How your school library nurtured your inner geek

October 27, 2008

According to an article in today’s Vancouver Sun, it was National School Library Day here in Canada. To mark the occasion and encourage literacy, librarians were encouraging everyone (students and adults alike) to take part in DEAR – Drop Everything And Read – at 11am for 20 minutes. Great idea! I didn’t see any advance promotion for this event (then again, I’m not a parent yet and I don’t work in a school), but they should certainly see if they can build on it.

I can’t say enough about how important the school libraries in my past have been in my development, not only as an SF fan, but as an enthusiastic reader in general. With little in the way of funding or staffing, the librarians at my old schools managed to stock their shelves with a wide variety of fiction and non-fiction, prose and poetry for students with just about any interest to stoke their imaginations if they would only just crack open that first book and read for a few minutes. And the best librarians didn’t judge you if you wanted to read about spaceships or dragons or ghosts – they didn’t try to steer you towards sports or crafts or non-genre young adult fiction if that wasn’t what you leaned towards – they just cared that you were reading and that something was clicking with you. The very best school librarians were the ones who knew a little something about your favourite genre and could recommend something new to keep you interested.

(Speaking of recommendations here, I’ve got to give a plug to a great thread SF Signal ran last year called “The Harry Potter Outreach Program” calling on readers of that site to recommend SF books for kids who liked Rowling’s works, stuff that would keep them interested and keep them reading. The thread garnered a lot of attention from readers and generated a huge list of recommendations – a very useful reasource for any librarians or teachers out there looking to encourage their kids to keep reading good fiction and keep imagining.)

The thing about a school library is that it doesn’t have to have every book or all of the best books in a genre – it only has to have enough books in that category so that kids can get a sampling, find at least one book or author that they like, and understand that there’s more out there to explore if they want to keep going – that the school library is just the first paving stone in a whole city of possibilities.

I owe a lot to those old elementary school libraries that showed me there was so much more than Scholastic photo-illustrated movie-tie-in books or Disney merchandise (not that I minded those), and to the librarians who kept asking, “Okay, now that you’ve finished that one, what else do you want to read?”

I’d like to thank old Mrs. Hube, who got me hooked on the notion of just wandering around a library and picking up whatever interested me. Her library was crammed into a portable building out back of Dickie Settlement School – the little country elementary school I went to in North Dumphries in Ontario (the oldest school in Waterloo County – and subject to some of the old jokes about its name). Whether it was “The Green Ghost” or books about dinosaurs, this was where it really started for me as a little guy.

Then there was the larger library in the larger school down the road, C. Cornwell School, where we were all sent for Grade 4 and up. The librarian (I can’t remember her name) was a crusty old bat who treated the students who read her books like some kind of painful extra appendage that she didn’t want but had to live with. But the books – oh, the books! Stacks and stacks of them, and a huge section of old SF dating back to the 50’s and maybe even earlier. Books that, sadly, I can’t remember the title of, but with tales featuring plucky boy adventurers jetting off into space to foil the plans of evil aliens living inside the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos (actually hollowed-asteroid space ships, don’t ya know), or boarding huge mushroom-shaped anti-gravity-powered ships to journey across a hostile solar system to (again) foil the plans of malevolent aliens (this time the spider-like residents of Pluto). I went through the entire SF stack there in the 2 years I was at that school before we moved West.

Then I was a student at Southpark (in Tsawwassen, BC – not Colorado) for the last 2 years of elementary school. The librarian was Mrs. Sheila Mackenzie – a wild-eyed, fiery-haired lady who came off as a bit of an eccentric, but had a real passion for books and helping kids find the books that they wanted to read (she also had a passion for hockey – anchoring the teachers’ team as their goalie in the teachers vs students ball hockey match – and kept the net closed pretty well, owing to the fact that she was the youngest of 6 or 8 kids and the older ones – brothers all – didn’t pull any punches when the family hit the ice). It was here that I read “The Black Cauldron” and the other books of its series, “A Wrinkle in Time”, and, most importantly, “The Hobbit”.

As a grownup, I’ve left the library system behind. Sadly, the public libraries around here don’t have much of a selection of good SF, so I’ve amassed my own, buying new and used to the point where the shelves are groaning. But it’s important to remember where you come from, and I don’t think my story is unique among geeks. I can say the school libraries of my youth were where my love of SF was truly nurtured into the roots of what it has become now.

How about you? Did your school library(ies) play a role in your development as an SF fan and reader?

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