I’ve been thinking a great deal about school libraries lately. My school’s library is being renovated and shifted into a “Learning Commons” or “Learning Hub.” The semantics of the phrasing doesn’t really matter. We need to get beyond that, I think. At its core, it’s still a library. The word “library” shouldn’t be a ‘bad word’ in schools across Ontario, but I’m worried that it is becoming one. Yes, I recognize the need to have technology in the schools, and in terms of research, but I also want to make a case for keeping books on shelves. I’m a writer, after all, and I think of how many countless hours I spent in Marymount’s school library as a teenager, and how reading saved me from depression and offered a very solitary, overweight, smart and creative kid a bit of respite from the too harsh world.
At one point, I wanted to be a Teacher Librarian, but there aren’t many in my board, so I’m sure that’s not in my career ‘cards.’ In any case, as a writer and English teacher, and now as Poet Laureate of the City of Greater Sudbury, I spend a lot more time in my own local library and have learned about all of the things it can offer to me. (Recently, for instance, I gathered up a whole lot of fascinating research about the mining town of Creighton Mine for a novel I’m writing. This town is now gone, flattened to the ground. Deep in the Creighton Mine, though, is the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO), so there’s something still there, even if we can’t see it. The town, though, the little houses and the people and stories that built it, they’re all pale now…and that makes me sad.)
As Poet Laureate, one of my roles is to work in the schools. I chose to take that on as one of my tasks during my time as laureate…to try and introduce secondary school students to poetry in a more dynamic way. I’m also going to be running a professional development session at my board’s next PA Day in late November, where I’ll talk about integrating poetry into the secondary curriculum. (You can use poems in classes other than English ones, so I’m excited to share my ideas with my colleagues at home. Hopefully, some colleagues will sign up!)
As part of my reading with other poet laureates down here in Windsor this past Thursday, at Poetry at the Manor, I spent time visiting St. Joseph’s Catholic Secondary School. It’s a beautiful new building and it’s full of grand people, students and teachers alike. We met in the “Resource Centre,” which is a big open space filled with chairs. It’s attached to a sun-filled atrium. It’s really quite a lovely space in which to read poetry and speak to kids about writing. I loved it. But then I noticed the murals of books on the walls and figured out that it must once have been the library. (Just writing that sentence makes me feel full of doom…)
When, at the end of the reading, I asked the head of the English Department where the books were, she just grimaced. “We don’t have a library anymore.” She told me of how her board had disbanded libraries at elementary and secondary levels. I felt a despair rise up in me because I fear this is becoming more and more common across the province. Whether you teach in the Catholic or public system in this province, I think you know that libraries are at risk of extinction. That sounds rather ominous, doesn’t it, but seeing this empty room at St. Joe’s made me cringe inside. When, I wonder, did boards of education in this province begin to think that increasing technology in the classrooms meant casting off physical books? Was it the rise of e-books? Was it that budgeting became more and more difficult, due to cuts in boards and schools? Was it when technology began to sweep into classrooms? And, does it mean that, just because technology is present in our world, we need to cast off the things that were traditionally rooted?
The teachers at St. Joe’s now have classroom libraries, which is something that Penny Kittle suggests we do in her Book Love. I totally love Penny Kittle, but I also have to speak up for libraries in our schools. Yes, physical books cost money, and more and more each year it seems. Yes, technology is important and we need to educate our kids so that they are twenty-first century learners and citizens of the world. I’m not suggesting it’s one or the other. Why can’t it be a marriage of technology and tradition? Of electronics and paper? You only need to look at the gong show that was the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test (OSSLT) roll-out last week, in its online incarnation, to realize that–sometimes–paper and pen can still work wonders and be more efficient.
Yesterday, I spent a couple of hours at my favourite bookstore in the province, Biblioasis. My friend Bob Stewart is the bookseller there and he knows so much about books. What I love about Biblioasis is that you walk in onto its hardwood floors, its quirky brick walls, and the large armchairs and floor rugs, with sunlight streaming in through the big front window, and you can actually sense yourself calming down. You are surrounded by physical books. New and used, it doesn’t matter. Some of the best things I found at Biblioasis in August were in the used section. The poetry section is stellar. Then I got to thinking about how, in Sudbury, independent bookstores just seem to fail. Chapters has taken over. As a poet, I can’t stand the poetry section at Chapters. You look for a new book of poems by a person whose work you love and you can never find it. There is always, though, the one that is titled “100 Love Poems for Men to Use to Woo Women” or something equally kitschy. Jaysus Murphy, Mary and Joseph. That is not poetry! So, I ordered a whole slew of poetry books and Canadian plays from Bob before I came down here and I’ll heft them home tomorrow on the plane. I under packed my suitcase (which, if you know me, is a pretty amazing feat) so that I could buy a lot of books. I’d rather support a local, independent bookstore–even if it isn’t in my own hometown–than order through Amazon or Chapters.
All this is to say that we need to fight, as readers and writers and teachers of literature, to support small bookstores and teacher librarians in our school systems. If we don’t, the demise of books in our schools, and the ability for kids to learn to love reading will disappear. We need to fight for our libraries in our smallest (and largest) towns. We need to say ‘yes, books do cost money, but knowledge and imagination is crucial to human development.’ We need to be brave enough to raise our voices to protest the gradual and slow extinction of independent bookstores in this country. And, maybe even more important, we need parents to speak up about what they want for their kids in the school system, Catholic and public both. In that, we as educators need to be united. Otherwise, I fear, we’ll be seeing more of these empty ‘resource rooms’ next to grand sunlit atriums.
For me, as an introvert and a smart girl in high school, I remember that the school library and its books offered me an escape. I loved, and still do, the smell of a book’s pages (whether old or new). I love to touch the covers, turn them over, and discover what’s inside. As a person, I believe in looking beyond the superficial surfaces of things, in living with depth. I think books (and art) can do that for us in our homes, lives and societies. The slow extinction of physical books, especially in the school system, causes a shiver to run up my spine. Maybe St. Joe’s is a harbinger of what’s to come…and that, my friends, is a real worry.