At War with Librarians

As a rule, I love librarians [including daughter Anna and sister Beth] and hang with them every chance I get. But there have been two that brought out the crusader in me. The first, who shall remain unnamed, ran a very efficient operation in the elementary school where I taught second grade. Each of the thirty-five or so second through fourth grade classes had a specified weekly time in the library. Children were allowed to check out two books. If they finished their books or were absent on the appointed library day, they had to wait for the next one.

The contrast to my previous school took me aback. My second graders in that school had haunted the library before school and at recess and my reward to them for good behavior or outstanding work was a ticket for free time in the library. The librarian knew the students and their interests and “hand-sold” them books they would enjoy. She also recommended great read-alouds to teachers.

However, my adjustment to the new librarian’s system was nothing compared to my reaction when I saw the labels confining my second graders to the right side of HER library because those books were “on their reading level.” I figuratively mounted my steed and took out my sword. With the support of a wonderful principal, I convinced her that my students knew the five-finger test and could wisely select from any shelf in the library. [Five-finger test: Open the book on a normal page in the middle and read. For every too-difficult word, put down one finger. If five fingers are down at the end, the book will be hard to read. Notice I still did not say they COULDN'T read it, just that it would be hard.] Her concession, such as it was, allowed MY students the privilege of using all the shelves in HER library. The other eleven second grade classes remained confined to the right side shelves.

I let her win a second regulation since it did have some logic and justice. My practice was to read aloud only one book per author with the idea that children who liked the book could find more by that author in the library to read independently. After the first Ramona book, the children swarmed the Beverly Cleary section on their next library visit and cleared it out. The librarian soon made a rule limiting the number of Cleary books that could be checked to my class at any one time so there would be some left for the other second graders. I left that alone, but my clever second graders figured out their own way around the regulation. The checked out the limit and exchanged among themselves until the next library day.

In the same school, I began to get reports from parents complaining about the post librarian. That one also belonged to the Reading Level Police and refused to check out big books to pint-sized readers. The insinuation of the parents who dumped the problem in my lap was, “You’ve taught them to read well and turned them onto books. Now that you’ve made this problem, you need to fix it.”

So I mounted my trusty steed, shined my sword, and headed to the post library. In her defense, the chief librarian assured me she had no idea such an atrocity was being committed by one of her workers and that it would not happen again.

My next move to junior high school brought me back to the kind of librarian I expect and love. Students freely came in and out of the library. The librarian stayed involved in helping them with research and book selections – and even checked to see what I was teaching so she could coordinate her lessons at their regular library time.

It scares me when I hear that librarians and libraries are among the first targets in budget cuts. These two with whom I waged war are an anomaly. The degree that good libraries and librarians increased my effectiveness as a teacher over many years is truly immeasurable. If you should hear of a threat to cut back on library services to schools or communities, I hope you have a reliable steed, a sturdy sword, and a willingness to do battle.

[And I do know that they are called Media Specialists these days, but that really doesn’t have the warmth and personality of “librarian.”]