When we think of school experiences, we tend to come up with similar images – some vibrant, others sepia, and a few worn out. When we think of school libraries there appear to be two groups, either those who had school library experiences and those who did not.
So typically I have contemporaries who recall large spacious rooms with tables and desks and lines of cupboards along walls, generating an austere serious atmosphere, causing a hush to descend on all who enter. Others, may have no such recall because their school infrastructure did not have the room (physically or metaphorically) for a library and a few may gently submit that there were a collection of books somewhere within the school but are not sure if this constitutes a library.
I am not able to inform the exact moment when my imagination for a library took flight, school or otherwise, but I am very aware of being surrounded by books my whole life and so it appears to my vivid imagination that I lived within a library. At home, there were books in every room stacked floor to ceiling, there were libraries in the administrative office my parents worked within with large capacious children’s sections that were all open access and filled with titles I could not consume fast enough. There was a library at the Club House, all you needed was to take a key off a hook and in you went, alone and yet never alone when surrounded by books and there was a library in my school. Perhaps the most austere library was my school library but with the range I had, even this serious, ‘keep quiet’ space was a haven.
One significant aspect of my explorations in the library was access. There were no restrictions to my reading and it was no problem to return a book within a few hours because you did not like it. No questions asked and in the same vein, you could keep a book as long as you wanted because you wanted to relive it as you reread it. Being a reader was a wondrous privilege for me.
Did all these varied experiences and types inform my imagination of a library? I think they did and then there is the fact that I am unusual. I am odd, do not fit in easily, think very divergently and find socialization over long periods difficult because my world was more imaginative, more vibrant, more many things, from all the reading I was doing endlessly. So like the proverbial bookworm, I burrowed deeper into libraries. I have been attached to them forever, having at least three to four library cards in my bag like one might carry life support medication. I am secure in the library.
This background-in-a-hurry is to lay a context for why I hold the strongest visions for what a school library can be. The library is perhaps the most secular, the most inclusive, non-threatening space in the school complex and if not, we need to declare that it should be. Reading material is needed and essential because we require content to read and dream and imagine within but we also need an atmosphere of acceptance, warmth, welcome and curiosity without.
How can we enable this and how can we ensure that every child has this opportunity?
I am unable to understand any more how we can speak of learning in the absence of reading and how we can speak of reading in the absence of libraries. Because reading is to explore something widely. It is like jumping into the sea and when you are there you see things you did not know about before. The bottom is always deeper than your reach, but that is the exciting part. We keep jumping in and renewing our understanding every time. School reading is being reduced to jumping into the smallest frog pond and all you see is the rim of the pond and if you are lucky the frog!
Children in the school library deserve the best of ourselves, the best of our collections, the best of our intentions and energy and that makes the library a priority. From the moment a school is being conceptualized, or after it is built, you can discern the philosophy towards the library by its location, size, seating arrangement, investment in human resource, engagement with the collection and by how the library fits within the school syllabus and time tabling. The library is the best place to be; it supports every aspect of our growing person hoods and there is no doubt that it forms us into eager, open, active human beings because this happens when we read wildly and actively.
To school libraries everywhere, it is time to rise up to the potential and to readers everywhere, formed and forming, we must participate in the library to ensure its celebratory existence.