By Kelly Lock-McMillen

When students run their fingers along the edge of a book, feeling for the spot where they last read, rarely do they find a bookmark decorated with a cute kitten or an apple-red Camaro with fire dancing along the hood. Though we have those available, the majority now open to the page where a simple bookmark hides between the last place they read and the next place they’ll begin.

The bookmarks students use this year are the direct result of two issues the library faced. First, students would come in and mill around, rarely knowing what they wanted to read. They spent far longer than their teacher had allotted, causing them to ultimately grab a random book from the shelf so they could get back to class. In an attempt to help students, two years ago, I decided to genrify the library. During library orientation, students completed scavenger hunts that forced them from one genre section to the next looking for book titles they could use to build a spine poem and, thus, familiarizing themselves with the library. This, indeed helped, but we have voracious readers of some genres who got bored with the repetition and those who often stand in front of a shelf, convinced they’ve read every book there. Of course, despite any change to help students, there were still those who didn’t know what genre they liked to read.

This year, I chose to take my library spiel to each English Language Arts classroom. I provided each student with a bookmark that included key information: our Twitter name (which I asked them to follow), the web address for our library catalog and a QR Code that would take them directly to our website if they used the QR Code reader on their phones. Including both of these last two options left no one with an excuse that they couldn’t view our library catalog with their preferred device. Then, I showed students how to search for books. Rather than look for Fantasy, I asked them to look for subjects: vampires, fairies, basketball, love, crimes, etc.  On the other side of the bookmark, they listed four books they would like to read, including title, author, and location it could be found in the library. Students were then released to the library. Some students found genres they had never read before and discovered topics they would never have asked to read. Looking for the books forced students to familiarize themselves with the library layout.

Even though I had always shown students how to search the online catalog, adding the bookmark made the largest impact. Students had no reason not to access the server. They had time to explore various subjects they might like, and they had to identify possible book titles before they exited the classroom. Thus, the students’ first visit to the library was far smoother than previous years. Now, as they return to the library, they can look at their bookmark and see what other titles were interesting at the start of the year. If they want to look for other books, they can because the web address and the QR Code are on the bookmark, making for easy access to our library catalog.

The second issue the library faced was students struggling to return books on time. We set up email reminders, contacted teachers, and even reminded students when we saw them coming and going in the library. Even so, it was not unusual to collect several hundred overdue books just days before the end of the school year. Not only was this a logistical nightmare for my library manager, but it kept too many books out of the hands of students who wanted to read them during the year. Although each book had a due date slip on the backside of the cover, students wouldn’t look. When our datestamp didn’t include 2016, I was forced to either buy another or determine a better way to get students to return/renew their books. Again, I thought of the bookmark.

There is something to be said for standing in front of a student, handwriting the due date and telling him/her, “Your book is due on…., and if you aren’t finished, bring it back, and we will renew it for you. If you are finished, return it to us.”  Each time they reach to open that book, they see the juxtaposition of the typed and handwritten text positioned prominently at the top of the bookmark, causing students to be far more cognizant of what it asks them to do.

Considering the digitization of our libraries, I never imagined that old-fashioned bookmarks would change two issues so quickly, but they did. The key is that the bookmark includes valuable information and the digital resources they need, plus it is the one tool they all use to mark their reading. Now, before students open their books and sink back into the words on the page, they don’t see a fuzzy kitty poised perfectly on a bookmark or a Camaro staged to appear like it’s racing; rather, their eyes first see the due date, their other book interests, and the URL for the online catalog where they can continue to explore their interests.

It’s such simplicity that makes this work.

Kelly Lock-McMillen is the library media specialist at Benton High School in St. Joseph.