The first time I encountered Ms. Johnson, our school librarian, I was genuinely frightened. She looked the part of “Keeper of the Books” and she lived the part as well. She dressed very conservatively and always wore her hair the same way. I’ll always remember the long dresses she wore, and her gray hair, which she always pulled tightly into a ball at the back of her head. She was “sternness personified.” She could with a look put second graders, the group to which I belonged, in their place.
It was Ms. Johnson who introduced me to world of books and the power of narrative to hold and keep attention. She could read Grimm’s Fairy Tales like no other. She read poetry in way that rattled you and made you instantly want to be a poet. Her reading of “The Princess and the Tin Box” has stayed with me all these years, and even now, when I read a particularly engaging narrative, I remember her.
She truly did take the job of “Keeper of the Books” seriously. On my first official visit I still remember her meticulously reviewing the proper ways to read and treat a book. I remember how she carefully showed us how to read a new book that had never been open so as to keep from damaging its spine. I also remember her strong admonition to avoid cleaning your nose with a finger. She reminded us that such actions were not sanitary, especially if you intended on handling one of the library books afterward. She constantly reprimanded students whose fingers strayed to the nose area. Once I made the mistake of scratching my nose. All it took was a stern stare from Ms. Johnson to remind me that even that was not allowed.
For all of what would be considered her harsh ways today, Ms. Johnson was probably the first lover of reading and books I encountered. She was stern, and expected students to treat both books and the library with respect bordering on reverence. Yet, the delight she took in introducing children to books and reading was evident in how she both read stories to us, and how she would walk around with students making recommendations on what they should read. Once, I wandered out of the elementary section of books to the more challenging junior high section. I expected an immediate reprimand. Instead, I turned to see what Ms. Johnson was doing. She looked up saw me, smiled, and returned to guiding some other student in a book selection. A few days later, I worked up the nerve to ask if I could check out a book from the “big kids” section as I called it. She had me walk over and show her the book. It was some massive tome of geology, complete with hundreds of color photographs. I was fascinated with the pictures of volcanoes, deserts, and prehistoric animals in the book. She took the book from me, turned it over in her hands a few times before saying, “I guess you’re ready to check this out, but you’re going to have to tell me about it when you finish with it.” From then on, Ms. Johnson allowed me to check out books from anywhere in the library. A year later, she even asked me to help her in the afternoons while I waited for my bus to return for its second load.
While the term library seems to have been replaced in most schools with “media center” and the title of the “Keeper of the Books” is no longer librarian, but media specialist, there is still a power to be found in that place. Perhaps that power no longer resides just in books but also in the technology. The “librarian” of today can introduce students to so much more.
Yet, I can’t help but wonder how Ms. Johnson would have reacted to the placement of computers in her library. Perhaps she would have reacted angrily, and considered such actions a demonstration of sacrilege. Or, who knows. she might have embraced technology and saw it as another opportunity to introduce students to a much wider world than the one they were experiencing. Ms. Johnson had a love for the learning that books could bring, and wanted to share that truth with students. I inherited her love of reading and learning from books. In the 21st century, perhaps she would realize that having technology---the web and all of it’s resources---is just one more way to foster that same love for learning, and her position would transform into some kind of “Keeper of Learning.”