India is a land of contrasts. I often find myself straddling the gulf between two vastly different worlds. As a Teacher Librarian at an elite international school, I have the opportunity to work with some of the most privileged, promising children in the country. However, when I volunteer in the slum just a few blocks from my school there are 50 children crammed cheek-by-jowl into a tiny classroom. They sit on the dusty floor to learn in a room with no AC and temperatures sweltering near 100 degrees F. Their entire school “library” fits inside a rickety, locked cupboard in the school vestibule. These children have never owned their own book, do not have access to clean water—let alone a computer—yet just like my more privileged students, their ability read and navigate the world of information will literally make or break their future. And these are the lucky children who get to go to school. As I travel the short distance between these two neighborhoods, I often find myself trying to process this world of dichotomies in an attempt to find my place in it. Which trestle am I in the bridge meant to traverse the information gap?
These were the thoughts swirling in my head as I boarded the plane to attend the ALSC Mini Institute in January of 2017. After an 18 hour flight, I arrived in Atlanta filled with questions and anticipation. There was so much to learn, and so many people to meet—and just one day to make it all happen.
It turns out this was not only possible, but the Mini Institute exceeded my expectations in every way. The learning began with a breakfast panel composed of two husband-and-wife collaborative teams: Laura Dronzek and Kevin Henkes, and Erin and Phil Stead. They fielded questions about everything from how they met, to the routine of a typical work day. From them, I learned that collaborating with others often pushes us to be better. Kevin, who still works with many of the tools he began with in the 1970s, admitted that he doesn’t like to show his work to Laura until it is “just right.” He reads his work out loud because, “When the words are right, you just know it.” Laura described her process and work space as a bit “more messy,” but learning to trust the other’s strengths has been the foundation of several successful picture book collaborations. Erin and Phil sit in the same room as they work. Their open exchange of ideas fosters creativity and confidence. For example, Erin was discouraged by some of her professors at university who described her work as “quiet.” It was Phil who initially encouraged her to forge ahead. Thank goodness she did. Her latest book, Tony, by Ed Galing, came out in February. Erin hopes it will help people realize “what it means to live with kindness in a world that doesn’t always foster kindness.”
After the panel discussion, Institute participants chose from a long and varied list of break-out sessions. We listened and learned from Information Professionals across the country. It was difficult to choose between the exciting offerings. However, no matter which classes I attended, it was invaluable to hear from actual practitioners in the field. From Sarah and Lisa of the Denver Public Library, I learned how to present Early Literacy information to parents. Jonathan, A Florida Librarian, taught me how to promote intergenerational literacy with special programs. MyTesha and Mary of the Houston Public Library System don’t wait for their patrons to come to them. They shared the value of “Pop-Up” Libraries and are reaching out to patrons across cultural and social boundaries. These are all programs and strategies that I can implement with my patrons in India.
At lunch I was equally entertained and awed by author and master storyteller, Carmen Agra Deedy. Her stories of growing up as the daughter of first generation immigrants hit close to home as I reflected about my own experience bringing my family to live and work in India two years ago. Carmen did not mince words about what it was like to grow up “different.” She learned to navigate a new culture and often brokered information for her parents. These life lessons have translated into numerous books, most recently, The Rooster Who Would Not be Quiet.
The closing session with Jacqueline Woodson couldn’t have been timelier. As it was also inauguration day, there wasn’t a person in the audience who wasn’t contemplating what changes a new administration would bring to the future of our country. Woodson spoke about listening, finding common ground, and about building empathy as way to move forward. She reminded us to look to our personal histories for strength. “You’re here because those who came before us survived.” Woodson also admits that writing can help “heal” the wounds of the past. She reminded us that, “One action is not all of who we are.” It was a powerful reminder that listening, reflecting on the past, and forgiving are all ways to help us find ways to common ground and bridge differences.
As I reflect on all the learning that took place at the ALSC Mini Institute, I am surprised to see a common thread running through the rich tapestry. No matter where I live and work in the world, no matter who I meet, no matter how different people appear to be on the surface, we all have the same basic information needs. In a time when the leaders of our world seem content to pit our differences against us, the ALSC Mini Institute reminded me that the struggles faced by librarians all over the world are the same. We are united in our desire for a better future for our customers. I sincerely believe that access to information, skills to use that information, and literacy are the ways to make that happen. Thanks for allowing me to participate in such a powerful event.
Julie Patterson is the Teacher Librarian at the Ascend International School in Mumbai, India. She was one of two recipients of the 2017 Friends of ALSC Mini Institute Scholarship. Learn more about joining the Friends of ALSC.