I recently attended the Maine Library Association’s conference, which was held at Sunday River. The young man who checked me in said, looking at my reservation, “Oh, you’re here for the library conference.”

I confirmed that I was and he said, “Well, we’ll try to keep it quiet for you.”

Not missing a beat, I replied, “That’s a good idea, because you don’t want to be shushed.”

Of course, libraries are not the dead-silent institutions they once were, but I can’t resist a good shushing joke.

Besides, I am a school librarian, and children sometimes need to be reminded to use their “inside voices.” The finger-to-the-lips “shush” is a stereotype, but I have employed it upon occasion. It doesn’t concern me as much as another misconception about libraries — that they are quiet work environments, perfect for hermit types. Even a little dull at times.

I may be a little dull around the edges after I’ve cataloged 25 books in one sitting, but, invariably, a child will do or say something to wake me right up. Take the time kindergartners were lining up to leave an elementary school library. Suddenly, one of the adults in the room noticed, to put it delicately, a small piece of human waste on the floor.


None of the children looked guilty. Nobody was trying to pretend they didn’t do it, or trying to pin the blame on someone else. Maybe the culprit didn’t even know what had happened.

The custodian was called. As a school custodian who has seen it all, he was relieved to see that this accident was easy to clean up.

Kindergartners love the library, but it takes them about half of the school year to understand it.

“What’s this for?” said one 5-year-old, tugging at the bar code label on the back of a book. It was a “Frozen” story, which ranks right up there with Barbie books as kindergarten girls’ favorites. (Boys are free to check out these books too; I just haven’t seen any do so.)

“That’s what we scan so we know which books you’ve taken out.”

“But why?” She was determined to take that label off.


“It has to stay on.” A book returned without a bar code label is a mini-nightmare for a librarian. The bar code is as essential to a book’s identity as a Social Security number is to an American citizen.

I knew that if I took the book away, she probably would cry. I despise making kindergartners cry. But they can’t tear off bar codes. They can’t toss books around like they’re footballs. And if they don’t return their books, they can’t take a new one out.

I keep telling myself that kindergartners cry at anything. It doesn’t help. I ended up putting a clear bar code label cover over the barc ode label. The label survived until the end of kindergarten library time.

You never know what insights you may gain from young people. I was checking out a couple of books to a fifth-grade student when he made a remark to me. “I’m sorry,” I said, “You’re going to have to try again. It sounded like you were saying, ‘Have you ever survived a flood?'”

“That’s what I said.”

I thought for a moment. “No, I haven’t.”


“I have.”

It turned out that he had survived several floods in his native country. He was, in fact, taking out a book about floods. Something must have triggered his memories of what had happened back then. What could I say?

After telling him he must be very brave, I offered this: “I survived a blizzard.” Yes, I know, pretty lame. I did take a moment to reflect that when our students come from abroad, often from dangerous situations, we don’t know what trauma they might have endured. I can understand how scared they must feel when they don’t know the language.

Which is why I embarrassed myself with my limited Spanish to communicate with a second-grader. “¿Donde están tus libros?” Where are your books (to be returned)? I had no luck with this line. The next week I tried, “¿Los libros — en su casa?” asking her if the books were at home. This netted me the most significant reaction to date — she shook her head vigorously. So, “¿donde?” Where? She looked around the library. Hmm, I thought.

A few minutes later, she came up to the circulation desk with the books. She hadn’t understood that she was supposed to return them to us. We don’t know if she had stored them somewhere in the library, or in her classroom.

I bet you know what I said — “¡Muchas gracias!”

It was just another day in a library, where just about anything can happen.

Liz Soares welcomes e-mail at lsoareswriter@gmail.com.

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