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The O’Dowd Library: Where Students Become Researchers

Audrey Irwin and Annette Counts
Audrey Irwin and Annette Counts

“Our library isn’t a book museum,” Librarian Annette Counts laughs. “It’s an active space for study, creativity, and group work.” Annette and Library Assistant Audrey Irwin are not your old-school librarians either – more like the opposite. They are determined to make sure students have what they need to be successful at O’Dowd. “In a typical day, we’re popping in and out of conversations with students about their newest assignments, having heated discussions about the book club’s latest read, or celebrating a cool find from a student research project,” says Annette. 

student in library

The library holds 5,187 prints and expands way beyond the physical collection, with access to 40 online databases. “Our databases are extensive, and respond to a vast array of subjects and disciplines,” explains Annette. “We teach our students to become skilled and efficient researchers, which really enhances their ability to investigate their interests and refine their own subject mastery.” These research skills begin in the 9th grade, with Advanced World History and Science and the Environment. Both courses challenge students to navigate the databases and make critical choices about their sources. “First students engage in researching a cultural or historic event that impacted their family,” Annette says. “Beyond learning the database, it’s an opportunity to reflect on research ethics.” Later, students move on to researching key science concepts. “We support students to build a strong foundation in their first year, so they can tackle all the assignments that will come their way” Annette describes.

In addition, O’Dowd’s collection is always changing. “Our print and database resources are tailored in response to our teacher’s curriculum,” Annette says. “It’s a living collection.” This partnership means that when students get a new assignment, the library has the most relevant, high-quality sources ready. For example, when AP English students read Devil in the White City, O’Dowd’s library was equipped with digital collections from the Library of Congress, including a collection of historical newspapers. “Our teachers assign innovative research projects,” Annette notes. “Then we support students to find primary source documents, which includes developing search terms that reflect the time. Searching “mental health” won’t work in documents from the Gilded Age. So students need to read and investigate the context. In this case, terms like “asylum” will return more sources. And that’s another opportunity for students to critically reflect on our culture and how it changes over time, too.” 

student in library

And in another response to cultural change, O’Dowd’s library has also been thoughtful about conducting diversity audits to gauge how well the collection provides diverse viewpoints, experiences and voices. “We stay current on School Library Journal, and American Library Association publications, as well as reviews from Kirkkus and Booklist,” Annette reports. “We also rely on faculty and student recommendations, alongside websites like Black Girl Reads and Books Matter from The Anti Defamation League. Then we make sure to prominently display and showcase books that relate to cultural heritage months, current social movements, and more.”  

Recently, O’Dowd learned that our school is one of the top users of Gale, a powerful database in the same league as ProQuest and Ebook Central. “For our students to be some of the top users of this database in Northern California is a big deal,” Annette declares. “It demonstrates not just how much research they are conducting, but also the quality of the research. It’s quite sophisticated.” This could have something to do with our library hours. “There is no high school with longer hours than ours,” beams Annette. “We are open from 7:00am until 6:00pm, Monday through Thursday. On Fridays and holiday evenings, we are open until 4:00pm.”

student in library

Accolades aside, the O’Dowd Library is a space brimming with academic and personal growth. Everyday, students benefit from the quiet space, supportive staff, and opportunities to engage with critical resources from the past and present. For Annette, it’s the personal celebrations that mean the most. “My favorite moment is when students come to the library and joyfully report they found the perfect source using a search technique we learned in class.”

students in library

Library resources example


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