I went on a tour of another school’s new library space this week, which is currently under construction:
Yep. A fireplace.
This library is going to be incredible. (Do you see those mosaic tiles? And the storytime room has a circle-riffic Hobbit door!) I am so excited for the students, families, and teachers there. It’s tempting to be a little bit jealous too, but then I stop myself. Even though my library facility hasn’t changed since the 80s, my program has TONS of support and resources that I wouldn’t have ever dreamed about in my public school days. So, I need to remember what it is like for most schools and libraries, and knowing that it’s all relative, be oh so grateful.
I was recently asked to write this essay for my school magazine (the school’s name has been removed):
A Feast For Young Minds
People are often surprised to learn that I didn’t like my school library when I was a child. It was a quiet, stuffy place with an impossible to understand system of organization and a protector-of-the-books librarian who appeared to care more about where things went on the shelves than who could use them, not to mention why or how. To 9-year-old me, the library was a place for book storage and milk breaks. That was it.
As I grew, I discovered that there were other libraries out there—awesome ones. There were libraries where users could experiment with all sorts of literature and information, where they could print their own books, correspond with authors, or build their own web presence in the early days of the Internet. There were library classrooms where students could hone their research skills with guidance from experienced teachers. There were library laboratories that were available for book clubs, readers’ theater rehearsals, or even LEGO building contests. It wasn’t that these libraries’ traditional collections or services were unimportant: they were the necessary building blocks for so many of the meaningful opportunities available. What made these libraries special was that they were so much more than places to merely store stuff.
A lot has changed since I was a kid. Milk breaks—like the physical card catalog, print encyclopedias, and microfiche readers—are a thing of the past. But what hasn’t changed in all these years is what makes a library successful. In graduate school, I was taught to think about it this way: Effective libraries are not like grocery stores, where products sit idly until they are needed. Instead, good libraries are like kitchens. They must be well-stocked, but what brings them to life are the people in them, and what those people learn, create, and enjoy using the ingredients at hand.
In [my school]’s libraries, people come together, try new things, try old things, learn from mistakes, share their discoveries, encounter different ways of thinking, practice empathy, and more. We might try a technology or organizational system only to decide after deep consideration that it didn’t work out as well as we had hoped—and that is all right. What kitchen hasn’t seen its spills or spoils? At [my school], we respect our history and are thoughtful in our decision-making, but we are also constantly reflecting on what we can improve and how we can grow. With today’s dynamic information landscape, we’re experimenting now more than ever.
While meals are usually enjoyed within the walls of one’s home, sitting down at a table with others can make those dishes even more meaningful. This goes for sharing information, too. Our children can now participate as members of our school community, but also communities across the globe, connecting and sharing data with others in ways that were once unthinkable. The library is where children build their information literacy skills and discover literature that helps them learn about their place in the world, how their experiences relate to others, and how with courage, hard work and creativity, they can bring ideas to fruition and use them to make the world a better place.
No kitchen analogy would be complete without a mention of diet. Whatever your family decides in terms of healthy staples versus “sometimes treats,” I believe that there needs to be variety and balance. This includes reading different formats, lengths, genres, and styles. It means exposing children to authors and books that they might not seek out independently, reading books published in countries outside of the United States, and finding translations of books originally published in languages other than one’s own. It means reading about heroes from a variety of cultural backgrounds, especially those underrepresented in the mainstream publishing industries. It means challenging children to stick with materials that take longer to digest, that don’t provide instant gratification but have huge rewards. Our libraries’ collections are the curated pantry mirroring the diversity of our school, city, and world. The pieces in these ever-evolving collections are the ingredients for quite the banquet. I can’t wait to see what, over my time here, our community members make and share with them. Surely it will be delicious.
I believe what I wrote. No matter how many resources you have or how snazzy your space looks, it’s what you do with the opportunities and materials available that matters. My community HAS a kitchen, and a well-stocked one at that. That’s more than anyone can ask for. I am appreciative, but being thankful isn’t good enough. The way I see it, I have a responsibility to get cooking and keep at it. Because I have no excuse not to.