When I worked in Lubuto’s D.C. office, I spent a fair amount of time captioning photos that other people had taken in the libraries. Looking through those pictures was always fun– seeing the big smiles, the crowds of children watching or participating in drama performances, and the teen artists bent over their masterpieces. But the most common caption that I used was some permutation of the phrase “reading together.” “A group of young girls read together,” “Volunteers and children read together,” “Reading together during community outreach,” etc. You get the idea.
The frequency of those images caught my attention, because in my own life, going to the library had never been a very social experience. Even as a child, I would dart away from my family the second we got through the doors, find the most private corner I could, and disappear into a book. My childhood reading life was mostly solitary, and my books were like my own private universes. I don’t remember ever going to the library with a friend.
Reading in Lubuto Libraries, on the other hand, is an intensely social experience. It’s rare that I’ve seen a solitary child come into the library. Usually they come in five or six at a time, lining up behind each other to write their names (or draw a picture, if they can’t write yet) on the sign-in sheet, and then cluster together on a bench or in the talking circle. The other day I watched a group of three young boys come into the library– the youngest was probably five, and the oldest might have been nine. They ran to the shelves and grabbed books with the energy and abandon that little boys have, and when they sat down in the talking circle I surreptitiously came over and sat near them. The youngest didn’t seem to be able to read much yet, but his enthusiasm was unmatched by any of the older, more literate children in the library– he turned the pages quickly, stopping to point or gasp or exclaim to his friends, and would occasionally be so overcome that he would literally shove the book on top of whatever his friends were reading, drawing their attention to the images on the page. (It was a book about early humans, so the images were pretty exciting– think neanderthals being attacked by saber-toothed tigers.) Then the other two boys would patiently set their own books aside and admire the pictures with him, until eventually one of the others would appropriate the book and the younger boy would just as eagerly grab whatever his friend had been reading instead. There was no fighting, just a mutual acceptance that a friend’s book must be as exciting as one’s own.
In addition to observing the ways in which the children pick books and utilize the collection, my research has involved monitoring the baskets in the libraries that are supposed to be for children to put used books in so librarians can re-shelve them. My observation has been that these baskets are used less to collect books that kids are finished with than as a “mixing bowl” to exchange reads. I see children pull books out of the baskets just as often as I see them take books from the shelves, it seems, and when I asked some kids about it today they expressed a sentiment I think is universal, saying, “we want to read the books our friends just finished!” I think of the popularity of websites like Goodreads in the United States, and the cumbersome process of “finding” my friends in order to see their “shelves” and read their recommendations so I can share their reading experiences online. I wish my shared reading experiences could happen as spontaneously or as constantly as they do for children in Lubuto Libraries– informally, at rapid-fire speed, either verbally or with as little ceremony as shoving a book into a friend’s lap– because if a friend shoved a book in my lap, I’d definitely read it.
These shared reading experiences are building friendships even as they help children grow into enthusiastic, wide-ranging readers with an appreciation for the opinions and interests of others. They are also building leaders. Recently I walked in on the end of a storytime that had been led by a library staff member. The end of a storytime is always a little bittersweet– the kids often linger there, staring hopefully at the librarian, or picking up new books to push into their hands, “just one more.” This time, though, after the librarian walked away, the oldest girl in the group just picked up a pile of books and sat down among the younger children and began her own storytime. They crawled on top of her and read “Hop on Pop” together in chorus, and the other children in the library laughed and occasionally chimed in on a line or two. And I’m sure I should be able to think of a more creative caption by now, but if I’d had a photo of that moment I would have returned to the simple but amazing sentiment of “an impromptu storytime sees children of all ages reading together.”
Former Lubuto Program Associate Elizabeth Giles is currently in Zambia for the summer, conducting research on the Lubuto Library collections.