Any Takers for the Open Library?

At Centre for Learning, we have an open library. Open, available, accessible, friendly, and welcoming to the users. It also means that we have open doors (but watch out for that tricky lock), open shelves (more dust gathers so books get taken out, dusted, and discovered), open access (there's a creaking sound coming from the overloaded book-return rack), and a very open attitude (no book is ever lost — it turns up eventually).

Learning to Value the Facility

The library stays open all the time so that those who wish to read, browse, search for reference material, prepare for projects, borrow and return books, can do so with a sense of leisure and relaxation. However, it is not enough to just throw open the library. It is equally important to actively look at ways in which students and staff realize and value the facility of an open library. As a librarian, I have put down three such possibilities.

Ensure that the collection is vibrant and thoughtful, and use varied methods to disseminate this collection to the users—displays, notices on boards, announcements in assemblies, and reviews can be used.

Respond quickly to needs and queries from students and staff, so that there is a confidence in the availability of resources.

Initiate activities from the library, which reach out and enhance its use.

Besides this, a weekly library period with each group in the school brings about a better understanding and a closer relationship with the library. These sessions are very important as a time for gathering around. We always start by sitting together first, and only then do I begin the activity.

Reaching out to Different Age Groups

With the youngest age group, 5-7 year olds, the focus is on making them familiar with the library, so that they lose their inhibitions, if any, about a place full of books. They begin to feel at ease in an environment where they know that they can touch, handle, smell, and leaf through the pages of any book that catches their attention. But first there is a session of learning, through little games and stories, on how to handle books with care, how not to turn pages, and so on. The children end up with making colourful bookmarks which they begin to use. I have always been amused to see a small child (who does not always practise what he preaches!) point out to a friend the right way to hold a book and turn pages. Part of this caring for books means that they show me their hands to check whether they are clean and dry. They also know that they cannot bring food into the library. The reason is very simple — it attracts mice! Story and poetry reading is an ongoing activity for this group. They also bring in their drawings or clay work for display in the library. They evolve their own system of borrowing — each decorating a large rectangle of KG cardboard, one for the title of the book and one for the date of borrowing. So they are getting ready for the card system which they will function with as they get a little older.

Whenever anything is easily accessible, there may be a danger of it being taken for granted. When the 8-10 year oIds start coming in regularly to the main library, they are first given a formal orientation and tour, sometimes by an older student. The two demands made of them are that they be regular with their reading and responsible about returning books. We made reading prediction bookmarks for a week at a time, and matched them with the unexpected results. We also put up a promise-to-return notice filled in by children specifying a date themselves. Both ideas worked well.

To introduce them to reference books, treasure hunts are a great hit. Initially, the librarian makes one for the children. But soon, they want to challenge the librarian with their own! Games with atlases and dictionaries help them learn what these books contain. Another interesting exercise is to write down a question that really intrigues them. On one occasion, a nine-year old child said, 'I have wondered and wondered about one question for five years. What is there beyond the Universe?' Another wanted to know, 'Why do human beings die?' One child wondered where rain came from. A little girl's question was, 'Why do people get hooked on television?' Together we discovered that the library resources could provide information about some of the questions. The rest of the questions would be with them for a while yet.

For 11 and 12 year olds, as well as the older ones, the freedom to come into the library whenever they have the time, the inclination or the need is something they treasure. Along with this is their close involvement with the care and maintenance of the place. They have all learned the rudiments of accession and classification and participate willingly in the work of stamping, accessing, sticking pockets and writing out book cards. Very often you will see a group in the library repairing books, making attractive book jackets or covering precious books with plastic.

An interesting library project with 8-10 to year olds and with 11 and 12 year olds was to make and write books of their own on topics such as 'A day in the life of...' involving actual observation and interviewing by the children. They learned something about design, layout and the mechanics of book production.

One important activity of the library period is a book talk presented by a child, about a book he has just read. This is followed by questions from the others and a general discussion. After the talk, the book is invariably snapped up by other eager readers. These book talks become sharper critical appreciation as the students get older. We have had such presentations on magazines like Discover, New Scientist, Economist, Resurgence, etc. An activity which engenders a lot of talk and laughter (have this one outdoors!) is a book auction. One group of children extols the virtues of books they had enjoyed to a younger group. They do it in the style of an auctioneer. The other group bids to borrow the books first, using pebbles, leaves, shells, or anything else handy as collateral.

Poetry and play reading are also much enjoyed. Often, a poem or play read in the library has later been dramatized and presented to a wider audience. In one library project, 12 and 13 year olds made a map of the library providing a shelf guide. Another group did a survey of readers' interests and favourite books and authors. They also wrote and illustrated book reviews, which were on display. The latest activity with 11 and 12 year olds has taken off well. This was a suggestion that they each write to their favourite authors. While Ruskin Bond, Shashi Deshpande, and Beverly Cleary were easy to locate, one child's all-time favourite was Tolkien. He compromised by writing to his son! Perhaps I should mention that right from the age of nine, children are closely linked with the selection of books through visits to book fairs and bookstores.

Showing the children films of books read individually is a sure way of inducing speed-reading. The middle level students have enjoyed classics like Watership Down, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and Great Expectations after listening to the original being read out.

Books will always come back!

If no fines are levied for late returns, how does one deal with book hoarders? I talk to individuals and small groups pointing out that an open system like this demands a great sense of responsibility. I am ready to help them understand what this means but not through rules or punishment. So children help each other to remember. The young ones are given badges to wear saying 'An elephant never forgets', or little notes pinned to their clothes with clues to the book they need to bring back. As they grow older, a general reminder in assembly or a notice on the board suffices.

Basically, although the system of checking out books is completely independent of the librarian, I do look through the card boxes from time to time, so that I am aware of the borrowing and reading patterns of the children. When necessary, I can intervene with suggestions, reminders, and so on.

The fear of the loss of books is the biggest hurdle for librarians to cross before they can throw open the library. But if you can be in contact with children, such that they have no fear of reprisal, the loss is not an issue. I have had books missing sometimes for a year or even more! What makes me happy is that the child is able to bring a long lost book back, confident that my response will be a big hug. Last week, an excited 10-year-old rang me up at 9:30 p.m. 'I've found it.. .I've found Just So Stories. It was in my cousin's house'. Just three months overdue! I must also add that no books have been stolen, mutilated, defaced, torn out.. ..all the conventional bad words in a librarian's dictionary!

If you feel that such experiences can happen only in a small school, I cannot agree. I did work in a much larger school library and my approach was not a whit different. All the activities and ideas mentioned here are equally possible in a large school. The important thing is for us to realize that when we trust children and give them the freedom and space they need, they grow in responsibility, and discover the joys of reading.

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