I’ve been at my current school for almost eight years. When I arrived, I was awed by our book room: a cavernous space filled with rows and rows of giant, heavy, rolling bookshelves, mostly full to the hilt. That first year, I went down to the book room just to revel in all of the books.
Of course, I never stayed long because the room was centimetres deep in dust and smelled strongly of book mold. Most of the time, my revelling was quick: I scurried in, got a class set of books, and scurried back out, largely leaving the books to other scurrying creatures. Then, at the end of the year, part of my job was counting the books.
That proved to be nearly impossible – books were everywhere and, while they had clearly been vaguely alphabetized at some point, they now appeared to have been organized by someone whose preferred writing system veered more towards the arcane than strict alphabetic. Books were stacked haphazardly on the counters near the front, squirreled away on back shelves so no one else could find them and left, lonely, in the classrooms where they had landed. That summer, I spent sweaty hours trying rearrange the books into some order – any order – struggling to stay in the room long enough without being overwhelmed by the dust. I got somewhere, but not far enough. The work would have to continue into the next year.
As I reorganized, I began to purge. We had set after set of books that were falling apart or mildewed beyond use. We found books that no one in the department recognized. One school year, I declared that no one should leave the book room without throwing away at least three old books. We barely made a dent in things.
Over the years, we’ve used part of a PD day to purge (just 30 minutes to stretch our legs, I swear!) and one teacher even came in with his wife and spent hours rearranging books into a *much* better system than the original. At first, I kept track of the books we threw away, but eventually that seemed both fruitless and depressing. Still, we found some great things: an old textbook that had been signed out to one of our current teachers – although he had attended another high school; a book once used by a parent of one of our students; and an entire set of books published in 1943, before our school was even built, before our school board even existed. Each time, we marveled, shared, and threw them away.
Throwing books away is emotionally exhausting, so I tend to do it in fits and starts. Sometimes it makes me sad: I have thrown away books I love as their pages flutter out, falling to the floor in an attempt to escape; I have thrown away books I hated in high school, their spines stuck together by duct tape until they form one big clump of unreadable print; I have thrown away books I’ve never read whose covers whisper of bygone eras and stories I don’t yet know, but whose brittle yellow pages actively prevent me from reading them. Sometimes I go in excited to purge: we need to make space for new books! The new books rarely come – our budget doesn’t buy much – but the idea of making space is invigorating. Sometimes I’m wistful: why don’t we read these anymore? Once upon a time, I loved this book. And sometimes I’m angry: why are we still handing out these books? What must the students think when we hand them such damaged material? They certainly know what we value.
Throwing them out is physically exhausting, too, and no matter how much I clean and toss, the dust never seems to dissipate much. I can only spend so much time in the book room, even with a mask on for Covid, before my eyes get red and I start to cough. Then I have to leave.
Today I dragged a colleague in with me, and we threw away three bins of books. Yes, I have been doing this off and on for eight years and I can still fill three bins in a day. (Our bins are biggish trash bins on wheels – not huge ones.) I shuddered as I threw away Fahrenheit 451 – I whispered a silent apology to Bradbury, but the pages were no longer attached to the cover – and Brave New World – but even Huxley would have had to acknowledge that a mouse had eaten through a fair bit of several of his books. I threw away copies of books that haven’t left the book room since 1976. I found books that had last been signed out before I was born. I threw them out. I let go of some Jane Eyre (sigh) and a media textbook from the early 80s. I didn’t feel very bad at all about throwing away some Hemingway short stories, though I had a small pang about the really old Steinbecks. I imagined blackout poetry projects and repurposed book projects and collages and… I threw them out. I checked the contents of poetry anthologies, sighed over my favourites, and tossed them and their cracked spines and missing covers in the bin. It was cathartic and awful and it had to be done.
Somehow, this feels like my last stand: I can almost see the end of the purge. Surely, surely by the end of this school year, we will have a book room that represents what we actually teach (or what we might legitimately teach). The books in there will not be trashy things with yellow pages that creak and smell and fall out as we touch them. Our students will have books that honour them – at least that’s what I hope. Once this round is over, I can give the principal a tour of our near-barren shelves and then I can ask for new books. Right? Right? (Cross your fingers for us!)