Playing with books

This week’s blog post was written by SVS staff member Sylvia Beier.

4.30_joaquinThe SVS library is making me so happy. I am much more of a reader than a collector of books, but libraries play a big role in my life. As a teenager, I skipped school a lot to go to the library to wander around the stacks. I was looking for something, and I did not quite know what it would be – but when I found it I knew it was it.

One of my very early memories of books – way back from before I could read – is playing with the paperback detective novels on the shelves behind my father’s favorite reading chair. What I would do is take them off the shelf, stack them up, organize them, and try to put them back in various ways, trying to make them fit and somehow look good.

How did I organize them? By color, design, size. I clearly remember an intriguing bunch of mostly bright red books sporting a distinctive black and white stripe pattern on the top of the spine (Rex Stout?), and another group that was mostly white (Simenon!) Some books had a little owl graphic on the spine, others a stylized image of three fish. Then there were odd ones that did not seem to go with any others. And some came in slightly different sizes, sticking out here and there.

A bit frustratingly, there wasn’t ever enough space for all of them to fit, so after experiments with vertical positioning and horizontal piling, I resorted to laying some books flat on top of the rows.

Altogether, not so different from what I spent the summer doing at SVS.

Last summer, I not only had the pleasure of thinking back to this utterly absorbing childhood activity of mine, but I was also allowed to relive it when I took over the cleaning, sorting, and arranging of the  SVS library.

As I began to discover as a child in my world between reading chair and bookshelf, you can arrange books based on a variety of factors:

  • Spine design –  My past favorite
  • Color – Still popular with some interior decorators
  • Publisher – The French bookstores do this and it looks fabulous)
  • Author’s gender – The fictitious Komura library in Murakami’s “Kafka on the Shore”
  • Your bookshelf – You need an extra sturdy one for the National Geographic Magazine! (Its paper is made with clay and heavy as brick!)

Organizing by subjects and authors is popular. The alphabet is everywhere, and does not only provide the first building blocks of what’s in a book, but an overarching system for spreading them over shelves and rooms.

Books seem to suggest order: start picking them off a shelf or begin stacking up some that are lying about in a heap, and themes begin to emerge, categories evolve. You put some together that seem to go together, like socks, sort of, and before you know it you start dreaming up possible systems, with each book a little fragment of a larger whole – until there comes the odd book, that does not fit anywhere, like those darn extra socks.

Better stick to the pragmatic. Book organizing has always been a bit flawed, not just because there is always that one book that is too large for the size of the shelf, but because it is an attempt to organize something the entirety of which is unknown. New books are continuously written and published by humans whose primary interest is not necessarily to neatly fit into an established library category (even though that might help in getting published.)

For example, where were all the computer books in 1900? And what is a computer book anyway? A book about desktops and laptops? Programming? Software? Games? Electronic Social Media? Information Security? All of the above and more? What an explosion in new categories!

So what should the SVS library look like? How should it be organized? Around 2010, the SVS Library Committee decided that the library should be as “browser friendly” as possible, and books should be arranged in a way that easily communicated what was on the shelves. The Library of Congress system we had been using didn’t satisfy that purpose, so the school began working on a large scale library re-organization project.

In Phase 1, books are being arranged under headings such as Biology, Religion, Literature, Art, Architecture, Applied Science, Chemistry, US History, derived from what we have on the shelves – and we have a lot!

In Phase 2, within each heading, books are being further arranged according to what makes sense given the books we have and continue to add to the library. Literature is arranged alphabetically by author. History by themes such as The Civil War, World War I, World War II.

Every room will have a list of the kind of books it contains and how they are arranged—not by color, I’m afraid.

We are in the midst of it, and it is very exciting!

Most marvelously, because our library is not a museum, but an entity that lives within its community, it will never be finished, so we can continue to play with books at SVS.


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To thyself be true

This piece by Hanna Greenberg was originally published in the Sudbury Valley School Journal, Volume 2, number 4, June 1991.

We were talking about birthdays, Audrey, Ben, Christine and I. All three children had just turned six and their birthday parties were recalled with much joy.

As a normally foolish adult I asked the kind of questions that kids consider really dumb. Either the answer seems too obvious or the question has a meaning which the children don’t quite fathom. At any rate they indulge me patiently and I persist because it helps me to understand how they feel and think. This particular conversation proved to be a winner.

I asked, “Do you feel different now that you are six?”

