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Whales vs. Hamsters


Today was my first day volunteering at the Chesapeake Public Charter School Media Center (aka the library). The media teacher is in dire need of shelving, barcoding, and labeling help, which is a great opportunity for me to stave off boredom and do some good for a kick-butt school. I’m used to working with “big kids” at college libraries, and didn’t quite know what to expect from a school media center.


Needless to say, my librarian-heart nearly exploded at the sight of eager third graders anxiously searching the shelves for the perfect read. I was lucky enough to be the one who checked these books out to the students, and while it was easily the highlight of my day, there was one emotionally taxing moment. As third graders, these students are allowed to check out 3 books at a time. One poor boy had two books ready to check-out, but unfortunately already had 2 at home, leaving him with the arduous task of picking just one more library book to take with him. The look on his face was both hilarious and heart-breaking. Before him lay the choice: a book about whales vs. a book about hamsters. In a fist-flipper fight, a whale would beat a hamster every time, but to an 8-year-old boy picking out a book during library hour, whales vs. hamsters is an epic battle. As in nature, the hamster had to admit defeat (not to worry–the whale book is on hold for him).

I share this story because it made my day. I can’t remember the last time I saw a student check-out a library book for the simple pleasure of reading. This whale book wasn’t assigned reading. This student wasn’t going to have to write a report on it or review it the next day in class. He just liked whales, plain and simple.

I wonder sometimes if academic libraries do college students a disservice by not offering more opportunities for students to read for pleasure. Sure most college libraries have a small “browsing” section where readers can find the latest Janet Evanovich or that memoir on the New York Times Bestseller list, but what do academic librarians do to promote reading as a pass-time? It seems as though somewhere along the way the idea of academic librarians promoting reading became passé. We promote research and scholarly dialogue. We are knowledgeable about the latest emerging technologies and electronic publishing models. We’re digital information specialists and research coaches.

But we’re also librarians, and I’ll hazard to make the assumption that the vast majority of us were very similar to that 3rd grader at some point–hungry for more books than we could handle. I became a librarian partly because I wanted to help people, but I mostly became a librarian because I loved libraries BECAUSE they housed books. (The sight of a worn copy of Beverly Cleary’s Ramona and Her Mother in the school library made my heart skip a beat today.) For the past 2.5 years that I’ve been an academic librarian I’ve been wary of the librarian-book connection–I’m a research expert!–but now I just want to embrace it again.

I know that many academic libraries are once again embracing book clubs and universities across the country have started common reading programs for incoming freshman, but all this comes in the face of some libraries doing away with books all together. My hope is that in addition to supporting the research missions of their institutions, college and university librarians can help revive the pleasure of reading. Being functional and useful to faculty and students is vital to the survival of a university library during this economic tumult, but it doesn’t make people LOVE libraries. Although you might be grateful, you don’t feel an emotional connection to the place that gave you the latest Cognitive Science article online. You remember the place that introduced you to The Babysitters Club and The Lord of The Rings or the place where you found your first books about whales and hamsters.


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