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.

9 Thoughts on “Homework Help in the Library: What’s it All About?

  1. Francisca Goldsmith on August 11, 2011 at 3:18 pm said:

    The public library’s role in homework help is not singular, and many teens do need and do use the public library for these particular aspects of homework support: space that is convivial for group work on evenings and weekends; public space that can give them the privacy and “away” time they may need from crowded homes in order to concentrate without outlay of cash; nonjudgmental staff who can’t influence their final grade, no matter how much “help” is needed to round up the information that they feel will satisfy their homework needs; access to an adult who has sufficient academic English to be able to communicate (if only by listening and asking clarifying questions) about an assignment. Public libraries don’t provide high level expert advice on investing, but they are the “right place” for those with investment concerns to bring some of their work; same goes for students with assignments that, homework being what it is, requires them to investigate outside the classroom.

  2. Hi Francisca,
    I think we’re much on the same page here. One thing Linda and I have talked a lot about – and will discuss in our next post – is how public libraries CAN best support teens when it comes to homework, and all of the things you mention above are exactly what we discussed. I think where we are being a bit more critical (that is probably too strong a word, but I just mean looking with a critical eye) is with public libraries trying to provide the *same* services as school libraries – via homework help sites, database access, and a print collection – which, frankly, isn’t really possible. But in terms of supporting teens as they study, offering a comfortable, friendly place where they can work alone or with friends, and even answering research questions, these are all excellent services.

  3. We have a very successful homework help/tutoring program at our library. It’s a partnership with the local high school campus (which actually contains three high schools) – the members of their National Honor Society provide homework help/tutoring for K-12 students at the library three nights a week during the school year (they’re also at the other public library utilized by our school system two nights a week). The NHS tutors are busy almost all the time and we’ve had an overwhelmingly positive response to the program. We sometimes have more people than they can help, in fact, though they handle it pretty well. We’ve made it a fairly self-sustaining program with the burden of timing and so forth on the NHS tutors, so the staff commitment is minimal. It’s been a great partnership and really fills a need that our staff would otherwise be unable to address.

  4. Providing homework help in the form of resources, space and helpful staff is core to a public library mission. We are an essential piece of the after school support network. We provide online resources, online tutoring, 24\7 information, group workspace, computers, books, and other tools for teens to use.

  5. @Anne – that sounds like a great program. I tried to offer a similar program in my last position, at a public library, and struggled to help the students with their work; at the time I thought “it would be great to have peer tutors,” but that seemed like such a daunting task and I didn’t have time to come up with a plan before I left. Thanks for sharing that – it sounds like it’s very successful and a great way to support teens.

    @Mary – how are all of those resources being used? I’m especially curious about the online resources, tutoring, and 24/7 information. Do you find that a lot of teens are taking advantage of those tools? Do you work with the schools to select books and online resources? Thanks!

  6. Matt Moffett on August 13, 2011 at 8:46 am said:

    I think what materials (and possibly even if) a public library offers in terms of homework support is largely dependant upon what the school or school system offers. After geneology researchers, high school students were the biggest users of our online services until 3-4 years ago. At that point the public schools in my area started offering the same—and in some cases like the hard sciences even superior—–resources to their students. Not surprisingly, usage of a number of our online products dropped significantly and we have been considering cuts in those areas. There have been talks lately about trying to partner with the public school system so we don’t duplicate quite as many services, but it’s hard because historically there has been little cooperation between the two very separate agencies.

    It would be hard for us to get rid of the resources at this point, though, because I know a number of small private schools and homeschoolers in the area really depend on us providing access to the digital content.

  7. Matt, you bring up some really interesting points and what really strikes me is the need to continually evaluate what’s going on in the community in terms of homework help for students and determine on a regular basis what needs to continue and what needs to change.

    The comment about homeschoolers and private schools is a good one and I guess I’d still want to know how much/many of the resources are used by that group? I do know that those can be important populations for a library community so having resources for them is key. But, are there still resources and formats that could be re-thought and that population would still be served successfully?

    The school/library cooperation piece is really central in this discussion. If librarians from the school and the library can work together to make sure that there is overlap only when it makes sense and figure out exactly who offers what in the ways that support teen learning then it’s a win-win for everyone. I’m curious Matt, have you and your colleagues started to brainstorm ways to break down some of the barriers that exist in order to provide homework support in the ways necessary? If so, it would be great to read about some of the ideas.

  8. Our local school districts (and we serve 15 districts) have pretty much dismantled their database collections, leaving the public library as the only source for periodical access, and in too many cases, even reference materials like “opposing viewpoints”. We know teachers are using thier cards to provide access to these resources in classrooms and in school libraries. We absolutely have to look at how it is and isn’t appropriate for us to support students, but that’s happening in an environment where schools and school libraries aren’t able to support student’s *classroom* needs, let alone their homework needs.

    I’m very sensitive to the truth that students need school libraries, and that the public library isn’t, can’t and shouldn’t be a substitute. We tread very carefully when we’re asked to come in to a school that’s lost its library, in order to promote what resources we do have. But the kids are between a rock and a hard place, and the kids are the priority.

  9. Sarah, kids are the priority and the focus should be on how we help them to succeed no matter what.

    I’m curious in your system, do you find that students/teens are using the homework help resources from databases to print materials to web links? How are the librarians you work with succeeding in making good connections between teens and those materials?

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