Ms. Valentine, do you have a book on the Greek alphabet?
Why, yes. Yes I do.
It’s Camp Read a lot time, and I can hear children at the picnic table, their voices raised to that particular shrillness that usually means an argument is about to boil over. There’s activity over at the fishing pond, too – but I don’t have a line of direct sight to the lines to see if anyone is swinging them…ah, no swinging yet. But I have, I estimate, about forty seconds to help you find a book on the Greek alphabet. After that, who knows what will happen with the fishing lines and the picnic argument.
You walk over to the foreign language collection in the 400s, perhaps the shelf I am prouder of than any other in this collection of 14,000 items. I built it from nothing, almost. We needed materials for our ESL students. I was tired of having nothing to offer frantic teachers who found out a new student was also a new immigrant, and frightened of his teacher who spoke a language he didn’t know. I still never have the right language at the right time, but I’m getting there. Urdu. Hindi. Bengali. Gujarati. Farsi. Somali. Ukrainian. Tamil. Arabic. Korean. This year I added several books on spoken Mandarin and Chinese calligraphy, and several on Portuguese. Bilingual picture dictionaries. Software. Music.
You look up at me finishing with assigning other students their stations, and you say, “Ms. Valentine, I don’t see it.” I walk over, and we look together. You are right. The new book I thought was here, on the history of the alphabet from Proto-Sinaitic signs to Phoenician script to Greek and Roman letters, must be loaned out. (I find it later, inside a tent.) I pick up a book on the Rosetta stone, and flip through it half-hoping to find a relevant illustration. “I see lots of hieroglyphs,” you say a bit sadly. “No Greek.”
I’m running out of time. I see other students approaching me, with drama on their faces. Someone is not sharing a beach towel, and someone is hoarding fish. There is no time for searching the catalog – pulling out an iPad, loading the app, praying the wifi works. Fortunately, I know that if all you really need is the alphabet itself, there is an older book with several world alphabets in giant illustrations that I was just re-classifying. It was originally an art book, but I had a suspicion it would get more use if I took it out of the art section and shelved it with languages, so that friends like you could trace letters from Russian, Gaelic, and Hebrew in perfect form.
I want to know why you are interested in Greek, but there isn’t time to ask. Your classmates need attention, too. Maybe you heard about Greek from a fantasy movie. A video game character making a joke. Maybe you are developing a secret code. Maybe you saw fraternity sweatshirts at the mall. I wish I had time to find out. I hand you the book, open to the Greek pages, and I don’t hear a sound from you for the rest of class.
But for that forty seconds, everything I do behind the scenes clicked into place. This is what I do. This is why I do it. I am a librarian.
The library collection is my creation, built especially for you, from the requests of every person who has ever walked inside my doors, and the repeated choices of children wearing out some titles and passing over others. Every day over the last ten years I have added, subtracted, re-covered, re-located, and re-imagined this creation to make it more useful and appealing to you, more reflective of who we are as a school community. This is your library, that I have sorted and kept ready for you, for the day you would come in and ask for a book on the Greek alphabet.
The magic here isn’t that I could put a book on Greek in your hands without a finding aid. The magic isn’t how fast your information need was met. The magic is that an eight year old child could take a break from learning about partial products and Detroit landmarks and sentence fluency and opacity to pursue a topic of his own interest, which just so happens to be ancient language, thank you very much. The magic is that there is a space for him to pursue this interest, to take his ancient language book into his tent and discuss cryptography with his best friend. The magic is that there is an information-nugget perfectly-suited to his age-level and ability and interest. The magic is what happens when raw materials like tax dollars are converted into the look on the face of this particular child staring at the Greek alphabet. You don’t get from one to the other without people all along the way, putting their heart into their work because they believe in it.
This part of that chain, this collection of 14,000 interesting nuggets, is my work. I’m a librarian. For now, at least. For today. Welcome to your library, the creation I built for you.
About the Author
Jolie Valentine is a school librarian, storyteller, and fashion lover. In California and Michigan, she has worked with students from pre-K to college. She can’t resist a new word or a new friend.