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The library: home away from home for homeschoolers

One of the indispensable parts of homeschooling is the public library. I have no idea whether people who make decisions at public libraries take us into account, but we are some of the heaviest users of this system of shared knowledge. No matter their political bent, one way to freak out a homeschooler is to tell her that her local library might lose its funding.

I was musing about what my family uses the library for, and how we could better let our local library systems know what we need. It seems to me that homeschoolers could come up with a list of services and products that support homeschooling so that people making decisions about how to fund their local libraries would know what we use.

Below is a list of what my family and other families I know use and treasure in our local library system. If you are a homeschooler and want to add to this list, please leave comments below.

1. The books

Seems sort of obvious, right? Except that the purchase of physical books is getting less funding in libraries these days. There’s a trend toward funding more electronic services, and that’s great (see below). But the fundamental thing pulling homeschoolers into libraries is the books themselves. If we bought all the books we needed, we’d all go broke. And many of our kids are not interested in electronic books. They want the paper object. We want something we can curl up with on the couch, either as a family read-aloud or a personal get-away. We like the pictures. We like the experience of looking for the physical book on the shelves.

2. Interconnected libraries

Homeschoolers are more likely than school kids to have unusual interests. This is a natural offshoot of how they’re learning. If you let a kid drive the bus a bit and determine what he wants to study, he is more likely to make idiosyncratic choices and to explore his choices more deeply. Lots of homeschoolers report that interlibrary loans are essential to them, especially if they live in a rural area with a smaller system. Every homeschooler I know in my community uses the online book ordering system extensively.

Similarly, it’s great when us rural folks can go up to the big city and get borrowing privileges there. It took me years to exploit the perk that all California residents have of going to San Francisco and getting lending privileges there. We don’t use it for physical items (though we could), but we do use their website.

3. Physical meeting spaces

Though the public has this weird image of homeschoolers sitting alone at the kitchen table, most of us spend a huge amount of time out in our communities doing things together. And although some communities get organized enough to put together unaffiliated homeschooling centers (our local one is the Discovery Learning Center – drop on by!), most homeschoolers depend on their local libraries for meeting spaces.

It seems to me that libraries are probably not generally aware of this, and they seem to serve our needs better or worse depending on location. I know a large homeschooling group that gets great support from their local libraries in the form of free meeting space, but that’s certainly not true of all library systems. Our local system rents rooms for rates that homeschoolers simply couldn’t afford, so I don’t know of any homeschooling group that meets regularly in them.

Some library buildings have areas that are open for quiet meetings within the general library space, which is very useful. Often when homeschoolers need to get together, it’s to quietly go over something with a small number of kids. Homeschoolers who use charter schools need to meet with their teacher/consultants and libraries can be good places to do this if there is space where quiet conversation is appropriate.┬áIn general libraries could better serve small groups by designing informal meeting spaces into the general layout when possible.

4. Free and low-cost educational opportunities

Most library programs are really geared toward pre-school or after-school populations, and this, of course, works for homeschoolers as well. But one characteristic of homeschoolers that isn’t taken into account is that we tend to include a wider age range of kids, and our kids thus don’t develop the “natural” aversion to doing things with kids of different ages. What that means is that preschool story times are likely to attract homeschoolers with both younger and older kids, and some homeschooled kids enjoy preschool story times longer than the school population would. My daughter had no interest in giving up our library’s story time until she was seven, and that was only because we had other things to do at that time.

Afterschool programs that attract homeschoolers might see that they also get a wider age range than they expected. A very young chess player may turn up at the chess program that usually attracts upper elementary and middle school, and a teen who loves puppetry might be happy to come to a workshop meant for younger kids. Libraries can support this by not setting restrictive ages when possible and allowing parents to come along to programs when it’s appropriate for the child. (A fair number of homeschoolers also have special needs, and it may be necessary for the parent to stay.)

5. Electronic resources

Lots of homeschoolers are on a shoestring budget. In order to homeschool, they forgo one spouse’s income, and sometimes single parents homeschool and work simultaneously. The digital offerings of libraries are very important to these families. Families that can’t afford Internet access at home benefit greatly from using the library’s computers. And families who can’t afford expensive online subscriptions for things like language training software or manuals benefit significantly from these services. (Since there are almost always drawbacks to using public subscriptions, companies shouldn’t worry about “giving away” their services to libraries – since Rosetta Stone stopped letting libraries have online subscriptions, it’s doubtful that their sales have gone up significantly.)

