Friday, May 04, 2007

Musings of a library lover

I have fond memories of many things about my elementary school experience, but Library Day is way at the top of that list. Library Day was the best day of the week, and not only because the "cold water fountain," which offered up the very best drink in the whole school building, was located right outside the library doors. Library Day meant an uninterrupted half hour spent perusing the shelves for something new and different and exciting to read about. It meant curling up in a quiet, sunlit corner to try out a new book before making a firm commitment to borrowing it, and it meant the hard punch of a date stamper on the inside covers of the selections I eventually made, signifying that they were mine to explore and enjoy until the next Library Day. In the school library, I learned independent thinking and good decision making and I reveled in the power of making my own choices, all before I'd ever even cracked the spine of a book.

I can't begin to hazard a guess how many books I checked out of the school library during my elementary years. The school library wasn't huge, its selections weren't endless and its presence in my life certainly didn't supersede the town library, which I also visited frequently and with much delight. But something about the in-school experience of making my own autonomous choices to explore my own individual interests in the midst of a day full of organized classroom lessons? That had an impact. I don't remember much of what I borrowed from the school library. But the memory of the borrowing itself? That is both indelible and impactful, even decades later.

There is no library in Julia's school. I scarcely even noticed its absence when we were touring schools last September; some schools had libraries, others didn't and really, after two harried days of viewing school after school, I was lucky if I remembered which ones I liked, let alone what amenities each had to offer. When I realized that we'd selected one of the no-library schools, I was saddened, but not overly concerned. Julia's current teacher has been fabulous about scrounging up appropriate reading material and recommended reading lists when Julia's abilities have outstretched the resources of her Reception classroom. Between the library and the bookstore and a wonderful, devoted teacher, we've made things work for Julia this year. And a year, I figured, was all it would take. The facility my kids attend is actually just one of a number of buildings that house students in this particular school. Next year, Julia moves around to the Junior School building, where she'll be the youngest of the school population rather than the oldest. Surely there, she'd find a library?

One would think. But yesterday, I got my "official tour" of the Junior School, and guess what? No library there, either. There is a lovely outdoor play space and a warm and inviting music room. There are sunny, well lit classrooms and interesting examples of the students' work adorning every spare inch of wall space in the building. There are, of course, dozens and dozens of books on individual shelves in each classroom. The children all look happy and confident and well adjusted and well cared for. It is a wonderful school. But there is no library. There is no room that smells of book bindings and ink and well worn paper, no quiet nook to browse, no sunny spot to lose yourself in an exciting new read. And that makes me unbelievably, indescribably sad.

Julia doesn't need a school library to develop a love of the written word. She's already a devotee of the public library and a huge fan of the bookstore. She's up way past her bedtime reading in the glow of her night light and she's awake for God knows how long in the early mornings devouring entire chapter books before she leaves the warm comfort of her bed. She inherited the bookworm gene from me every bit as much as she got my round face and my brown hair, and that gene will easily keep her invested in the written word without weekly school-sponsored trips to a library. But it is because of that shared gene, because of our identical tendency to stick our identical noses in books for hours on end, that I am the saddest about the loss. I loved the school library. And I can't help but wish that Julia would have the opportunity to feel the same way.

My kids are getting an amazing education at this posh London private school, of that there is no doubt. But I can't help but be suspect of an institution which doesn't see the value of a school library. I understand, of course, that space is of a premium in city schools. There's simply not room for everything, and so decisions need to be made and priorities need to be placed. But how could you not place enough of a priority on a library to at least allocate a broom closet somewhere to ensure the creation of one? "How will you ever leave this amazing British private school experience for an American public school?" people ask me all the time. If there is a library in our local NJ public school, my answer will be "easily."


Blogger Tara said...

Hello! How strange that there is not a library. I, too, was a big fan of the elementary school library. In fact, I remember staying after school to 'help the librarian' though I can't remember what that entailed. Enjoying your musings.

3:19 PM  
Blogger Steph said...

Wow, I can't imagine an elementary school (or any school, really) without a library. I have fond memories of the school library too. As I think you know, I've even thought of going back to school so that I can become a school librarian (maybe someday...)

I kept thinking as I was reading this that it would somehow come back to the fact that there will be a nice, big library at the school in NJ when you get back to the States. :)

3:39 PM  
Blogger Ginger said...

Our elementary library was so small! It was built on the stage of what was the auditorium when they divided it up to make a classoom. But oh, how I loved to borrow books. The librarian let me check out the books that I could read and did not restrict me to those for my grade level.

4:08 PM  
Blogger denzylle said...

I also have fond memories of libraries thru'out my childhood, both in school and the town library, where I was well known and where I eventually had my first job. My primary schools and high school were all state schools and all had large well stocked libraries, as did my son's schools.

As you say, there have to be priorities, but I agree with you that a library should be an essential. Surely there is a room in one of these buildings that could be used by all the children on weekly visits. Maybe some of the well-to-do parents could group together and pay for it to be converted, stocked and staffed.

6:27 PM  
Blogger K said...

What a lovely post. I grow up as a military brat and we moved every few years, throughout elementary and Jr. High school. The school library was my favorite place in the world. No matter what else changed in my life, I new that I could always find solace at the library.

6:40 PM  
Anonymous Cami said...

A's school not only has a library, but a bookstore which now stocks Rainbow Magic books for £1.50 a pop. (Proceeds to benefit the PTA, which is giddy with excitement over the recent windfall they have experienced!)

Couldn't they even get a mobile library to visit the school each week?

9:34 PM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

Oh, wow, really? No library? As another library-was-my-refuge girl, I cannot imagine. One of my favorite things about our local elementary school is that the library is, very literally, the center and heart of the school. The library is an open atrium with every school classroom either just off of the library (main floor) or over-looking the library (second floor). The classrooms have no doors so the kids can literally *see* the library -- shelves of books and cozy reading spaces -- at all times. I love, love, love that. I'm sorry Julia doesn't have that experience for now. But at least she *will*. It's especially sad for the kids who never will. Aww.

10:20 PM  
Blogger Gina said...

I, too, remember loving the school library. So much so, that I worked as an aide in the library from 5th through 8th grades. What great memories.

Thanks for taking me down that road, Rebecca.

2:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You tend to find big libraries in the schools children attend after 11 years old. Don't forget about your local childrens libraries. The English lending library system is second to none and is where most kids will go. If you haven't been to one yet, find one (they are plentiful) and go visit. You might be pleasantly surprised with what they offer young children.

8:20 PM  

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