I didn’t start my career thinking I knew everything about being an elementary-school librarian, but I’d been to school and I’d learned all the things that are considered “best practice.” I knew I should have a flexible schedule, and that I should collaborate with teachers and even co-teach if possible. I knew how to use reference sources to research grants and foundations. I had been taught to consider the concerns of all imagined stakeholders in designing a new library space. I even knew there was a difference between what should be and what will be—being raised by two educators helped with that.
I didn’t know how to hook up a VCR. And, as it turned out, that was the only thing I was asked to do on my first day as a librarian. In a meeting. With my principal and a handful of other strangers. But I figured it out. Apparently, the best way to learn a new skill under duress is not having an option to fail.
Maybe I thought that, without date stamping,
chaos would ensue and our carefully ordered
system would break down.
I did start out thinking there were a few things I knew for certain about the physical space itself, things that seemed self-evident and non-negotiable to me at the time. Nonfiction would be in Dewey order. Fiction and picture books would be in alphabetical order by the author’s last name. Picture books should be labeled “Everybody,” not “Easy,” to make students feel more comfortable. As it turned out the “Everybody” books in my first library were not truly in order by the author’s last name—that was more implied. All of the A’s went together, the B’s, and so on. Then students could just skim for the one they wanted.
I was frustrated by this at first. I wasn’t just fresh out of library school, after all. I’d worked part-time as a shelver at a public library and this hurt my obsessive little shelver brain. But I wasn’t the one shelving. The fabulous library assistant and our almost full-time library volunteer were the ones putting back all of those books. So I held my tongue and kept my hands off the “Everybody” section. And as it turned out, their system was fine. Students found the books they needed and the people doing the shelving had more than enough worthwhile ways to spend the time they saved.
After a short six years, I found myself in another new-to-me library. I knew a little more by then and had a few more opinions about how the library should be organized. I knew I liked a separate section for popular series, especially if those series were written by a multitude of authors. I valued a separate graphic novel section. I still felt strongly that the books should be labeled “Everybody,” not “Easy.” When students checked out, I knew their books should be date-stamped so they knew when to return them.
Looking back, what I thought I knew about how
a library should be, and how it should be set up,
turned out to have very little to do with me.
At my new school, there was no separate series section and definitely no date-stamping. This felt confusing and strange to me. I’m not sure exactly why I thought it mattered so much that books were stamped. Maybe I thought that, without date stamping, chaos would ensue and our carefully ordered system would break down. But at this new school the books had no place to stamp and the librarians, myself included, certainly didn’t have time to do it. When I began, we had 40 minutes with each class to teach, assess, and check out. Stamping books was one librarian stereotype I was going to have to let go. Once again, I held my tongue about something I thought mattered and, once again, I discovered I was wrong. After I’d been at the new school a few months, we did reorganize the collection so we had a large series section, which continues to be one of the most popular areas of our library. And we put up a giant “Everybody” sign over the picture books.
Looking back, what I thought I knew about how a library should be, and how it should be set up, turned out to have very little to do with me. Some things are specific to each library, each community, and I am simply the steward allowing the best choices for that community to be put into place. And it takes some time to get to know the community and the people, to figure out what those best practices will be. It’s not about what I want the library to be, but rather what that library needs to be for its patrons.
That’s why I think the “Everybody” section will stay one of my non-negotiables. It is the way I think all libraries should be—for everybody. For books there’s no such thing as too easy or, my absolute pet peeve, “baby books.” “Baby books?” I say if a kid calls another student’s book a baby book. “I LOVE baby books! Baby Brains and The Boss Baby? They’re hilarious!”
It turns out I did know something important when I came out of library school, so green and new, so many years ago. Making everybody feel welcome and safe is really what we’re going for. So in any library where I’m working, that great big “Everybody” sign will be one of the first things I put up. Unless it’s not. I hear some libraries label those books “Picture Books.” So maybe I’ll have to rethink some more things.