During Stalin’s purges in Russia, millions of people were sent to work in Siberian labour camps, and many died from lack of food, brutal punishments, overwork or the bitter cold. There were, however, some remarkable instances of survival. In the introduction to his novel The Forbidden Forest, the philosopher Mircea Eliade tells how some prisoners in one camp survived their ordeal. While those in other dormitories died at the rate of up to twelve a week, the prisoners of one dormitory stayed alive because they listened every night to an old woman telling fairy tales. Each prisoner gave up a precious portion of his daily bread ration in order to help feed the old woman so she could save her strength for the nightly storytelling sessions.
This is just one of many accounts I have come across of how stories can make the literal difference between life and death, and it goes some way towards explaining why I love being a school librarian. I know that every story I read aloud to my students is adding strength to an invisible ring of protection around their souls and their bodies. When I began my library career in the 1980s I thought I was entering an enchanted realm – a place where reading to children and matching books with readers would be my daily task. For a year the enchantment endured. The children came to the library, listened to stories, talked about books and found good books to take home and read.
Then came computers. First one, then another, then a whole lab full. Word processing. Email and 14K modems. Dot matrix printers that churned out long horizontal banners which decorated the hallways with important messages such as ‘Happy Holidays!’ and ‘Welcome to Charlesmont Elementary School!’ It was fun.
Within a few years, however, the whimsical pointlessness of dot matrix banners had given way to the humourless drudgery of ‘information skills’. Librarians were told to teach their students how
to ‘develop a concept of peer
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