Library for everyone

Sujata Noronha

A library is for everyone. But as able-bodied human beings we often think of everyone to mean more like us. And yet we know that society, our communities, consist of people who are different in many ways and if a library is really for everyone, how do we practice that including and designing for all.

Over the past decade and more of work, at Bookworm, we have attempted inclusive practices in the library. As we look back, the experiences have enriched our understanding of what it means to initiate an inclusive practice, what it may mean to design for inclusion and why it is important. We share some notes from the field here:

Library program in a district hospital

For a number of years, a book shelf stood in the corner of the pediatric ward of the District Hospital in South Goa. Two volunteers visited the hospital every week, reading to the children who had the mindspace to listen amidst their hospitalization and providing them with books to look at whilst in bed. It did not take much, except setting up the book shelf, encouraging and calling for volunteer support and refreshing the collection. Nurses and other hospital staff began to borrow books for their children and a hum of bookish love was only just beginning to gather when the hospital roof caved in and major repair work rendered the library corner dysfunctional. We moved to the Early Intervention Clinic in the new wing and with fresh energy began a weekly library program for outpatient children who were visiting.

Divya Pinto, a young educator who worked on the hospital intervention project writes,

It’s intimidating not knowing what you’re getting yourself into, and that’s exactly how I felt going into this particular library space for the first time. How many children are going to show up? How is this going to work? Can we execute everything we have planned?

I have to confess from that first day till today, every single time we walk into the centre, the questions are the same and how the session progresses is a story in itself. Each session includes components of browsing, book return, story and activity but no two sessions can be the same because we do not know what mood the child/ ren may be in, what will work and what may not. We prepare.

While knowing that each child comes with mannerisms or gaps that hold them back from the crowds, we work with the belief that each child can comprehend, but the ways in which they do vary. Keeping this in mind this is how we approach this particular library program:

1.      We acknowledge the child over the disability- we encourage and motivate them and assist them when needed, we also make them believe in their abilities. Their disability is not the highlight, nor is it the benchmark for their abilities.

2.      We understand them – This was perhaps the hardest one for me to adjust to and it required a huge mindset shift. I come from a teaching background and where I was used to structure- sit up straight and eyes and ears on me. With kids with special needs, I had to understand that they perceive their environment in different ways and they did not have to hold my gaze or look at me to be listening to the story. We have kids lying down and rolling around and still being very responsive to the factual questions asked. I recently had a new kid come in and he stood on his head for half the story and to my surprise he answered the factual questions while on his head. That took some time to digest and also left me thinking – if I had made him sit up straight and look at me would his mind be as focused on the story as he was when on his head?

3.      We use simple language and stick to the routines created from day 1 – The setup of the space as mentioned above is familiar to the children and thus it creates a kind of fluency that helps them be comfortable. The structure of the sessions are all similar allowing them to answer questions like “what do we do now?’ or ‘when can we play?’ by themselves.

Another aspect of how we operate is a term that I like to call the ‘Open-door approach’. If a child peeps in he or she is welcome- no filling up forms, no getting the diagnosis, no waiting in limbo while the parents answer questions. He or she is welcome, no questions asked even if it means they are not going to return. We are glad to have them experience the magic of a story and the joy that comes with it.

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Library in a special school

Sanjay Center for Special Education is a government- run school for children with special needs. The children had no library opportunity. So we began with book boxes for browsing and looking. We were delighted with the response the book boxes created. “Aile”, one of the children would shout, that is ‘arrived’ in Konkani, and many faces would be at the windows summoning us into their rooms.

We strengthened this with story time and book talk sharing, astounded by how much children respond to books and stories and how deeply and also differently they engage with ideas. Our learning continues to be tremendous with these groups of children.

Melcom Braganza who held two groups of story time every week writes,

“Thanks to Bookworm, I got an opportunity to visit this school to assist the Libraries in School (LiS) program team. Honestly, I had no idea about what to expect but when I met the children, the experience itself was beyond expectations. There are a total of two groups in which the LiS program is engaged with. Shruti and Shraddha Groups. I was deeply touched by the Shruti group, which has children who are hearing impaired.

When I met the first group, which was the Shruti Group, the interaction was purely in sign language. Every sign has a meaning. Everything was communicated in sign language. Deepali and the teacher of Sanjay School are working together to bring the joy of stories to them. For a moment I did not realize that I was in a special school. These children are as normal as any regular child who goes to a regular school. Everything that they say was translated using signs. The moment which touched me was when they were doing book-talk. The way these children were doing book-talks was outstanding. I felt that even our regular children would not be able compete with them. Every image, especially the animals, were nicely communicated in sign language. Even when they make sounds with their mouth, they do it in a way so that the sounds resemble the image. This group is super excited and focused in every session. Even the discussions that happen before and after the story, are very interesting to see. They express their responses through signs and sounds and then it is received and converted into meaning by Deepali and the Sanjay School teacher. Even the activities that they do are also outstanding.”

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Library Program in a Home for visually impaired children

The National Association for the Blind (NAB), Goa  has a residential home that cares for children between the ages of 7 – 18 years. It seemed like the right place to take our Braille books and tactile storybooks. However, we soon realized that visual impairment meant just that, an impairment and not the  inability to see. The children pored over the books, identifying details, asking questions and voraciously immersing themselves in stories. We had to work on plans that included senses other than seeing and this challenged us and taught us so much about ourselves and our practice.

Elaine Mendonsa who read aloud A Mountain that Loved a Bird written by Alice McLerran and illustrated by Stephen Aiken,  writes,

“We began the session with a popular game called, Fire on the Mountain, using the noun Mountain as the key link to the story.

We used the holding on to friends in the game to introduce a lonely mountain who falls in love. Sumera guessed it was a bird. Other possibilities were the rain and the trees. We had the setting and Elaine read out the story

This is a long book. A lot of textual imagery to conjure up the story and we decided to not show the pictures. The idea is to use a powerful story like this to allow the children to imagine. To let them allow their experience to play in the mind and then express it on paper. The children at NAB are always open to our ideas. They agreed to give this a try. It is also that a read aloud of this length is possible because the children at this site have very good auditory memory, auditory comprehension is heightened as they have to rely on that sense rather than the visual and we learn every time how to design our sessions based on the children.”

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In our attempt to design library sessions for all, we make efforts to think from non-normative perspectives. This includes height/ size of signage in the library, open spaces in every room, listing out the schedule so that sequence of activities are clear, identifying and setting up quiet spaces balanced with stimulating spaces, making toys and manipulatives available and encouraging differences. Taking time to observe and understand what the child’s strengths are and designing for that. However, most of this is easier to list than to practice with discipline and honour. We have miles to go in our efforts of truly becoming a library for everyone, but we hope to become some day.

The author is an educator and the Founder Director of Bookworm, an organization based in Goa that works with and through libraries.  She can be reached at [email protected]

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