Christine answered vehemently: “No I don’t!! Why should I? I am always myself, what difference does your age make?”

“How true!” I thought to myself feeling both stupid and chastised.

However, later in the day as I was reflecting about the meaning of what Christine had said to me while her friends heartily agreed with her, I realized that I wasn’t that stupid after all. My question was all too appropriate for many of the older students at SVS as well as to most of the adults that I know. For, in truth, so many of us lose our own sense of self as the years go by and as the process of socialization grinds on. The better we learn to fit ourselves into the mold, follow our teachers and do what is expected of us – the further we stray from our true selves.

People of all ages over ten suffer from bouts of identity crisis. They can be highly successful professionals facing retirement, newly unemployed steel workers, college graduates who don’t know what to do now that they have to enter life in the real world, or teenagers who are trying to figure out what to do when they grow up. It seems that as life flows on and changes face us these kinds of cross-roads await all of us. It is those among us who know themselves that weather these crises and actually use them as times to deepen their self-understanding and improve themselves.

But those who have been deflected from themselves find these times painful and unproductive. They aren’t emotionally equipped for making changes because they aren’t at home in their own selves. They don’t really believe anymore that they have a great measure of control in conducting their lives. They accepted what society wanted them to accept. Perhaps this worked for them for a long while but when social conditions change suddenly they feel lost. They feel cheated by the society which promised security and stability in exchange for doing what was expected of them. They bartered inner harmony for external success and they feel hoodwinked.

Our schools are the foremost instrument in this process of molding the young. It was a useful and possibly a justified goal when society knew what particular skills its economy required. Then it worked for a large number of the population over the span of their lives. Now, times have changed. We no longer can foresee what the future holds for us. We don’t know what skills will be valued above others. When I was doing research in biochemistry many years ago, I used a slide-rule for my calculations. It was a slow inaccurate process. Now, everyone has a calculator on their phone, and the need for arithmetic computation is obsolete. Oh, how many hours and hours did we waste on them! Same with handwriting and spelling. Almost all written communications are electronic.

What our schools need to teach children is to be flexible in their thinking, to be confident in their ability to make decisions and above all to feel responsible for their own lives as well as for their own communities. These teachings can only be imparted to people who know who they are, to those who are themselves.

I believe that this happens at our school. It happens inside each child in their own mysterious private way. We, the adults, don’t do it — we allow it to be done. Still we get thanked by many of our students for giving them back what they had when they were six and subsequently lost. Many tell me that this is what being a student at SVS meant to them. Those students who came to us before attending other schools aren’t aware of this process, they just live through it. But those who came to us as older children often tell me a variant of the words Jennifer used when she was sixteen:

“When I was six I knew who I was. Then I went to school and I forgot. Now after three years at SVS I found myself again and I know who I am.”


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That’s just what SVS kids do

Thanks to SVS parent Karin Charles for this week’s post.

Our family moved to Framingham over six years ago, mostly so our children could attend Sudbury Valley School. When we were researching schools, my husband and I read every book we could find about SVS. My favorite is “Kingdom of Childhood,” the one where students share their stories.

I now have a new favorite SVS story. My daughter Victoria, who’s seven, was planning a Welcome Back party for two friends who’d been on vacation for over a week. I was unaware of how extensive the party-planning process was. I thought it would just involve some handmade cards and shouting, “Welcome Back.” Boy, was I wrong! The kids made streamers, handed out candy corn, and played games. I completely underestimated the apparently natural event planning abilities of Victoria and her friends.

Most notable was a conversation that I had with her the afternoon of the party, when I picked her up from school. I had heard from a couple of other parents that Victoria had brought a large amount of money to school and that she bought pizza. Curious, I began to question her.

“Did you bring your money to school?”
“What for?”
“To order pizza for the party.”
“Where’d you get the pizza?”
“From Gianni’s.”
“How did you order it?”
“I called them and ordered it.”
“Whose phone did you use?”
“I went to the office and Jean let me use her phone.”
“How much was it?”
“About $13.”
“Did you give the driver a tip?”
“Yes, $5.”

All the while, she was looking at me quizzically, trying to figure out where I was going with this line of questioning. I must say I was a bit impressed and amazed that my seven-year old was responsible and capable enough to plan and execute buying pizza for a party. Then I remembered all the stories that I had read in “Kingdom of Childhood,” and I realized, that’s just what kids at SVS do.


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