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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 18, Number 5, March 2006

Bringing home the school library sea

by Kalen Marquis

Einstein stated that, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." This celebrated man of science knew that knowledge—whether acquired as facts or applied as skills—is not nearly as significant as what learners do with it. Einstein, who did his most important thinking visually, trusted the expansive and abundant imaginative process that transforms, transcends, and creates anew. He knew the importance of metaphor.

As a teacher-librarian, the picture I would like to paint is the school library as the ocean, the salt chuck, the sea. In its abundance, it is a marvel of sensory wonder, a book and resource collection that yields many timeless treasures. Whether archetypically "deep, dark, and mysterious" or meek, mild, and shallow, it mirrors the values and sensibilities, the wishes, wants, and dreams of each beholder. With each term’s beginning and ending, with every daily and weekly ripple created by staff and student borrowers, a sea of books and resources rises up, depositing carefully selected words and images in classrooms and in staff and student homes. One book at a time, borrowers literally bring home the school library sea.

In waves of fiction and non-fiction, the school library sea ebbs, pulses, crashes, erodes; it deposits and builds, creating and recreating each school’s cultural and educational heritage, the broadest and best of "old" and "new." From republished classics to the increasingly commercial contemporary, each book, poster, CD, and DVD advances and retreats, riding lunar tides of wind and water, before returning home—very often requiring a teacher-librarian’s replacement or repair.

Whether that teacher-librarian is perceived to be a meticulous seaside groundskeeper, a stealthy lifeguard, a knowledgeable ocean-park interpreter, a remote yet luminary lighthouse keeper, or even a much more fanciful, star-struck storyteller, depends upon the needs and priorities, the values and sensibilities of each school community.

Admittedly, after generations of decline that has left teacher-librarians on duty for just over one day a week in the average Canadian school, it is difficult to imagine a teacher-librarian with the time and resources to respond thoughtfully and lovingly to the minds and hearts of learners.

While current generations of students are trained in the narrow, equidistant lanes of highly chlorinated lap pools, complete with coaches, timers, and scoreboards to put them through their competitive paces, there is a growing call from the wisest, most seafaring families and educators: When will our children return to the more treasure-laden folds of the school library sea? Will we, with warm, daily welcomes and some requisite hand-holding, help children from land-loving families to move beyond smooth-bottomed wading pools and the narrow, directed confines of the lap pool? Will our children have the opportunity to seek the majestically shifting plains of sand and sea where they can venture out, swimming widely, deeply, and joyfully in every direction in the school library sea?

Setting sail in ships marked "Coalition for School Libraries" those bold seafarers know that the tide has been out for several decades and they must navigate in deep, dark, increasingly distant waters with the competing allure of a landlubber’s paradise. Their mission, on a nationwide scale, is to bring back the school library sea.

While teacher-librarians might be lured onto makeshift wharves to await these docking ships, their time is precious. As groundskeepers on litter patrol, lifeguards doing first aid, and interpreters preparing self-guided tours, their time is fragmented. They are distracted from their role as lighthouse keepers who salvage handfuls of fine books from across Canada and around the world—souvenirs of the Renaissance in children’s literature that no longer reaches school library shores.

As star-struck storytellers, they are often unavailable—too harried or hardened from hoping against hope that this year will mark the lowest ebb.

Like those on ships marked "Coalition," they are witness to a generation of seaside learners set loose with modern metal detectors to find treasures of a tinny kind, or lined up for a turn on high-powered hovercraft that skim across barren shores to reach a more distant worldwide sea. These exciting vessels do not come equipped with form-fitting life jackets, all-weather navigation equipment, or the depth sounder of a human mind and heart. They do not, as indeed they cannot, recognize the wisdom in Omar Bradley’s saying, "We need to learn to set our course by the stars, not by the light of each passing ship."

While study after study shows the importance of an abundant library sea with innovative, flexibly scheduled programs provided by an accessible and enthusiastic old salt, few decision-makers champion them. Knowledge, as Einstein knew, is not enough. Imagination—a starry-eyed picture and a lifelong educational vision—is desperately required.

Kalen Marquis is a fanciful, star-struck storyteller at Kanaka Creek Elementary School, Maple Ridge, and editor of Mr. Marquis’ Museletter, kwilville@shaw.ca.



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