A couple of days ago I was having a conversation with a friend about my boss and why I admire her, and I said something about "She reminds me of why I am a librarian and am passionate about libraries." He asked me exactly why I am a librarian and as I thought of my answer, I decided that perhaps a blog post could come of that.
Monday, September 14, 2009
So.... why am I a librarian?
Well, when I was a little girl, the library was always a haven for me. It's no secret that I come from a pretty screwed up family. Things at home were usually pretty crap. So when we used to go to the library of a night time. I think it was Tuesday nights the library was open late in Rosewood. We'd go in our pj's and I had that whole building full of books at my fingertips, I was happy.
My school teacher-librarian when I was little was a lovely lady named Miss Stubbs. I thought she was amazing. She was pretty and had long straight blonde hair, and read books to kids at her job. She had a soft, clear voice and a sweet smile. And she was always really gentle and nice to me.
I remember her encouraging me to choose anything I wanted from the library to read. Even when I sometimes chose a book that was too young for me, or that I'd read time and time again, she never suggested I should choose something else. Sometimes she asked me what I liked about that particular book, and would offer something else that I might like for the same reasons. She was usually right.
When I returned books, she would ask me what I thought about it. She never judged me if I didn't like something that she had recommended, or if I liked it for silly reasons, like it was funny or it had rude characters in it. I loved Roald Dahl's books for the naughtiness of some of his characters. There was a Robyn Klein book called Penny Pollard's Diary that looked like an exercise book and like it had bandaids and polaroids and stuff all stuck in it. It looked all dirty and Penny Pollard was a bit of a naughty girl. Miss Stubbs thought it was totally OK that I loved that book, even though my mother thought it was stupid.
Once there was a competition in the library to name the mascot for the reading programme. It was a little pink water dragon, kind of like the Loch Ness monster with humps up out of the water. I nominated the name "Serendipity" and won the competition. I got three books, one of which was a Pippi Longstocking book by Astrid Lindgren, and one of Enid Blyton's Naughtiest Girl in School books. One day I will get that little dragon tattooed on me, along with the word Serendipity.
Miss Stubbs used to let me look in the box of new books first when they arrived, because I'd read pretty much everything in the library. I always remember it being like Christmas when those boxes would appear, it wasn't very often from memory, but there were always new friends in that box for me.
Whenever things were really bad at home, there was always a book to escape into. I could hide in my wardrobe with a torch and read whatever library books I had. Sometimes I would find a corner down in our yard, far away from the house, where I could read or just daydream my own stories. There was a jacaranda tree I would climb up and read in too. When I was a little older, I would get on my bike and ride across town to my school and I would go to the library. If it was closed, I would sit on the sort of verandah outside in the shade and read there. It was always so peaceful and calm there, compared to at home.
A few years ago, I was standing in line at a Michael Palin booksigning, when I thought I recognised the lady in front of me. I couldn't quite place where, but she turned and said to me "Excuse me, is your name Kathleen?" The minute she spoke, I recognised that soft, clear voice. It was Miss Stubbs. I was thrilled to tell her that I was now a librarian, and almost totally because of her. I found that she was still a children's librarian in the area where I grew up, and still passionate about her job. I'm not quite sure she knows how much she meant to me, either then or now.
After Miss Stubbs left our school, I was a little older, and the new teacher-librarian came along. Her name was Miss Browning. She was really cool. She was more extroverted than Miss Stubbs, and had a fat red cattle dog called Bear that used to sleep around the library. Miss Browning let me help out at the library a lot. Especially when there were bullies around. I would shelve for her, or get things ready for her classes. She was always so funny, and I remember laughing with her while we talked. She taught me to cover and mend books, as well as how to catalogue. I already knew Dewey really well when I got to High School because of her. She gave me a t-shirt with sunglasses on it once, and I wore that thing to rags.
I often wonder what happened to her.