I know that my family, for one, could use the library’s online offerings even more if we kept it in mind. My San Francisco library card gets me access to Grolier, which is a compilation of a large amount of respected encyclopedias and dictionaries. The next time my middle schooler is tempted to go to Wikipedia, I can give him another option. My local library card gives me access to archives of the Los Angeles Times and National Geographic. These libraries clearly have treasure troves of information online, and it would be great if they also offered workshops to homeschoolers and educators about what these services are and how to use them.

6. Reasonable terms and fees

A friend of mine recently lamented that when the library e-mail notification system went down for a few days, she accrued three days’ worth of overdue fees…on 90-some books! Unfortunately, our local system has raised the fees to $.50/day, which may not sound like much until you’re a homeschooler (or teacher or preschool parent) who has scores of books out at a time. The way I see it, my family loves the library and supports it with donations. But we prefer to make tax-deductible donations when we’re moved to, not non-deductible donations in the form of excessive overdue fees. There should be caps on the fees, and there should be backup systems for faulty computers and lost e-mail.

In general, my local library is very responsive when the community lets them know about problems and concerns. But they do have a way of making decisions without input from important groups of people. Yesterday at a parent meeting someone announced that our library has stopped allowing users to log in and put holds on items that are on the shelves in their local libraries. Though this sounds like a great way to save the librarians’ time, all the moms in the room who had little kids were aghast – this feature had saved them (and library patrons) the hassle of dragging packs of kids through the stacks in search of a book.

Public libraries are a fundamental part of community life, and now that homeschooling is growing in popularity, we’re starting to make up a significant portion of library patrons. I would hope that libraries are starting to notice us and consider how they can I our needs as well as possible within their recession-tightened budgets.

How could your local library meet your needs better? Let them know!

Posted in Avant Parenting, Education, Santa Cruz.


7 Responses

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  1. Rena says

    We use the library constantly, for two reasons. The first, and most important, you mentioned: BOOKS! We can do research at home on the internet, but I cannot stress how wonderful it is to have a physical, paper printed book in our hands for non-fiction. Also, we go through fiction books very quickly and love having books to read.

    The second reason is not on your list: the librarians. The downtown library has Sue and a few other highly qualified librarians, and they are very important resources for us. I am pretty good at navigating the internet and the library search engine, but sometimes I get stuck, and it is very helpful to have a trained person available. They have volunteers now or “regular” staff at many branches and I have found their help to be a waste of my time, oftentimes annoyingly so. I would LOVE the library to post the hours of when/where the trained juvenile librarians are working. We only go to B-40 and certain other branches when I am confident that we don’t need help. When I have a vague question, like, “what are some high-quality, humorous read-aloud chapter books” or a detailed one, like “I can’t seem to find any books about Charles Wilson Peale in your system, and my son is very interested in him” I NEED to talk to someone who is well-trained with a lot of experience, not someone who knows less than I do. Also, it is such a wonderful experience for my kids to know they can talk to a real, live person who is not only happy to help them, but successful!
    Thanks, Suki!

    • Suki says

      Excellent addition to my list! I would totally agree with you – they should post all the specialists’ hours so you could talk to the person who can help you the most. Some of the librarians have other useful skills like online research or reference materials. Volunteers should definitely be trained to observe when their help isn’t going to be helpful – it would be totally appropriate for them to say, “You know, I’m a volunteer and I don’t have training in that. You should speak to ___ who will be here on Monday.” I think it’s wonderful that our community has stepped in to help the libraries with volunteer staff, but they do have limitations.

      • SD says

        Posting hours of specific staff can enable stalkers. Posting the hours expert service is available should be fine though.

        I’m glad you’re using a big range of your local library’s services though, some patrons seem to only appreciate ‘free internet!’ or ‘DVDs!’.

  2. Suki says

    Note: A friend e-mailed to remind me that our library system did include representatives of the homeschooling community in their community talks when they were talking about how they could cut their budget. So we hope that they are still referring to the information they got when they make further decisions.

  3. Kim Eabry says

    This article is great – Thanks Suki! I just want to second Rena’s comment about trained kid’s librarians. That is something we’ve missed a lot – we’ve gotten some great recommendations that way. I like the idea of knowing when they will be there, but I also hope it it something they will eventually increase when the economy (and eventually their budget) improves.

  4. Charlotte says

    I second the interconnected libraries. We still use the San Jose Library system which is also open to all CA residents because they belong to the LINK + system and still have inter-library loan. At least my husband can pick them up on his way home from work! Through LINK + I’ve been able to find most books that I’ve needed. I think I’ve only used inter-library loan twice. With LINK + books are searched and requested on-line and picked up and returned to the branch of your choice. There are many college libraries on LINK+ so we’ve been able to get many curriculum materials.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. The library: home away from home for homeschoolers | Library Stuff linked to this post on November 12, 2012

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