2017 was a big year for me. I left my job at Indian Springs School, where I served as the Head Librarian for 6 years. During that time I updated the average age of library materials from 1977 to 1991 and added many sections that students needed, such as:
- foreign language section with languages taught at the school and materials for boarding students from many countries;
- a test prep section that recycled AP, SAT and ACT test prep books from the previous year’s students for the current year;
- a broad and deep DVD section with popular, foreign, classic, animated, and educational media for multiple uses
- an extensive collection of 20th and 21st century Poetry for the use of our English and Creative Writing classes and awesome Poetry Out Loud team
- A Zines collection with a range of subject matter appropriate for young adults, mainly from Pioneers Press and Microcosm Press.
- circulating ereaders and Chromebooks
I updated the history and social sciences collections (900s and 300s) and I also updated the collection socially. Begun as a school for white Christian boys in the 1950s, the collection reflected values that were no longer relevant to the student body. I diversified the collection in all subject areas considerably.
Some of the programs I managed at the library and collaborated with my colleagues on are now featured at my new website, jessicassmith.myportfolio.com
After leaving Springs, I wanted to do more extensive work for social justice in a still highly segregated South. Based on my positive experiences volunteering with the DISCO Writers Corps, where I taught poetry in an urban middle school, I took a job at “failing” public elementary school. Here, I was charged with teaching 800 students in 32 classes during the week. I planned classes based on Core standards and current literacy levels, and since I saw some of the classes twice a week, I offered a book arts elective to those that I saw twice. At the same time, I started an MFA program in Creative Writing and began working at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), in both the English Department (teaching Composition) and Writing Center (tutoring). I decided to take on all these responsibilities because I a) had a lot of energy and wanted to participate in teaching and social justice in many ways while continuing my creative pursuits, and b) wasn’t sure what the best way forward would be.
After a couple of months, I felt more comfortable at UAB than at West End, so I quit the elementary librarian job in favor of the higher education job. I have always felt more drawn to teenagers and young adults than to small children, and UAB’s dedication to diversity and equal access to education fit my desire to contribute to desegregating the South and creating safe educational spaces for all students.
In October 2017, I added another position, a part-time Teen Librarian Clerkship at Vestavia Hills Public Library. Here I have undergone a lot of training specific to public libraries, a library type in which I had not previously worked. I have also planned book arts and poetry programs based on my previous experience at Indian Springs and West End. At this point, I am still working this part-time job, teaching at UAB, and tutoring at UAB, as well as pursuing my MFA.
In August, I will be retooling to begin a job in public k-5 education. I have been working in private 8-12 education. Both schools are in Alabama, but one is highly privileged, mostly white, suburban, and college prep, while the other is set in an urban location that is socioeconomically less advantaged, entirely African-American, and its students are behind in reading. It will be a big shift, but I’m looking forward to it. Because public education is unionized, I will be paid better and receive better benefits. The library is clearly important to my new school, where it was chronically undervalued at my old school, despite the massive overhaul of materials we achieved over the past 6 years. My new colleagues and boss seem happy with their work environment, organized, and determined. When I interviewed, I didn’t get a chance to see the library, and I feared that it wouldn’t be as nice as the beautiful building I attended at my last school, but when I saw it for the first time I was breathless: The main room would make any public children’s section envious, and there is a reading room called the “Tower of Dreams” with colored windows, a 2-story ceiling, and stadium seating. When the sunlight comes through the windows, it has the awesome feeling that a church does. As with my old library, the library is in the center of the school– the “Tower of Dreams” is the architectural middle of the school.
Special thanks to my former intern, Beth Dobson (MLIS UA), who spent a weekend of her life prepping me for elementary librarianship, and to my references for helping me land this great new opportunity.
One of the most fun weeks of my Experimental Literature syllabus is the week after we read Shaun Tan’s The Arrival and discuss asemic language and the communicatory power of cultural rituals. In groups or individually, students are charged with mimicking or creating a ritual. The performance of the ritual must be significant, they must explain the significance, and they must involve the entire class. We have been through many iterations of the Eucharist, multiple countries’ tea and coffee ceremonies, makeup and nail-painting, etc. It’s always weird, insightful, surprising, educational, and fun.
I guest blogged at “Letters to a Young Librarian“! Thanks to Jessica Olin for the opportunity.