Knowledge and Learning Strategist
The library team recently sat down with our new principal, Ms Marina Ugonotti, to discuss all things library related. One of the concepts that came up was the idea of the library as a piazza or town square. While we often think of libraries as central to the acquisition of knowledge and learning, vital to a healthy democracy, it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that they were genuinely public. Historically, libraries were closed spaces for scholars and the well to do. I think this is why the piazza metaphor resonated with the library team so resoundingly. Rather than a throwback to libraries as gated high-end storage facilities we think of our space as free to all.
When our news channels seem to bring story after story of fragmentation and dissent, public space is more important than ever. It can seem counterintuitive to proclaim as much in an enclosed school community so let me clarify, in our school environment the library is space that simultaneously belongs to no one and everyone. It is a space where students can be free from the demands of the traditional classroom, free from didactic messages about what to read, free from thinking about knowledge acquisition in a definitive ways may be the case in their study of particular disciplines and free from subliminal (and not so subliminal) advertising and ideas about who they should be.
With freedom from comes freedom to. On Tuesday, 85 students stepped into the space of creators as they participated in our annual Write a Book in a Day challenge. The day involves working in small teams with the ultimate aim of writing, editing, illustrating and publishing a story within a tight timeframe. The teams raise money for the Kids Cancer Project and the students’ stories get delivered to children in hospital wards all across Australia. The girls work all through the day, their focus absorbed completely by the singular task at hand. They collaborate with one another on story ideas, incorporating their teams challenge parameters, editing and illustrating. They are free to pursue wild and outlandish plot lines and characters, to make decisions about what to include and what to discard. The thrum in our library on Tuesday was the vital sound of a community of young people coming together to create something wonderful. They brought their talents, their ideas, their artistry and their willingness to pull together in order to publish by the end of the day.
Last week was National Refugee Week, the theme of which for 2019 was Share a Meal, Share a Story. The library worked with the JPIC girls to host a breakfast event where we shared something to eat and stories with two women who are refugees temporarily settled in Australia. As people began to congregate, sharing the news of the day over a croissant and cuppa, I was struck by just how much of a town square atmosphere there was. The barrier to entry is low, there is space for you to simply turn up and be surrounded by your people. But as with any public space there is also room for public discourse. We were challenged by Rosemary and Rebeeha’s experience, the reasons why they left their countries of origin and their hopes and dreams for the future. Their stories asked us to step outside the comfort and familiarity of a safe place to live, to step outside the relative ease with which we can see our family members and to engage with politics on a human and humane level. Through being a place for all we are invited to make new knowledge and understanding.
Another way we bring people together is through the interactive lessons we run in collaboration with departments. These lessons aim to inspire wonder and curiosity as a starting point for the given topic area. We’ve worked with the RE department to immerse Year 10 students into life before and after Vatican II wherein we set up an experiential and immersive walk through the cloisters of the chapel and simultaneously through the passage of time. It is fitting that we have the school’s archivist on our team. She is able to bring the school’s historic collection to life in new and exciting ways, from the nuns’ religious garments on display for Year 11 Textile students to engage with the religious significance of clothes to making available diary entries from our Loreto sisters about life pre and post Vatican II. Undertaking and documenting these learning experiences is simultaneously creating and maintaining the historic record of our societies and our lives. How interesting it will be in 50 years time to look back and consider what the students of Loreto Normanhurst grappled with at this moment in time as well and strengthen the understanding of where we have come from as Loreto women. In the year to date we’ve run 87 of these immersive lessons and have more scheduled for Term 3.
There’s a concept explored in a This American Life podcast that posits contemporary libraries are like the room of requirement from Harry Potter. Aficionados of Harry Potter will recognise the room of requirement as the notion that if you walk past the room three times thinking about what it is you require at that moment in time the room will magically materialise. At the end of a busy term our library is accommodating requests for quiet reading space to browse the shelves and borrow for the holiday break. We’re providing spaces for Year 10 students to meet with their parents and teachers in order to make important decisions about their subject choices and we’re supporting the senior students as they prepare for their trial examinations through serendipitously placing study guides and books in their study mezzanine that have been carefully selected for them. I like to think about our library that way, a dynamic, responsive space whose heart beats in time with our communities needs. Libraries that are ‘rooms of requirement’ focus on the experience of human beings. They consider how people use the space as well as why, they respond to the shifting societal context and look for ways to create public discourse around questions that need solving and they carve out space for learners actively acquiring knowledge.
Next time you’re at school, I invite you to visit our library. You might just find something there to pique your interest– from succulent planting workshops, to literary afternoons teas, author talks and breakfasts. When it feels as though we are increasingly isolated from one another, whether that be politically divided or simply too busy to touch base, town squares can play an important role. They fulfil the human desire for face-to-face connection and remind us that we are not walking the journey alone.
Ms Elizabeth Green
Knowledge and Learning Strategist