Once I got to High School, the librarian was Mrs Scott. Or Ms Whittaker. Or was that the other way around? Mrs Whittaker/Ms Scott. I remember she changed her name while we were there, because she got divorced. At first she really scared me, because while she was only a little lady and I was already my adult height, she had this ENORMOUS voice. She shouted at the boys a lot. Miss Stubbs and Miss Browning never shouted.
But one night I went to the library after school (again, they opened it one night per week to the public) and I asked her timidly if there were any books like the one I had read, The Root Cellar by Janet Lunn. You see I really loved the American Civil War setting, and wanted to read more about it. She gave me The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane. We were firm friends from that day on.
She too would let me help in the library during lunch time and after school, mostly to keep away from the bullies and avoid going home. Later the school built a fantastic new library, state-of-the-art with one of the first fully automated barcoding systems in Australia. She bought badges for me and two other girls that said "Library Monitor". Nobody had them before that. She taught us how to use the barcoding system, which had a pen shaped barcode reader. She taught me more about cataloguing and processing books. I could cover hardcover books with the thick plastic covering like a pro. I still can do it, beautifully neat and perfect.
And she encouraged me to read anything I could get my hands on. She had travelled a lot, and she told me about places she had been and things she had done, and gave me books to read about those places. Once she went on a big world trip and we had a substitute teacher-librarian. She sent me three postcards while she was away, to my house. I felt so special that she sent them to my house, not to the school like the ones she sent to the teacher's aide that worked in the library, Mrs D. One was of the Sphinx in Egypt, another was the Oracle at Delphi and the last was the Colosseum in Rome. I still have them nearly 25 years later.
She put up with me all those hormonal years when I fell in love with so many Senior boys. She would understand on the days I didn't turn up when I said I would, because I was behind the Home Ec building with Senior boys. She liked my friend Peter from Senior, who was called Fraggle because of his Robert Smith style hair. She sent me a card years later when he died of a heroin overdose, because he couldn't face reality in life, being gay in a small town. She also tolerated my very camp friend Marcus, who wore pants so tight that he split them in the arse squatting down to give CPR to a dummy. Marcus who also didn't know he was gay, but experimented with me behind the Home Ec block to find out if he liked girls.
She left when I went into Senior at high school and we had two teacher-librarians then, because they needed two to be as good as her. A man and a lady, who were nice, and let me stay a library monitor, but they didn't talk to me about books or places around the world like Ms Scott/Whittaker did. They didn't show me how to do new things in the library. They just wanted me to shelve and tidy up.
They let more people be library monitors, and some of them were boys. One of those boys was my boyfriend for a while, I can't remember his name but he had blonde hair and a cute bum and liked to talk about books. He could also programme games into an Amstrad 464 computer, which we had. He would sit on the tennis courts of the school with me when things were shitty at home, and I would bolt to be out of the house. When we moved to another house to be away from my father, he came to visit me one Saturday morning, the first person who came to visit me at my house for a lot of years.
The library wasn't the same after Ms Scott/Whittaker left. Then I was forced to change schools in Year 12 and went to Beaudesert, and the school librarian there was a dragon lady, who just screamed at the kids and made the library horrible. But I never forgot Miss Stubbs, Miss Browning, and Ms Scott/Whittaker.
Because of them, I'm a librarian. Because they showed me that no matter how screwed up my family and home was, I could always read and learn and dream about more. They told me that girls could put their mind to anything, and books were the doorway to that, even if the books were fluffy or silly. They taught me that reading would always elevate me out of whatever pit I was in, be it depression, a violent home, being broke or lonely. They taught me that so long as I could read, life could be better, that it would be better. If people in books could sort it out, I could. Sometimes that lesson was all that got me through parts of my life.
I would love to be that person for someone. If my being a librarian contributes to one person raising themselves out of the shit in life to be something better than they thought they could be, or others thought they could be, then I've given something back to Miss Stubbs, Miss Browning, Ms Scott/Whittaker.
Three ladies that saved my life.