Dahlia Hamza Constantine
Memo #1 – Researcher Identity
Overall, I would love to think about how kids make sense of their local public library as a space of learning. Do they see it as a place to learn about themselves, their community, their interests, their larger world, their friends, social norms, and so much more. I imagine this will be participatory, with the kids crafting questions and ideas about how to capture all of this – photographs they take, narratives, interviews, creation of art pieces…there is so much that is open right now.
Feedback Requested: Center of Gravity
Which sections somehow seem important or resonant or generative?
One of my passions, both in scholarly work as well as every other type of learning, centers around how individuals connect with and understand their communities. I come from a place that maybe romanticizes the notions of community and the ways in which they take care of their own. But I think that communities can also swallow up their own, flattening out the differences that make us the individuals that we are or punishing us when we step out of line with the norms of that group. When I think of communities in which I thrive, they are ones that allow me to explore my own identity and that love me and support me through that, even when they don’t understand it. It does not mean they may not be critical but the questions and glances and even furrowed brows that accompany this criticism come from curiosity rather than condemnation.
I think of libraries as spaces (and places…I am still unraveling this relationship) that are rooted in community in so many ways – they are, after all, still physically grounded in a geographic space that is often central. Libraries tend to have their own character and flavor that might capture their surroundings. Just a visit to each of the NYPL branches around the city begins to showcase these nuances. They serve as meeting places for community groups and at their best, tailor their offerings to their neighborhood. And yet, they are also a place where we can be individuals in our learning – seeking out books we choose (though some may be mandatory, of course), extending our learning and passions, taking classes that suit us – GED, language study, fiction writing groups or simply seeking shelter from a hostile world. There are so many instances of individuals who dropped out of school or did not feel successful in learning there who thrived when given the chance to simply read or learn to read, surrounded by knowledge in the library.
My love of libraries comes not only from my beautiful childhood experiences at our local public library in California (though in retrospect it had a sharp sterility to it that was lost on me then because of the journeys I took through the books themselves) but also of the stories of my parents and grandparents told of spending hours being lost in books at the libraries in Cairo. So, that notion was ingrained in me even before forming my own experiences.
As a classroom teacher, I also sought to create partnerships for my students outside our school. My goal was to make our classroom walls extend beyond our school and out to the community. I romantically thought of them being knocked down but I wonder now if walls can ever come down or if we simply lower them or open them up a bit to create a more inclusive community. I digress. Again. In helping to facilitate relationships for my students, I partnered with our local children’s librarian and our class went every Friday, all armed with a library card, some worn and frayed from extended use, others freshly cut and ready for their first use. We also wrote our own books and held readings, with patrons watching as the books were barcoded (as reference books that could not be checked out). The students could not stomach someone checking out the book and not returning them – a fear perhaps emerging from their own habits…
This relationship seemed at to be about encouraging personal reading and writing, about getting to know a place in your community, about seeing learning as something in which you have some agency. What also emerged were our collaborations with community organizers and artists who shared our space, with the toddler reading program and with random strangers who talked with us and introduced us to other resources or opportunities. And the kids took charge. They brought their parents to the library, showed them the literacy kits in multiple languages, introduced them to ESL classes and computer workshops. Connections sprung up that were not expected with the library and the kids who visited it forming a web of learning and community building across our neighborhood. These connections are what make my heart sing.
Clearly, I have a lot of positive beliefs and assumptions and I know I can sound as if I glorify and romanticize community libraries. And I probably do. In fact, I know I do. This stems from working with children’s librarians who see themselves as activists and seek to use their role to infuse the library with a sense of social justice – from the books they choose to order and to display prominently to the events they hold to the after school programming and partnerships they create. Both Desiree, the librarian in Arlington with whom I worked as a classroom teacher and Maggie, the librarian with whom I now collaborate as a doctoral student, seek to support their communities overall as well as each individual child who is part of that community. So while I know that many (probably even most) libraries may not hold this same richness (perhaps, though, they hold a different richness), I know that it is possible for libraries to be welcoming sacred places that allow their patrons to better understand themselves as individuals within a larger dynamic community.
As I begin this research, I continue to reflect on how much of our research is a pet project or a passion that centers us in many ways. Perhaps I should stop speaking in generalities to escape what I am feeling. Is this just something that is interesting to me? And, if so, is that okay? At least as a start? How will this impact what I see and co-create with the children and families who use the library? I cannot imagine that I would ever ignore their words if they contradicted my notions…but do we not always see what affirms our beliefs? Isn’t it easier to gloss over things that don’t fit within our schema – not because we are intentionally trying to but because our minds grab on to the familiar? There I go again, speaking in generalities. Do I do this when I want to distance myself from behavior I might see as questionable?
This hesitancy, I hope, will be counteracted by working with others as we co-design this research. My hope is to design, with the students who use the library, our study. What do they want to learn about their space and how it is used? I want to learn about how kids see their space, how they make meaning of it, how they conceptualize it. I am still unclear as to whether to expand this to the adults in these children’s lives or to adult patrons.
My preferences are to work with others, in community, to create a rich mosaic that captures the moments and thoughts and contradictions that exist from our differing perspectives. A community where there is room for each of us to have different voices and where I feel comfortable as a researcher sharing where my ideas might differ from those with whom I am studying. I never want to speak for people but I am learning to be comfortable with speaking for myself about what I am observing. This has not always been the case and my desire to be inclusive and grounded in participatory methods often meant that I neglected my own perspective, as if I too, were not a participant.