The Art of Curation

On my sister blog, Throwing Chanclas, I started a campaign called Just. One. Book. The idea? To build a library back up at Greenville High School. The library has been closed for some 10 odd years and the relationship between books and students and various staff seems odd and sometimes downright contentious. It was almost as if no one cared that no one had purchased new books since 1991 or that most check out stamps indicated 1982. Or that well-meaning elderly ladies had donated bodice ripper books and romanticized incest ridden Flowers in the Attic series to make up for it.

Indian Valley Academy –which is under the umbrella of Plumas Charter–moved onto the premises five years ago. Sometimes their students would venture into the stacks or rather, the wall, only to have books slapped from their hands and told no by GHS staff. We don’t touch books here. There’s even video of IVA students being chastised for taking books off the shelves, but I digress.

Now the two schools, housed in the same building will equally share the library which means the two sides are ready to listen and try something new–which is something old made new again: a library–where kids check out media and hopefully fall in love with words and authors and musicians and directors. A place to discover that there’s another world besides your own.

Our tiny town often holds meetings in the near empty library space. It’s cozier than the gym for such things. Ive sat in that room to lend support to an issue, or more frequently now, as a reporter for the local paper. Any time I sit in that room I get depressed. How could administration after administration let it languish? There are trophies that belong in a sports display outside the gym of glory days in sports. These trophies are from the 60s-90s. They speak of a time of at least physical triumph. But gold painted sports trophies on top of empty and near empty book cases seems like a statement in and of itself.  What are we emphasizing here? Fall of Empire? The tale of the pig? We are not watching Rome burn; we have our toes sooted by its ashes. Not with a bang but a whimper?

These references are lost on our students. They haven’t the books to find them.

When the last librarian retired 10+ years ago, there was no effort made to replace her. The district saved money through attrition and if the shelves were full then I imagine a good deal of non-readers thought well, it’s just for decoration anyway and it looks like a library. I don’t think our school district really saw the point of librarians. Aren’t they just sitting there checking out books and reading to children? How hard is that?

We have computers now. INTERNET, our savior. And for awhile, I was okay with the internet band-width wagon. It saves space. It saves money. But I don’t know about you –there’s a lot of getting lost in the wilderness. The constant scrolling down and opening new windows.

I’m reminded from the Internet why I like to shop in small stores and independent bookstores. It’s more manageable. It’s smaller. It works. I think of my favorite book and record store and the way back when –video store experiences and why they worked better than the internet.

They worked because of recommendation and cultivation and curation.

Le VideoSan Francisco, CA RIP

Half the film directors I even know about today are directly because of well-informed clerks at Le Video in the Inner Sunset neighborhood in San Francisco in the 90s. Checking out a video there was like having five minute film school sessions. I never knew how much I’d been missing out on and wouldn’t have been able to replace that with endless searches in Netflix because I needed more than an algorithm to get me where I wanted to be.

Whittier Public Library and Ramstein (Germany) Air Force Base Library

Probably the two libraries I used most as a kid were these two. Whittier’s kid section was amazing and bright and you weren’t afraid to ask questions and there were great displays and I always learned something new. I could be in there for hours. Without the librarians great displays and purchases of new books I may not have ever gravitated towards the books I did. They cultivated me as a reader and curated a great collection. My love of Madeleine L’Engle was started there.

Ramstein, Germany’s base library holds a special place in my heart. My mom was a library assistant there–and was in charge of music.  I would meet her after school and hang out and listen to music and pick out music to take home until she got off work. This was such a great experience for a tween. I could totally check out any band, any artist and not have the remorse that went with shelling out 8 bucks for something where I only liked one song for one week.

Lovell’s Records, Whittier , CA

During my early days of college I worked at an independent record store—now one of the last ones in Los Angeles County. It’s here my music education really came together. No two employees had the same taste. Had I been searching on the internet for music, I would have searched out just what I knew or liked–but having all these people expose me to so much truly sent me on the road to becoming a well-rounded listener.

Green Apple Books, San Francisco, CA

The only great thing about my first marriage: we lived down the street from Green Apple Books in the Inner Richmond. One Christmas we counted 22 books under the tree to each other.  Sometimes I went in for one thing and totally came out with something else. WHY? Because the amazing staff at Green Apple has the best index card recommendations in the world. I came to trust them. I trusted them to carry good books and to articulate why they were so good. In all the years I’ve lived and shopped in Northern California, they’ve never failed me.

I realize more and more what the real value of librarians are, in-person booksellers, music sellers, and film sellers are. It’s the value of doing what those  ‘1’ and ‘0’s cannot do for you. It’s putting on a display for Women’s History Month. It’s  playing a classical music composer who fits in with your punk rock ethos (Stravinsky/Shostakovich/Mahler). It’s a clerk or a librarian putting Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire in your hands and forever altering your outlook.

What the value of print books are in a world full of ebooks. I am the author of an ebook that saw hundreds of downloads–for which I’m immensely grateful–but no one can hold it. Go to bed with it. Leave it accidentally on a bench to be picked up by someone else.

Recently, a public school administrator told me (a writer) to my face that he didn’t read or see the need to read anything new. All the greats were written, he said, at least a hundred years ago. Nothing now will stand the test of time, he said. I said, well Mr. _____ that largely negates the contributions in literature to a great deal of women and people of color–both in literature and in biography. He quoted a line from Tennyson and then a line from Langston Hughes and told me he was good with that.

I recoiled.

But I also know that he is not alone in this odd belief that libraries are unnecessary. I know that some do not care whether or not great books or the so called universal fit poor brown children.

My children have grown up in a house of books. But my mother did not. It was her school library that set her free and later set her apart from her family. My grandmother on my father’s side hailed from New York and knew as she did growing up poor, that a library was everything. She used to tell me how she spent hours with her kids there after school–hoping that they would find interest that would cost her very little.

My father is a doctor now. I used to be an English professor. Now I’m a writer. My mother was a hospital administrator—all of us living above the class we were born into through reading and imagination and examples found in books. My husband taught himself to read and go beyond his family very much like my mother did.

A library is like a mentor with millions of words of support to see you through. It provides friends. It provides warnings. It provides solutions.It provides heartache. It provides hope. And each of these things are carefully cultivated by the librarians who come to know your interest, your taste, what you will want to reach for next. They know the next thing that you’ll want before you do. They know both how to fit their communities and how to bring their community closer to the rest of the world at the same time. They bring understanding.

I hope the GHS/IVA Library Project matters in the lives of the people in our town for years to come.


About Margaret Elysia Garcia

Margaret Elysia Garcia is the author of short story ebook collection Sad Girls and Other Stories, and the audiobook Mary of the Chance Encounters, and the co-founder and lead playwright of Las Pachucas, theatrical troupe. She teaches creative writing and theatre in a California state prison.
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1 Response to The Art of Curation

  1. Reblogged this on Throwing Chanclas and commented:

    I wrote this on my other blog. Tales of a Sierra Madre. I thought it was appropriate for Throwing Chanclas as well.

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