Librarians: A lifeline to education

The beautiful library at the Awsaj School, DohaI recently went on my biggest adventure as an author yet, one that took me all the way to Doha, Qatar, where I was invited by a group of librarians for a week of visits at five schools. It was my first time in the tiny Gulf state, and a wonderful chance to share my books and experiences as a writer. Doha is a fascinating place, with massive construction projects everywhere and a huge push to develop, particularly the education sector.

I was warmly welcomed at each of the schools, and ushered into the most impressive schools libraries I have ever seen. The large and breathtaking spaces were staffed with both upper and lower elementary librarians, as well as several assistants. I was struck by how the schools truly seemed to value the crucial role that librarians play in the academic development of their students. Connected to each student, the librarians worked to develop special projects, helped with research and assignments, set up programs and guests, and fostered a love of reading and seeking knowledge. 

I spent lovely time with the librarians, who took care of me during the school days, even packing me homemade lunches and snacks, and went above and beyond to entertain me after hours. They took to me to delicious dinners, invited me into their homes (where I, overcome with jetlag one afternoon, even napped), and went sightseeing with me. I learned about their lives and their families, where they had worked before, and what their futures held. Among the librarians I met, the Americans and Canadians were fairly certain that they would remain abroad until they retired. I assumed it was because life overseas was exciting and romantic, because they were part of such a close-knit expat community, or because the compensation and lifestyle was so comfortable. But, that wasn’t always the case.

“There are no jobs for us back home,” was what I sadly kept hearing. I was jarred by this news. It breaks my heart that these talented and committed educators feel like they can’t come home if they want and share their knowledge and expertise because there aren’t enough opportunities left for them. But we still need them! In a recent Huffington Post blog post, Sense and Sensibility: Why Librarians Remain Essential to Our Schools, Yohuru Williams defends the role of librarians (aka media specialists) and other key staff, and why they must be preserved in spite of budget cuts. I hope his arguments, and others like them resonate with lawmakers and those who make tough staffing decisions. Librarians, as Williams says, must be seen as lifelines who, in addition to all of their traditional roles, “help students to unlock and decode the vast amount of information now at their fingertips.”

The creative "lesson tent" at the Greenfield Community School Library in DubaiI am eternally grateful to the librarians who have championed my work and who continue to share it with their students, taking care that all are represented. They have made me feel at home wherever I visit, preparing their students and creating excitement around my presentations. And they serve as a great source of ideas and sounding boards, especially since they are so in tune with what kids like to read. I’m thrilled that I had the chance to make an amazing trip to Doha and spend time with such kind and thoughtful people. And as an author whose greatest ally is the librarian, I hope that America isn’t willing to lose any more to far away places, or at least not to let anywhere else value them more than we do. 



Rich in books

I’m ashamed to admit that it took chaperoning a fifth grade class trip to the Rockville Memorial Library for me to remember how much I love the library. The old Rockville library, the site of the new District courthouse, was a huge part of my childhood. The stairs in the building were open, and as a little kid I was terrified of falling through the spaces between them. But that didn’t prevent me from looking forward to leaving with a bag full of books, feeling rich. Throughout my teens, the library was where I did my research projects—searching through the microfiche and encyclopedias—and whispered with my friends during group projects.  But ever since college, with the explosion of bookstores, coffee shops, and the internet, I slowly minimized the role of the library in my life.

The old Rockville Library

Even after motherhood, although my older son and I would sometimes walk to the same Rockville library from our home, we still ended up in the Barnes and Noble kids’ section more often. Looking back, Barnes and Noble made it so easy—the kids loved playing with the train table, I could sit with a latte and chat with friends, and we all enjoyed story time. I’d usually let the kids buy a small book to take home, but realize now that they spent most of their time fixated on the one book they wanted. It wasn’t the same experience as the library, where there is no “you can’t have that,” or “put it back.” My mother never groaned when I had a stack of books too heavy for me to carry on my own. I know now that it delighted her to know that I would read them all.  

I cried when I saw the old library building get torn down. It felt like a part of me was being destroyed, even though the new Rockville Memorial Library was open. The new library is a breathtaking building, a truly lovely space to be in that I remember marveling over when it first opened five years ago. But I’ve only made sporadic visits since. During my son’s fieldtrip, while the kids looked up information for their research projects, I leisurely browsed the stacks and ended up with a pile of books I didn’t intend for myself. My son left saying, “I love the library,” and I decided that we need to make regular visits to build new memories in this special place together. I want my kids to understand what it’s like to feel rich in books, even when you have to give them back.

The New Rockville Memorial Library