I believe in the power of school libraries to transform lives. I believe that all libraries play an important role in society, but school libraries are special.
To support my belief I could point to numerous studies showing that having a well-stocked, professionally staffed, flexibly scheduled school library is the best predictor of student performance regardless of the school population’s socioeconomic background. Yet, while these are compelling findings, they pale next to the anecdotal evidence I have gathered during thirty-three years working in public school libraries with captive audiences of young minds.
I’d rather talk about Ryan.
I’m fond of telling my students that although they believe they don’t like to read that it’s just that they have yet to find the right book or author, the one that will speak to them. I urge them to keep trying all sorts of different books until one day when they are reading, the words will leap off the page and smack them up the side of the head. Then they’ll say, “How did that author know me, how did he or she know exactly how I feel?”
Ryan never read a whole book. He fudged his way through book reports and assignments and was often sitting on the office bench too wiggly, noisy, or defiant to stay in class. When he came to the library, I tried to entice him with a wide variety of books to no avail.
Then one day, Ryan, waving a book I’d given him, came running into the library shrieking, “This is the one! This is the book! I never knew there were books like this!”
My heart skipped a beat. We discussed the book a bit. He wanted more books by the same author. Sadly, we had none, but I assured him I would order some right away. Funding, as always, was scant, but I found a few dollars and ordered two books. When they arrived, I looked for Ryan. Discouragingly, I found he had moved.
I only hesitated a moment before getting his new, out-of-state address and packaging and mailing those books to him. Ryan needed them more than the library did. My enclosed note encouraged him to enjoy those books and to pursue reading as if his life depended upon it.
Although I never heard from him, I didn’t expect to, I have told his story often to new students. Some sidle up to me later and confide, “I’m one of those students who doesn’t like to read. Do you think you can find a book I might like?”
I add books to the school library much like a gardener plants seeds. Perhaps the book lays dormant on a shelf for a while. But one day a student serendipitously discovers it, and the potential for a life changing moment springs up like a seedling.
School libraries have the power to transform lives.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.