Notes from a Children's Librarian: What I Miss About the Library

Our Children's Librarian columnist, Julie Booker, brings us a new view from the stacks every month. This month she, like many of us, is working from home—and missing the library. 

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Book Cover Franklin

“My” library, where I spend each morning, is a long room with bookshelves all around the perimeter, beneath sky blue walls. Meeting tables are hexagonal and fit together like a beehive. A spinning holder of graphic novels stands as a leaning tower. Someone, long ago, built castle turret bookshelves, which punctuate the picture book area. They house popular series such as Arthur, and Elephant and Piggie, with small stuffies as clues to favourite authors. Various tiny Franklins cluster near Paulette Bourgeois’ books. A jumbo-sized Madeline slumps next to an ever-smiling Curious George, cotton poking through his midriff. A grey and white chickadee is perched near Frank Glew’s That Chickadee Feeling. More characters used to live here but I came in one morning to find Captain Underpants without underpants, Angelina Ballerina disrobed and Stuart Little with his tail between his legs.

In the corner is a den—a set of three carpeted stairs and a sloppy green couch donated by a family that couldn’t bear to set it out for garbage. Read-alouds are performed smack in the middle of the library, from a stylish red leather couch with one barely-noticeable rip, carried to the school by the principal and a Grade 6 teacher after a phone tip—spotted on someone’s front lawn!—and which periodically disappears to be auctioned off as a “front row seat” at concert fundraisers. I miss the furniture.

Book Cover Our Corner Grocery Store

Library bulletin boards are full of hand-drawn originals from author visits. A quickly-drawn hockey player wearing/holding every piece of equipment imaginable, care of Kevin Sylvester, who left us with stacks of sketches. Similarly, a memento from Rebecca Bender—her endearing Giraffe bending down for a drink. There’s the Our Corner Grocery Store book jacket, autographed by visiting illustrator Laura Beingessner, who based her images on the shop across from our school. I think about how many Canadian authors and illustrators we’ve hosted over the years, during our annual Authors’ Week: Cary Fagan, Emil Sher, Eric Walters, Kean Soo, Suzanne Del Rizzo, Ruth Ohi, Aubrey Davis, Rukhsana Khan, to name a few. I miss the feeling of them in that space.

I miss the faces of children over the years recommending books. Small posters line the room, each student eagerly gripping a book beneath his/her chin, a speech bubble with text such as, “This one will make you laugh!” A Grade 6 kid can look at their Grade 1 self holding Making the Moose Out of Life, by Nicholas Oldland. There are stories kids published in brown baskets along the windowsill, with their hard covers, coil spines and dedications such as, “To my dog because this story is about him.” In my office is a banner of Dr. Seuss’ Horton the elephant—“A person’s a person, no matter how small!” Above my desk hangs an old Apple “Think Different” poster of John Lennon and Yoko Ono during their bed-in, each holding a flower, and a 70s Participaction poster of a hippie leaning against a building: “Don’t do nothin’’ it reads. These, too, were hand-me-downs. Found in old dusty boxes in cupboards. Evidence of librarians before me. I miss them, too.

When I think of the job of librarian, I think of time, layers of time. The first few years are pure excavation. Each year, something is unearthed—weeded, organized, refreshed. But the job also forges layers in my mind. In bed at night I catch myself flying around the library, rearranging bookcases to increase student flow, transforming displays to be bookstore-ish, scanning shelves, as if tucking books in. I miss my morning walk-around prior to the every-40-minute-changeover—picking up books on the floor, sorting the return cart, curious to see what afternoon classes read while I wasn’t there. (I’m half time, like many teacher librarians.)

When I think of the job of librarian, I think of time, layers of time.

In the old days of record stores, you could sing a few bars for the clerk and he’d flip through bins for the exact ’45. Someone asks for “the book that’s kind of like a biography of that chef,” and, “Julia, Child! By Kyo MacLear!” leaps out of my mouth.  Then, “Have you read Bloom: a Story of Fashion Designer Elsa Schiaparelli? Also by MacLear? That’s in Nonfiction. 746!” I love how quickly the Dewey decimal comes to me.

A colleague mentions her current topic, boats— “Do you mean, the making of, in 500s? Or transportation…629?” I’m like a dog with a bone. Beneath the Bridge, by Hazel Hutchins, comes to me late at night, the paper boat travelling from pond to stream to tugboat to barge. I leave a notepad by the bed for the boat books that will inevitably follow. When I see a teacher crouched down perusing a shelf, I can’t resist. “What are you looking for?” I am a time-saver. An archeologist with the exact brush in hand. A book that rhymes? A great kindergarten read-aloud? A surprise ending? Bring it on. I miss that!

Proud as a Peackock Brave as a Lion

My body knows things, too. Like a water witch, I know to skim the S’s on Remembrance Day. For what? Ah.…The Highway of Heroes, by Kathy Stinson. I find myself unconsciously loitering in the B’s until Proud as a Peacock, Brave as a Lion, by Jane Barclay, leaps out. Both of these, of course, have a Canadian flag on their spine. True, those stickers began before I arrived, but since my work with 49th Shelf, they’ve exponentially grown. A quick scan of the spines reveals a phenomenal proportion of books are Canadian. I am proud of that. Will I run out of lists for 49th Shelf? I sometimes wonder, but books always lead to other books, other writers. And there’s the question that quells my fear: “What’s a good book, Ms. Booker?” Being the one with the blueprint for the whole dig site. That’s what I miss most.

On her first day as teacher-librarian, Julie Booker was asked by a five-year-old if that was her real name. She's felt at home in libraries since her inaugural job as a Page in the Toronto Public Library. She is the author of Up Up Up, a book of short stories published by House of Anansi Press.

May 19, 2020
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