Are nonfiction books still relevant?

I was showing a fellow librarian around “my” new library today and we were chatting and discussing various aspects of middle school librarianship. We got to the nonfiction section and both sighed. I started that mine probably needed some significant weeding and that I’d made a start. I pointed out a few particularly nice books in the collection (Annick Press still does nonfiction well, the newish Theodore Gray Molecules and Reactions). But so much ages so badly and so quickly. And in an inquiry based system where one wants to encourage systems thinking and embrace the idea of interconnectivity it is almost anachronistic to maintain Dewey divisions and populate them with single topic books.

Gone are the days when teachers gave the librarian a content based topic and you could wheel a collection of books that covered the length and breadth of what there was to know at a specific grade level about that topic. Done and dusted. Now you’re not so much discussing WW1, so much as conflict, with WW1 as the bare-bones scaffold of the topic. There aren’t that many books that deal well with the nuances of conflict in an age appropriate, stimulating but accurate, culturally sensitive manner. One such book is Global Conflict, from the Children in our World series by Louise Spilsbury.  No, it probably isn’t written with 14 year olds in mind. And I had to offer it somewhat apologetically to one of the teachers and say I thought it actually covered the ground fairly well, and everything else on offer was probably pitched at a much too high level.

Besides which, students aren’t reading books anymore. The books I pulled out on WW1 for a display remained unread, un-borrowed. I dare not investigate too closely where they got their information for their assessment from, since, looking at the database statistics it wasn’t from databases either.

A month or so ago, I had a look at our “country” books – they ranged from 1999-2005. A lot has happened since 2005. So they had to go. But what to replace them with – if anything? I checked the curriculum, spoke to the lead of the one grade doing something on national cultures and offered a collection I’d made in Epic! that could cover it more or less. There are no students pouring over country books or atlases like perhaps we would have done. If they need information there’s wikipedia or facts on file.

All this time I’m reading “Reader Come Home” (it sure is taking a long time, but I’m distracted myself) and the issue of shallow reading and attention and focus and digital media. And I wouldn’t worry if it weren’t for the fact that the problem doesn’t seem to just be shallow reading, it seems to be a great divide between reading a lot, and not reading at all. I ran some statistics last night. Our top (G6) class read 4x as much as our bottom (G8) class (at least books from the library – to which everyone says “oh but they may be reading books at home – to which I say “evidence?”). But that’s not the problem – looking through numbers student by student so so many hadn’t borrowed even one book. I’m about to self-flagellate at this point and worry what I’m doing wrong. I need more data and then I need a strategy.

There’s no doubt quite a bit of the nonfiction must go – but what should I be replacing it with? Middle schoolers are just that little bit young to place popular nonfiction in – the Malcolm Gladwells and the like. What is everyone else doing?

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