The Welcoming Library had arrived at Cony Middle and High School, and I needed help to put it together.

This Maine project is a traveling collection of books featuring characters from diverse ethnic groups and cultures. It’s a pop-up event. As district librarian for the Augusta schools, I thought this was a great opportunity.

Librarians, publishers and booksellers have been talking about the importance of diverse books for the past several years. It’s said that stories can be both mirrors and windows. Young people need to see themselves on the pages of the books they read; they also need to see how others live.

The Welcoming Library came in two large crates. Besides the books, there’s a display unit. I opened the first crate and saw a collection of wooden legs and dowels, square blocks and flat pieces of plywood. I quickly closed it up. Yikes!

I have no spatial abilities whatsoever.

The next day, I took another peek and decided there must be directions in the second crate. Aha. There was a photograph of what the finished product should look like.

I called over one of our student interns. We are lucky to have, for this quarter, four helpers who receive a half credit for working in the library. He took one look at the box of wooden pieces and said, with all the bravado of a 15-year-old, “Yeah, I got this.”

He asked if his friends could help — by chance, he had four of them in the library at that time. So I just stood back and supervised.

In educational parlance, I was going to be a “guide on the side,” not a “sage on the stage.”

Although I am a teacher as well as a librarian, I don’t often get to present students with a problem that they need to solve on their own. In this case they were going to figure it out as a group, and that was even better. That replicates what happens in modern workplaces, where collaboration is so important.

Our intern took the lead. With the photo on the counter, the boys started to connect the pieces, which either slid through holes or rested in indentations. A previous borrower had used some sticky putty to keep the elements together, but there were only a few small pieces of it. A couple of the students started thinking we weren’t going to assemble the display without glue, but there was no mention of adhesives in the users’ manual. “Let’s not worry about glue,” I said.

Things were put together and things fell apart. One of the boys declared the display defective and looked at me accusingly.

“It’s free,” I said.

At one point, we all believed we had to slide several rectangular pieces of wood with holes in the middle down a set of dowels. It seemed impossible, and one of the rectangles had a split in it to show that previous users had failed. One boy was convinced that we were never going to put this together.

“We can do this,” I said, and studied the photograph. Then I realized this was a two-tiered structure. The rectangles rested on two sets of dowels.

There was a resurgence of enthusiasm. We could do it! As the boys neared completion, though, they realized something was still wrong. Then our intern exclaimed, “It needs to be vertical.”

We stared at him. No way! But he and his friends took the structure and gently flipped it. That did it. We had a display.

Well … the boys had given up on inserting two of four horizontal connectors. I hated to see them take everything apart, but I worried about the integrity of the structure without those pieces. I managed to wedge one in. One of the boys picked up the last connector and looked at it doubtfully. His friend said, “If the librarian can do it, you can do it!” And he did.

I had piled the books on a nearby table, but before I could put them on display, the boys did it for me. One said, “These books are about all kinds of different people.”

A friend replied, “And look at us. We’re all white.”

Oh, my heart. I think it skipped a beat.

“And that’s exactly why the Welcoming Library is here,” I said.

We just happened to be a white subset; we’re not all white at Cony, but we are a reflection of Maine’s status as the “whitest” state in the nation. Now we had a window; a mirror.

We affixed the banner that identified the Welcoming Library. It said “I’m Your Neighbor” in some 10 different languages.

The work was done; or maybe it had just begun.

Liz Soares welcomes email at [email protected].

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