In Praise Of Children's Librarians


"...my lifelong love of reading and, therefore, learning was nourished by librarians. These titans of literacy, these quiet champions of the stacks should be praised."


The building at the busy intersection was quite modern looking and imposing. Taking up half of a city block, it was a three story, beige brick and mirrored glass edifice with automatic doors that opened horizontally, not swinging out on an arc like the ones at the grocery store. Truly a modern wonder in 1971. There was a bike rack on the enormously wide concrete sidewalk conveniently located adjacent to the door, and I could add my 24" pink girls' Schwinn to the row of tall, slender bikes built for men any time I wanted to. The doors opened just as wide for me as they did for any of the adult researchers or venerable scholars and I went in with no timidity. I think, however, I must have always paused for a moment as I stepped inside. That's how I remember it, anyway.


This sanctuary was a scant two blocks from my home in Greenwich, Connecticut. The huge main room smelled heavily of books and adventure and of new things to learn. The silence of this imposing space was so great that it seemed to have weight. The expanse of low pile carpet and the walls softened by draperies and framed art were a feast for the eye, but it also meant that each footstep was muffled completely as I made my way to the elevator in the center of the space. The silence was a balm to my heart, and I was safe inside these doors.


This elevator was the first one I ever operated independently, and I never risked having this privilege revoked by riding it with no purpose or jumping up and down as it carried me to to the second floor of our public library. I knew that some of my classmates had been relegated to the stairs by engaging in Behavior Unbecoming To A Library Card Holder (BULCH) and I was not going take part in such deeply shameful antics. I was a good little girl. I never dared be anything else.


The entire second floor was dedicated to children, and I was ten years old. In this large room there was quiet, but not silence, and I felt less like an interloper here than on the main level. The stacks were vast and the seating areas were inviting. Tables with chairs for doing homework, soft chairs and sofas for getting lost in a biography or a novel were all perfectly placed and they beckoned for children to be comfortable and to disappear into a world apart. For just a little while, there was peace.


But the beating heart of this haven was the staff of librarians. There was always at least one sitting behind a long Formica topped counter ready to accept the small, green piece of cardstock with your name on it, and then stamp the due date inside the cover of the patrons' selections. If you had no overdue materials, that is. There were generally others working in and around the stacks who were available to answer questions or to lift a finger to their lips and give a gentle "shh" as a reminder of the acceptable noise level. They were as reliable as signs beside the road and were just as well located.


Each encounter with these learned ones was an education. Every question from a child was taken seriously and answered respectfully. From the most simple, “Can you help me find a book?” to “What are the most recent Newberry Award winning titles?” (asked by no child ever) was given equal weight and a thorough response. They were kind and patient.


In addition to any requested information, asking for books on a specific topic led to a well taught lesson on the logistics of the Dewey Decimal System. Asking for a specific book led to an equally well taught lesson on how to use the card catalog. I continue to retain and utilize this knowledge five decades later. Even though the card catalog is now a computer station, the system is the same. I can navigate the library even today with the skills taught to me by a children’s librarian.


If you were a very good child, and we have established that I was, you were allowed access to the Third Floor. (insert a triumphant fanfare here). On the third floor was the audio collection. There were bins and bins of long playing albums lined up on tables too tall for me to reach. I was given a step stool by the third floor librarian as well as the freedom to look, choose, and then listen at the specially designed seating with built in turntables and headphones. Alas, my welcome on the third floor was short lived.


One day, I discovered a record with a picture of a choir of boys all dressed in sailor suits on the cover. They were the Vienna Boys Choir, a well respected musical group famous for over five hundred years. This album was a recording of them singing American folk songs, many of which I knew by heart. I eagerly selected it and carried it to a listening station and began to listen. It was pure bliss. The harmonies, the soaring soprano notes that are unique to young male voices, the rich orchestral arrangements filled my head in realistic, stereophonic sound.


My reverie was interrupted by the librarian of The Third Floor. "Shhhhh! You can't sing in the library!" I was startled. I wasn't singing. The Vienna Boys Choir was singing. However, I nodded obediently and my private concert continued. A very short time later the authorities returned with another warning about singing in the library. Was I singing? I didn't think I was singing. Maybe I was singing. Is it possible to sing unaware? Giving myself a stern talking to about unconscious singing, I resumed listening. Sure enough, the librarian returned. He was laughing, as were the few other patrons of the Third Floor. I was invited to check out the album, a privilege usually reserved for adults only, and listen to it at home. I never got to go back to the third floor again.


In spite of being banished from The Third Floor, my lifelong love of reading and, therefore, learning was nourished by librarians. These titans of literacy, these quiet champions of the stacks should be praised. Their work goes on well beyond their own time, and by helping one child love to read, they reach generations that are unknowable in number. In the world of the World Wide Web, libraries are still relevant and children's librarians still totally rock.



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