Impact Stories

  • Maria Nicolacakis

Interview: Acalanes High School Librarian Barbara Burkhalter

Thank you so much for speaking with us today, Ms. Burkhalter!

Please tell us a little bit about yourself, your background and experience, and how long you have worked in this position at Acalanes.

I have been at Acalanes since 2014. My first librarian position was at an elementary school; I then moved on to a school where the students ranged from preschool through middle school. Some days, I’d start the day reading picture books on the floor with 4-year-olds and end it teaching database search skills to 8th graders! I love being at the high school level because the research and citation skills that high school students need are so much more varied and advanced and I enjoy collaborating with the teachers on projects.

Talk to us about the Acalanes library and what is offered here. I went to high school in the era of physical card catalogs. Today’s high school students have a different experience, please tell us about it.

I also came from the long-lost era of card catalogs.:-) Today, the library has an online circulation system that patrons can access at school or off-campus. It also, on the library’s side, allows us to catalog items and inventory textbooks and technology, as well as other circulation tasks. The library today not only offers a wide range of books - fiction of all genres, nonfiction, biography - but students can also find e-books, audiobooks and access to a number of databases. Most of the latter are via online subscriptions that I oversee and assist users (both students and staff) to find and access, and, when needed, troubleshoot issues. The library is also a physical hub of the school: it is open before and after school, during brunch and lunch, and students who have a free period like to study or hang out here; classes come to the library to find resources - both online and print - and to receive instruction on research and citation skills; students receive their textbooks and chromebooks out of the library space; it serves as a testing center and conference area; every Academy period over 80 students come to the library for quiet study; and I offer, or assist with, other programming such as the school wide election simulation program, Academy speakers, the all-district read (where students at all 4 high schools in the district read the same book and participate in related programming) and various cultural and school climate topics and celebrations. One of my favorites is the museum project the Spanish classes do that turns the library into an exhibition of artwork by Spanish-speaking artists.

How do students learn what is accessible to them? When are students typically assigned research projects that will require time in the library?

I collaborate closely with a number of teachers and departments throughout the year to teach students how to use the various programs and resources available to them. So, for instance, all world history classes have a similar assignment at the start of their freshman year. Each class comes to the library to see the space, learn about what it has to offer and to receive instruction on navigating a database for that project and setting up their account in the citation program. This way, every incoming freshman has a basic introduction to the library and what it offers. There is also an English research paper in both the sophomore and junior years at Acalanes and I work closely with the English teachers on those assignments. The junior research paper, which spans several months, requires a number of visits to the library to learn about and then find resources. Other ways students learn about the library and what it offers is through the library website, which is updated frequently and is a great source of information for research, citation, new books, and teacher subject guides. I also work with teachers to make sure that targeted information (such as how to access or use a particular database or subject guide relevant to a specific project) is posted on their Canvas pages.

Please talk about the importance of LPIE to the library at Acalanes.

The library program as the students know it would not exist without the generosity of LPIE. Students have access to over a dozen databases, the majority funded by LPIE. Most high schools cannot afford the expense of robust databases such as the ones we subscribe to. Every year, students who have graduated stop by the library and tell me how great it is to have had access in high school to databases and research skills, that they have met students at their college who never had such access to databases until they came to college. The use of databases is such an integral part of research in the 21st century and having databases allows Acalanes students access to up-to-date and authoritative sources in a time when information in so many subjects changes rapidly. Further, all book and library material purchases are made with LPIE funds, this includes books suggested by students and material needed by teachers for specific projects, keeping the Acalanes library collection fresh and interesting. I am immensely grateful to LPIE for their vigorous and continual support of the library and, by extension, the entire student body of Acalanes High School.

Would you say what students have at Acalanes is not necessarily what is available at all public high schools?

Our students are very fortunate to have the support of LPIE. Databases and other online subscriptions are expensive and most public high school libraries cannot afford to offer them; many schools can’t even update their physical collection as often as we are able. In some districts, the library is not even open daily as several schools must share one librarian.

Acalanes is participating in LPIE’s Read-A-Thon this year … tell us more.

I am excited to be part of the readathon and to publicize it and encourage Acalanes students to participate. I realize high school students are incredibly busy, but since they are generally required to have an outside reading book anyway, I thought it would be a great way for students to be part of a larger celebration of reading, to read alongside their younger siblings or neighbors who are participating in the readathon, and to develop awareness of LPIE’s support of our school programs, including the library.

What would you tell your high school aged self today?

Yes, that newfangled little pocket computer (iPhone) will be amazing and useful, but do not let it get in the way of your voracious reading: keep up your two-books-a-week habit - we get so much from deep reading and total involvement with a book.

What are some of your favorite genres of books?

I will read nearly any genre, especially if the book is well-written or has an interesting or unpredictable plot. I mostly tend toward contemporary fiction that is character-driven, though I enjoy some science fiction, suspense/horror fiction (if it doesn’t keep me awake at night!); and intricate mysteries. My favorite novel is Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse and I love the humor and worldview of Kurt Vonnegut’s work.