As I was shutting down my high school library on the last day of school this year, I found a hand-addressed letter in the mail. I expected it to be a check–another resigned parent paying for a copy of 1984 or Frankenstein that their student had lost during the course of the school year. What was inside turned out to be very different, and absolutely made my day, if not my year.
A graduating senior had written me to say thank you for making our library a place that always felt welcoming and well-stocked with new materials. While this alone was insanely gratifying, it was the rest of her letter that really struck a chord. She lamented that the way that libraries (or “media centers”, because there’s more cred in a name that suggests technology), seemed to be morphing into mere technology centers . “These days,” she wrote, “school libraries tend to focus solely on research for school projects and teaching students how to avoid plagiarism and use citation pages. While this is important, the general shift from a library being a place of love and education…now seems to be more focused in purely providing resources.” She recalled how, in younger days, she used to sneak books with her to the school cafeteria, the playground at recess, even into math class (I hear you, girl). She wrote of the libraries at her elementary and middle schools as vital support systems that fed her hunger for fiction, fantasy, and biography. But in high school (this student, like most of mine, split her time between our magnet school and her assigned “home” school), she felt the focus was different. She perceived her home school’s media center as a somewhat hostile environment, where students were merely tolerated and allowed to use technology, but where pleasure-reading wasn’t necessarily encouraged or celebrated.
I fear she may be right. The directive from the top to our school district’s media coordinators this year was to put the emphasis on DTL (“Digital Teaching and Learning”–educators love an acronym). And I get it–in this educational climate, we need to stay relevant to stay employed, and technical know-how=job security. Race to the Top, a $4.35 billion dollar incentive program introduced by the U.S. Department of Education in 2010, rewards innovation and spurs competition for districts to put their focus more and more on electronic resources and systems. Don’t get me wrong–I’m no Luddite. I love technology. I spend a good part of every day demonstrating databases, troubleshooting network and application problems, and assisting students and teachers with all manner of tech-related questions. And of course, understanding research and respecting intellectual property is crucial–I’m pretty sure my own kids (much to their displeasure) learned to format an MLA citation before they learned to swim. But my student may be onto something. In the frenzy to become the technological gurus and “information leaders” in our schools, we may be neglecting young adults like her, who already have a handle on those things and just want some good books, a comfortable place to chill and read them, and a friendly face when they walk in the door.
I’ll cop to still sometimes embodying the stereotype of the cranky librarian. It’s true that I still shush people on occasion, and I’m guilty of the odd tirade as I’m picking pop-tart crumbs out of the carpet, sending skippers back to class, or when a the new John Green novel is returned with a piece of lunchmeat used as a bookmark (true story!). But for me, the prime directive will always be to dispel the concept of the library as some sort of academic gulag. If I accomplish nothing else, I want my students to leave high school with the idea that they can walk into a college or public library expecting not only technical assistance or instruction, but genuinely helpful people who encourage all kinds of curiosity and who don’t view recreational reading as a secondary pursuit. I want my library to be filled with students, all the time. I want to hear laughter instead of silence, for there to be kids draped all over the furniture and sprawled out on the floor, and for there sometimes to be a mess because the space is actually being used and enjoyed. I want them to call me Ms. H. instead of “Ma’am”, and I don’t want them to be afraid to approach “the desk”. I want every student, even the ones who claim to hate reading, to find a few tolerable books during the year that cater to their interests, whether that’s zombies or motocross or Heart of Darkness (just kidding– nobody likes Heart of Darkness).
So even though I’ll continue to take all manner of workshops and webinars on the latest buzzworthy application, and lecture on intellectual property and bibliographical standards, my favorite days will always be the ones where I unbox shiny new books, put them on display, write about them and talk them up to students. And if a few come back with pieces of salami as bookmarks, at least I’ll know they were read.