In our first post on the topic of public library homework help, we provided an overview of why we think it’s important to spend time talking about what many teen librarians take for granted: homework help. Because this service is often assumed to be a requirement of high-quality service, librarians serving young adults do not often take the time needed to evaluate homework services and consider whether they are as valuable and worthwhile as expected. In this second post on the topic, we talk about homework help services that can work and how public librarians can start to re-think how they provide homework help.

Let’s start with the idea that many public libraries assume they have to provide a full array of materials to teens that support homework needs. These might be physical library materials that are on fiction and non-fiction shelves or web-based materials that live as links on library website homework pages. ‘ What if we said instead that the first requirement of successful homework support should be to focus on space for teens to use resources (maybe resources from the public library and maybe resources from the school library or some other location) and collaborate, which includes giving them the opportunity to:

  • work together – which means talking
  • spread out
  • brainstorm about how they are going to complete an assignment
  • eat and drink as they work on their assignments and projects

Think about it this way: if teens have access to everything they need in the classroom and school library in terms of materials for assignments, and they have help from their teachers and school librarian (people who worked directly on developing and supporting these assignments), what are they missing? The space to use the information gathered during school when no longer in school. The public library has that space. Not only that, it is a space equipped with technology tools, something not all students have access to out of school, and it is a learning environment, free of many of the distractions teens face at home.

Libraries need to make space available during those hours and days when teens most need help — homework services don’t necessarily have to happen at the same hour and day throughout the year. For example, some libraries stay open late when it’s finals time at the local high school, or extend their weekend hours to support teens who are working on special school-wide projects. Space that is not usually available for studying can be opened up during these high-activity times as well – reserve community rooms and conference rooms and offer the teen space as a study break room. If teachers wish to offer extra help during finals, offer them a small conference room where they can meet with their students. Find spaces in the library that can be used for both quiet study and collaborative work. Staffing during these times can actually be low, as all that’s needed is a few librarians to help with crowd control; teens cramming for tests are usually fairly self-sufficient.

Technology services must also be flexible and go to where the teens are. Most computer labs are not ideal for collaboration, so if students are working together using technology, those tools must move where they move. Laptops that can move around the library with teens who use them is a big step to achieving this. So too is access to tablets that can be passed from group member to group member. And, teens need to be able to access resources without excess blocking. If public libraries aren’t providing open access to a full range of websites and social media that students might use in order to collaborate and complete homework, then they really aren’t providing high-quality homework support.

Another aspect of quality homework support for young adults is staffing. In many cases, public librarians are not trained as educators; rather, they are trained to support the needs of the public, which by its very nature requires librarians to be generalists. Public librarians cannot sacrifice the needs of most by focusing all of their energy on the needs of a few and must be prepared to answer a broad range of questions from a broad range of teens. As a result of this generalist training, not all staff in public libraries have the skills or knowledge necessary to provide curriculum-driven support. If a library, therefore, chooses to focus on staff support for students as a part of its homework help service, it may be necessary to hire staff with educational backgrounds and ensure that they are on desk during out-of-school hours. This specialized staff can go beyond helping teens to find resources and help them use those resources for specific assignments and projects. That said, because public librarians do not have a hand in creating assignments and do not have first-hand knowledge of the school curriculum, there is only so far they can go in terms of offering one-on-one help.

It should be an exciting prospect for public librarians to think about what high-quality homework help for teens looks like and how they might change what they currently offer. Providing this service in a way that supports 21st century needs is definitely good for teens AND it is good for the library and library staff. Why?

  • If the focus of homework support moves from collections (physical and web-based) to space, hours, flexible technology, and human support, then librarians serving teens will open up a host of new opportunities for working with the age group. The quantity of shelving once needed for non-fiction and fiction that supported the curriculum would decrease. Space opened up with the decline of shelving could be used for programming, technology, collaboration, and hanging out. Staff would no longer need to devote time and energy to maintaining homework related web resources but instead could focus on developing programs and services that support a wide variety of teens’ needs.
  • When public library staff move away from providing collection driven homework help to students, they have more opportunities to create programs and services that have learning components, but not specifically homework components. Programs in which teens create book trailers, for example, or learn how to use the Scratch software program help young adults learn a host of 21st century skills, even if those programs aren’t specifically connected to homework.
  • If public libraries spend less dollars on homework support materials, the budget for other materials and activities increases. Think about the informational non-fiction it’s possible to purchase for teens that doesn’t quite fit homework needs. There is a huge amount of non-fiction published for teens (and adults) that can help teens learn about themselves and their world – sexuality, alternative sports, families, fashion, and health are just a few topics that teens are interested in reading about but which aren’t necessarily covered in school.
  • If the homework support provided to teens in the public library is clearly focused, the community will better understand the role of the public library and the role of the school library. This can only lead to a stronger community connections, better appreciation for what each library provides and accomplishes, and why support for both types of libraries within a community is required.

It might seem frightening to consider a fairly drastic overhaul of the ways in which the public library supports teens through homework help. It doesn’t have to happen all at once. Libraries should take an honest examination of what they provide and achieve through homework help services. Admitting that homework help might be something the library has taken for granted should not be scary, or cause librarians to feel bad about what they’ve been doing. In the long run, teens will be better served because a new take on homework help will give them something that they will really use — not just something that we want them to use.

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