Abigail Kamen Holland ‘81
Reinventing a School Library
A guide to using the Internet that was published in 1997…a book on how to drive, written for a British audience…a spelling primer from the 1920s. What do these books have in common? Not much, except they were all found on the dusty shelves of the library at Park East High School, where I spent last year as an intern as part of my training to become a school librarian.
How I got there is a story of luck and connections—GCS connections, of course. I had actually debated with myself whether to attend my 30th Grace Church School reunion last spring. Certainly I had fond memories of attending Grace through 5th grade. In fact, I got my start as a librarian by shelving books for Mrs. Boucher. But I wondered if anyone would remember me; I had probably set foot there only once or twice in the last 33 years! My fears were allayed when I walked into the refectory (wait a minute, it’s actually the library now) and was greeted by several old friends, all of whom looked exactly the same, only grown up and wearing something other than navy jumpers or striped ties. As the conversation turned to what everyone was doing with their lives—some pretty interesting things, I might add—I described my plans for a second career as a librarian. My classmate Suzy Ort immediately took interest. As the assistant principal of a small public high school in East Harlem that had just received a generous grant from Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer to renovate their library, she was looking for an intern to tackle the project.
Suzy, who has a doctorate in education and has worked at Park East High School for ten years, has made it her mission to revive the library, which has been dormant since the last librarian’s departure eight years ago. The $600,000 grant for renovation would go a long way toward an attractive new space with modern furnishings, but Suzy needed someone to guide the vision. I dove in head first.
The first step was a major one: weeding the old books. I reduced the collection of 6,000 books by about half with the acronym MUSTY in mind: Misleading (books with inaccurate information), Ugly, Superseded (by newer editions), Trivial, and Your Collection Has No Use For. High on the list to discard was encyclopedias and other reference books. Plans called for an adjacent computer lab, which would enable students to conduct research online—especially if a librarian is there to guide them to the best resources. Next I had to set up an automation system for the library. The previous librarian actually had a card catalog! At the end of the school year I had the exciting task of ordering new books. The budget allowed for only 150 books, but that’s a solid start for a library that has not purchased any new materials since 2005.
As I continued to observe Suzy in action, it became clear that every bit of progress at Park East is hard won, especially watching her navigate the thickets of Department of Education policies, school budgets, and construction deadlines. Ever determined and resourceful, Suzy even found private funding in order to hire a librarian, which her staff budget would not otherwise allow. Reader, I got the job. So this year I transitioned from a rewarding but daunting internship to an equally challenging and no less rewarding position as an official librarian. I owe it all to the special bonds that GCS creates—and to the good fortune that Suzy and I reunited last spring.