Does your public library provide homework support for teens? Chances are the answer is “yes.” Many (or most) public library websites offer a homework help section, full of links to databases, websites, and librarian-approved search engines. You may offer other homework support services as well, like subscriptions to student-friendly databases, a collection of print materials specifically for school assignments, or special programs (for example, late night hours during exam times) for studiers. Some public librarians work hard to connect with teachers and media specialists in order to learn what’s happening in the classroom and supplement and support what’s happening in the schools.
On its face, homework support is a positive and obvious service for a public library to offer. School libraries are not usually open late in the day, which means students often need a place to work on homework and access resources. As a publicly funded institution, shouldn’t the public library be spending some of its dollars on homework-related activities that complement what happens in the school library and the classroom?
Perhaps we take public library homework support for granted and need to start asking questions about how it works and the purpose it serves. For example, consider the following:
- Do teens really take advantage of the homework support libraries provide? Are teens using the web resources provided by the public library? Do they use most of the print materials available in the library’s physical collection purchased specifically as homework help?
- Are the services that public libraries provide teens in the homework realm what teens really need? How does the librarian know?
- When a library provides homework help on the web – usually a list of links sometimes organized by category – who is this really provided for? Teens, parents, teachers, anyone searching the web online?
- Why do public libraries provide homework support? Is it because everyone else does it? Is it because they say in library school that public libraries need to provide homework support to teens? Have you really asked yourself that question?
We propose that there is a belief that public libraries have to provide homework support because everyone else does. It’s just a given. Perhaps there is also an assumption that other libraries’ programs are working well; therefore, if a homework help program isn’t enjoying much success, a librarian might feel as though those failures are indicative of a challenge specific to their own community or library. But, what if no (or very few) public libraries have successful homework support programs for teens? And, how does anyone know if the homework support is successful? Are there specific evaluation measures implemented for that kind of thing?
What are the hallmarks of excellent homework support? Perhaps for the answer we should look to schools. This is where one starts to realize that homework support might not fit into the public library as most think that it does. Looking toward schools, we see that that excellent support requires a strong knowledge of what students are learning in class. The school librarian should be meeting with teachers on a regular basis and examining the school curriculum; the public librarian does not have the chance to do this (at least not as consistently as the school librarian). While a public library can do its best to offer a collection of materials for students, the reality is that these cannot be tailored to students’ needs in the same way that a school collection can.
Homework support must also be assessed through the examination of students’ skill building; again, public librarians do not have the opportunity to do this, as they do not spend the same amount of time with students – nor do they observe students doing the same activities. For example, a public librarian might observe a student finding and reading materials; a school librarian will have the opportunity to observe (and guide) search strategies, information analysis, topic refining, note-taking, information synthesis, and even writing. Without knowing the exact needs of the student – including their individual challenges and strengths – it is very difficult to provide the best services possible.
Finally, are public libraries asking teens if they want or need homework support? Again, this gets back to the idea that public libraries might offer these services simply because it is an expectation. But without teen input, librarians may find themselves spinning their wheels, spending money and staff time on materials and programs that are underused, and building websites that are rarely visited. All of this can feel discouraging.
We’ve got one more post on this topic in the works and in that post we will explore types of homework help that work and ways that libraries can move forward in supporting teen homework needs successfully.
Until then: what do you think? Does homework support belong in the public library? What’s been your experience offering this service? If you’re a school librarian, what do you think are the best ways to support students in their information gathering and studying?
We look forward to hearing your thoughts.