nottinghamshire Schools Education Centre. It is easy to learn to use, versatile and bug free, and I was soon involved in making decisions about how to organise the information I wanted to put into CHIBOO – short for children’s books-the name I gave my file. I decided to store information in nine fields: Author, Title, Publisher, Reading Level, Interest Level, Categories One, Two, Three, and an Annotation.
To decide which categories to use and how many, I consulted staff in my school and in eighteen other middle schools in Bradford about which ‘labels’ they would find useful when searching the file for books. I also talked to children about the sort of words they used to categorise books. After four drafts I finally settled on twenty-two categories and gave each one a letter for quick reference (see table).
Each book entered on the file can be allocated up to three categories. Category One is the main theme of the story: perhaps adventure or ghosts, school, science fiction, war, fantasy, etc. The second category is the secondary theme. For example it may be a school story which also has an element of fantasy or adventure. The third category may be used or not depending on the book.
You can probably imagine the difficulties when deciding on a category for a particular title. Is Tyke Tiler principally about school, or relationships, or is it humorous? It’s all three. I finally chose school for Category One, humour for Category Two and read aloud for Category Three. Another difficult one was Donovan Croft. I opted for E (Family/Friends/Relationships) as the first category, with L (multi-ethnic) and K (contemporary problems) as the second and third. Watership Down was categorised B, A, K. I decided Natalie Babbitt’s Goody Hall was chiefly historical and secondly a mystery. Some may disagree. In the end the categories are my decision; when searching I always search all three categories so as not to miss any titles.
To find books to include I went for those which had been tried and tested and came well recommended as ‘good reads’. I asked teachers, parents and children for suggestions, went to book lists and journals, and used my own experience. Some books were given star ratings by the pupils in my school and these were included on the disc. The program allows me to write an annotation of approximately 90 characters, about two sentences.
Researching the reading level, I started by using Fry to assess the readability level. The results I got didn’t always seem to match with my experience of children reading the books so in the end I decided that the reading level and interest level would be a rough guide only, based on the collective experience and instincts of me and my colleagues.
All of this took a very long time to complete. The file now contains 365 books which when cross-referenced can come up with 1,000 titles. I am about to start a new disc. The computer is located in the library and the program is mainly used-as I intended – by teachers looking for books to support a project or titles to recommend. But it is also being used by some children and I’d like to see more of this happening. When a search is made the teacher searcher is usually sure of the category and the reading and interest level needed. The program will search quickly through all the entries and display a list of titles on the screen. The screen cannot carry all the information which is stored so
Categories for CHIBOO
|Code||Category||Number Titles of|
|H||Historical/Living in the Past||59|
|N||World about Us||34|
we usually ask the computer for a printout which contains all the information, including the annotation.
As you can see some categories were difficult to fill. I could find very little to support work on industry, transport and, in particular, the industrial revolution. I have just been asked by a colleague for a list of titles on migration. I think this is going to be a popular area but all I can offer are the titles in N and 0 or possibly H. I now doubt the usefulness of the categories ‘anthology’ and ‘read aloud’ so I may create a new file for my second disc.
I have found the whole experience extremely interesting and informative. Apart from giving me confidence with computers, it’s made me think about books, what we have (and have not) got available, and how we can help the readers to find a way to books they will enjoy.
WORK IN PROGRESS
John Snedden, a teacher librarian in a secondary school in Gloucestershire, reports on
Six thousand volumes, one quarter fiction and mainly hardback. Non-fiction poorly used by the departments. Teachers rarely seen in the library. Library capitation inadequate even to maintain the present level of stock. In other words an average secondary school library of the eighties.
The Letter arrives. County Hall is offering grants for library-based projects. A chance to break out of the depressing downward spiral. I apply for a grant for a computer, disc drive, monitor, modem, printer, a year’s subscription to Prestel and a word processor.
Primary purpose: to bring external databases into a library with a reference section which predates the Beatles and mini-skirts.
Secondary purpose: to create databases from the library catalogue for use by the pupils in selecting fiction and non-fiction.
Ulterior motive: to change the image of the library as a dusty book cupboard.
Prestel, with its half million pages of changing information, catapults the library into the limelight as a place where THINGS ARE HAPPENING. Teachers who wouldn’t dare admit their ignorance of Dewey flock to learn about Prestel. I turn my attention to the creation of tailor-made databases. I decide we need a database to help pupils become more successful and more adventurous about choosing fiction.
Problems: What is the best programme to use’? What should I put on it? Where can I get the help needed to put it all on disc?
Finding the database
The account of my search may illustrate the reluctance of school computer departments to allow computers and their own expertise to escape from a tiny corner of the school. It may also show that there is as yet no programme designed specifically for a school library.
My first conversation with the computer department suggests that the creation of this database is a) impossible and b) not worth the time and effort.
I visit a neighbouring school librarian who is putting his whole catalogue onto disc using a BBC micro (like mine) and the PROTOKOL programme. He plans to fill 16 discs. He has full-time clerical help; I have an hour and a half a week. My feelings that a very selective approach is required are confirmed.
The PROTOKOL programme has many good features: each letter of the alphabet can be used and defined as you choose; up to four words can be used to describe each book. Sounds promising as a way of answering questions like ‘What’s a good funny book, sir?’, or ‘What’s the latest science fiction, miss’?’. But I have doubts about page format and the ease of editing the programme. After two weeks’ one-way communication with an answering machine trying to get more information, I decide to look elsewhere.
I hear about 1NFORM. Gloucestershire has a licence to use it in all schools, which sounds promising. Now, at last, the computer department is prepared to talk. INFORM will be difficult for our pupils to use because it has limited fields; it’s not very powerful and it has a different format from the one the computer department is teaching them. Why don’t I use VIEWSTORE, the database the computer department is adopting?
V1EWSTORE, says the computer department, has an improved screen layout, so it’s more user friendly. You have a choice of spreadsheet or record format. It’s a chip so it’s more powerful. Lastly it’s already well researched and documented in school. So after a three-month search I find the answer on my doorstep. I settle on
VIEWSTORE. If you are just starting, the magic formula to open the computer department’s hearts (and minds) seems to be: ‘What database are you using in your teaching’?’
Deciding what to include
Well, I won’t need ISBN or publisher-just title, author and as many relevant codes as possible. If I limit myself to 40 spaces for each field I can include 800 books on each disc.
Which books should I choose from our 2,000 strong fiction section’? By deciding to include only one title from authors like Walter Farley, Willard Price, Ian Fleming, I can do it without selection.
What categories’? I ask the English department to carry out market research on the genre words our pupils use to describe books. The exercise provides few insights and very few useful words! Off to bibliographies to find the ‘approved’ labels. I make a provisional list of fourteen:
- Family Life
- School Background
- War and Spies
- Crime and Detection
- Myth, Legend
- Animal Interest
Vague’? Huge gaps’? Unusable’? You can do better, of course you can. Please send me your list!
Fixing up to four of these category codes to books came next. Have you read every book in your library? By reading bookjackets, skimming, asking pupils, reading reviews – and, yes, actually reading far more fiction than I have since I was ten, I manage to select codes for 800 books that seem convincing to me.
P.S. IT WAS FUN.
Putting the data on the disc
My present supply of clerical help (11/2 hours a week) is just about enough to keep new books coming onto the library shelves after a month’s delay. I need extra help. It may be possible…
Before the end of the school year, I hope to have the system running, revised and refined. Meanwhile, it’s work in progress.