By Diana Matthews
How to build a birdfeeder. How to train a puppy. SAT prep. The life of Millie-Christine McKoy. Hotels in New York City. True crime. Self-help. Low-carbohydrate cooking. War. Peace. Yoga.
It’s all at the library. And that’s just in the non-fiction stacks, not to mention the mystery, love, adventure and drama to be found on the shelves marked “F.”
April 8-14 is National Library Week, so here is a shout-out to the people in our school and public libraries who toil to make the world a better-informed, better-read place.
Kay Houser, Southeastern Community College’s librarian, told me, “A colleague of mine used to say he felt like Sherlock Holmes” when tracking down information for a library user. Finding answers to questions and problems is a big part of a college librarian’s job.
A few weeks ago, Houser put on her metaphorical detective hat to help me find the answer to a question. This was for a freelance project, and it wasn’t that I couldn’t find that information online; there are almost too many listings out there on the web. I appreciated the personal and intelligent filtering Houser applied to target my search. She thought of questions I needed to ask and saved me some running around in circles.
“I know people find a lot of things online now, Google and all that,” she said, “but a professional librarian can still answer questions.” She knew what references would lead to what sources, which would eventually lead me to the needed piece of information.
Another time, said Houser, her detective work went in reverse, from answer to question. She came into possession of a large number of educational video materials related to firefighting. When she couldn’t find anyone local who wanted the items, she repurposed them by sending the whole collection to a firefighting museum, the Hall of Flame, in Phoenix, Az.
Sometimes digging for an answer “takes just a few minutes,” Houser said. Other times “it becomes a long project.” Knowing that she had saved the materials from being trashed “made me feel happy,” she said.
Library assistant Syrita Mills described Houser by saying, “She really has a gift for (fact-finding). She’s a problem-solver.”
The public library
Last week I needed information that only a specialist in children’s books could supply. Assistant children’s librarian Leanne Boren scoured the electronic catalog and the shelves to find my answer at the main branch of the Columbus County Library.
Like Houser at SCC, Boren got absorbed in my pursuit and thought up several avenues I had not even thought about trying. I left with a plan and with several fun books to read as well.
Morris Pridgen Jr., Boren’s boss at the main library, grew up in a family of teachers who cherished books and reading. Although he greatly admired his primary school librarian, “Miss Sudie” Williamson, he never considered becoming a librarian until after he had graduated from N.C. Central University with a bachelor’s degree in history.
“I wanted to be a lawyer,” he said. But it was not the courtroom that attracted Pridgen so much as the legal research. While getting a master’s degree in public administration, he said, “I was working in the university library to earn part of my tuition, and I realized, This is where I need to be.” Seeing academics of all specialties come in and use the library to do a wide range of jobs made Pridgen realize that a librarian’s job could be much more varied than he had previously thought.
Pridgen is proud of the county library staff. “They are passionate about the collection and always looking for books to add variety to it and fill in the gaps.”
The large university library where Pridgen trained, he said, had books that seldom left the premises. “I remember checking someone out and seeing that the book in my hand hadn’t been checked out since I had been born.” That’s not the way it is here. The county libraries have to shop for the books that will get the most use and have the most impact, whether for the children’s room, the young adult shelves, the large print collection or any other area.
The world of reading has changed dramatically since Dianne Milliken, reference librarian at the main branch, began her work there 31 years ago. But, Pridgen said, even if the materials change and the technologies change, libraries remain relevant. “The profession is not dying. It’s evolving, but it’s still important.
“It’s easy to take libraries for granted, but it would be a scary world without them.”
In November and December I researched a series of stories about high-achieving public schools. While visiting Guideway Elementary School, I got to see Julie Sellers supervising a group of second graders in the library. The students were in the library for about 45 minutes. During that time Sellers taught a lesson on internet safety, read them a book, pointed out some of the book’s key words that were part of their current spelling and reading lists, then allowed the children to choose books to take home. I was impressed with what a rich experience the students got in their short time with Sellers. She was as good at moving a lesson along and managing rambunctious little people’s behavior as she was at stamping due dates into books.
I was told that Sellers rotates back and forth between Guideway and Nakina Middle School; so she has to be knowledgeable about the needs of preschoolers and also about the needs of eighth graders. She made a tough job look fun and easy, which probably meant that she had prepared exhaustively for this encounter among the many she had with different age groups that week.
I remember two librarians from my elementary school days. One was helpful and kind. She didn’t mind that I was on a mission to read every biography in the library and cared nothing for fiction in fifth grade.
The other was scary and that’s all I have to say about her.
Our fun high school librarian coached the quiz bowl team.
A school librarian’s job includes scheduling, budgeting and meeting the diverse needs of a student population that includes exceptional children, children from non-English-speaking families and Advanced Placement students doing college-level work.
If you want to make a librarian’s day, go to the library and ask a thoughtful question that allows him or her to put on their thinking cap. “We may not always know the answer,” said Houser, “but we know where to go find it.”
While you’re there, check out a good book. Return it on time. Say thank you for the job they do and how they have helped you. Flowers or candy would probably not hurt, either.