“Hello, My name is Usha Mukunda and I am a school librarian”
This is when the conductor moves his baton and the brass band begins to play in my head. Stars shine in my eyes and my pulse rate quickens.
I feel like this about Usha.
I have read and met Usha Mukunda for the past few months now and I am in love. No ordinary kind I must caution. Usha is sterling and to be in her company is to meet a ‘warm body in the library’. Her phrase not mine, but true!
Usha is a librarian who is probably one in a thousand if not more. She has a Masters in Library Science and her identity as a School Librarian is so strong and powerful it transcends the usual limitations that seem to go with this title. But Usha transcends limitations with her ability to see the space and need for vibrant school libraries and I learn from her.
So when an opportunity arose to visit the CFL library, one that Usha seeded 23 years ago, it was not to be missed. We were meant to hire a taxi from Bangalore city and go. We learnt that the school would hire the taxi and take us, such a joyful graceful way to be welcomed.
It is not unusual for the world to come full circle, the way it does for bookworms. So it is also a wonderful coincidence that Yashodara Kundaji who now works with the CFL library worked with us at Bookworm, and was a friend and guide. We felt doubly welcomed and supported.
The CFL library is imagined as a welcoming space. When you walk into the building, you have the option to use the reference room on the left or the open library on the right.
Niju who was with me, chose to turn left and so we entered a slightly formal space with wall cupboards and non fiction books, magazines and other reference material. Usha explained that furniture in the room was planted for the purpose it might serve and since reference books were meant to be referenced, comfortable seating at table space was organised for this section.
Shelves are not all marked and I enquired how a visitor would find their way to a book and Yashodara and Usha reminded me that at CFL it is a community of readers who map books and shelves because they are in the space all the time. I forgot I was in a school library and the users live on campus.
Usha showed me the ‘special’ issues shelf that has historic moments like the moon landing, in print, now archived and available for sharing with young readers who eyes are bound to pop when seeing ‘old’ but important magazines.
We moved to the warm bowel of the Open Library and were greeted by couches, cushions and a beautiful hand embroidered quilted piece of work that belongs to the CFL community. As happens with bookworms, a sense of coming home, filled me. We sat and spoke about magazines and the need for discernment and encouragement with different reading material.
Yashodara shared her work space with us, and the wee little message boxes, the little notes and messages and the ‘repair’ kit and box all reminded us that we were indeed in a space where books were cared for and used. Both essential components of an alive library.
The collection at CFL library is distinct in that all books seem to be ‘good’ books. This is something that I presume is a well thought of selection process that weeds out books that do not make the librarian’s list. This is different from Bookworm, where we continue to keep all kinds of books for children, often feeling that the multiple users and contexts we have make it necessary to accommodate all initial searches and finds and we steer and lead our readers to ‘good’ books.
What seems remarkable is that all the books are used and used thoroughly. There is a distinct impression of being caressed, worn, thumbed, shared, turned, browsed, read and returned to. There are favourites and must reads, recommended books and outstanding choices, themed books and already arrived books. There was an absence of new books, but we were also ahead of the academic year and I am sure the collection must be augmented every year if not more frequently.
Shelving in the library is of a more traditional kind than what we have at Bookworm and it indicates that readers know what they want to read. To my mind, ordering books in the CFL style requires a reader to be motivated enough to expend energy to use the catalogue cards or physically shift books in rows to observe the covers or peer at spines. These soft signs indicate that reading is alive and a highly desired activity at CFL and that is reassuring to learn.
Through out our walking tour, we observed attention to spaces, quiet nooks and crannies designed for reading alone and reading together. Hand written signs through out the library indicate that young students indeed organise and label books at the library taking ownership and responsibility to another level. They clean and care for everything in the library through out the school year, merging community service with reading and learning life lessons while doing so. Books that are loved, love back and that is evident at CFL.
The almost magical staircase to nowhere was another additional feature that had Usha’s vision and purpose at the heart of it. Usha feels that in quiet measure children need to be taken to heights and have opportunity to discover the unknown. So a spiral not too steady staircase takes you to the tower from where you see the tree tops and the roof tops and feel humbled by the boulders of the region that dot the landscape.
We climbed down the tower, observing the solar light seating near a window, the shelf in between that has books for the reader who might be in the middle of junior and senior fiction and learnt about Yashodara’s plans to include the student book projects into the catalogue and shelves and organise a butterfly theme collection of books for the new week at the Library.
For bookworms, books are intimate friends who allow you to escape into them and learn from them and be with them and for us Bookworms, Yashodara and Usha added to that joy and learning.
I understand better how Usha holds her head high and says, ” I am a school librarian”, she is that and more and it is evident in the library she has founded and the readers she encourages. The visit to theCFL library was enriched because we spent it with Usha and the music continues to play in my head, because school libraries can be alive, open spaces that draw readers in and invite them to stay. Usha Mukunda showed me how.