BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY or: What I Feared I’d Sing in the High School Library by Laurie Keller
When I was in elementary school, I don’t remember the library as being a particularly joyful place to be. I was never scolded or told to leave like some other kids were, but it wasn’t somewhere I felt comfortable being. I’m sure the librarian read us a story from time to time, I don’t remember. Unfortunately, I do remember her as someone who didn’t seem to enjoy kids — and I was scared of her. To me, the library was a place where you walked on eggshells for fear of being thrown out for making a sound.
By the time I was in 8th or 9th grade, I had lost interest in reading and, for the most part, only did it when it was required. I don’t blame the elementary school librarian for my declining love of reading, but I’m fairly certain that my negative perception of what I had decided libraries were like probably factored in. At that point I would only set foot in the library when I absolutely had to. I would never have dreamt of going to the library just to relax and browse through books. I wouldn’t have dared to ask the librarian to suggest any books for me. And my fear of not talking quietly enough made me feel like I would uncontrollably break into song just out of nervousness. It wasn’t the fact that you were supposed to be quiet that kept me away — I like quiet places. I can go for hours without making a peep. I just didn’t feel welcome. I had my mind made up about how libraries worked and I wanted no part of them.
I don’t know if my early unpleasant library experience was unusual or if things were just “different” back then as far as how librarians and students related to each other. Either way, one of the things I’ve observed from visiting so many schools over the years is that the library is a place kids flock to. Librarians know the kids’ names. They smile when students rush through the doors eager to get a book or even a HUG — from their LIBRARIAN! It’s a great thing to see. I’ve literally met hundreds of librarians and I’ve never met one who doesn’t love what they do. I’m not saying that librarians are never in a bad mood or never get frustrated with a student. They are human after all. But they seem to really like kids. And they care about them. They take time to get to know each child and what they’re interested in so they can place just the right book in their hands — one that could make a big difference in a troubled child’s life.
I was visiting a school a few days ago with a wonderful librarian and library assistant. After my talks I was signing books and a boy named Tommy stepped up to get his book signed. He was about 6 or 7 and slightly shy but smiling ear to ear. The library assistant was nearby and said, “Tommy, why don’t you tell Laurie Keller what you told me this morning.” He looked at me with his big smile and said, “I told her that I’m so happy I could cry.” It was very sweet but I wasn’t totally sure what he meant so I looked at the library assistant and she pointed to the book and under her breath said, “He’s happy because you’re signing his book.” Her eyes looked slightly teary (as were mine) and she was beaming, seeing how happy he was. That’s the kind of caring I’m talking about.
I’m sure if I hadn’t had the pre-conceived negative idea of what I thought the library was like in junior high and high school I would have had a completely different reading life during those years. It makes me sad to think of all the enjoyment I deprived myself of, especially now that I’m so fond of libraries. I truly MARVEL at the idea that I can walk into a library and pick out a stack of books to take home with me — and I get to do it for FREE. I love spending time at the library now and look forward to going. I wrote my last book at the library, week after week, from start to finish. I even quietly nibbled a couple snacks there and not once did anyone yell at me or tell me to leave. Heck, I bet I could have even gotten myself a hug if I’d needed it.
Laurie Keller is the acclaimed author-illustrator of Do Unto Otters, Arnie, the Doughnut, The Scrambled States of America, and Open Wide: Tooth School Inside, among numerous others. She grew up in Muskegon, Michigan, and always loved to draw, paint and write stories. You can find her online at http://www.lauriekeller.com and on Twitter as @LKellerBooks.
This made me grin. The Catholic school I went to–back in the mists of time–had no library, but I went to the public one every week. Never once did it occur to me to speak to a librarian. They stayed on their side of the desk and I stayed on mine. It wasn’t till I began to work in a library myself that I realized librarians (at least kids’ librarians) actually adore being asked questions.
From a teacher’s perspective, it’s sobering to think about just how “sticky” our early experiences with things can be, like your early library experiences.
Hooray for change of perspective of school libraries! 🙂 I adore when students come to sing to me, chat, and trust… besides borrow books and research.
Laurie, thanks for this post! I too walked on eggshells at the library. So glad my kids have had a more joyful experience there. Thanks for the work you do to spread the joy of reading! All best, Adriana
I remember school libraries like you do. Librarians seemed so prim and proper. There were rules. But, I felt differently about the bookmobile during the summer and the programs at the public library, which I enjoyed. I to believe school libraries have changed when my daughter was in school. She loved the library.