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Walter Mayes, School Librarian - Part 1

Real Talk Publishing: The People Behind the Books

Walter Mayes, School Librarian - Part 1

Walter Mayes has had a lot of book jobs ---  he’s worked in a bookstore, at a publishing company and as “Walter the Giant Storyteller” (he’s 6’ 7 1/2’’ tall). For the past 13 years, though, he’s been a school librarian at the Girls' Middle School in Palo Alto, California.

Below you can find the first part of his REAL TALK Publishing interview, where he talks about what makes his library unique,  shares a particularly memorable interaction with a student and explains why listening is actually one of the most important parts of his job.  Make sure to check back next Wednesday, June 25, for part two! You had a lot of “book jobs” before you became a school librarian --- you’ve worked at a bookstore and a publishing house, and even as an advocate for the importance of children’s reading. What made you decide to become a librarian?

Walter Mayes: It was a delightful happenstance. I had been traveling 150 days a year as Walter the Giant Storyteller, making appearances all over the world, and I came to The Girls’ Middle School to do an assembly at a time when the librarian was looking to move on. It was a glorious fit: I'm the storyteller who stayed!

TRC: Did you always know that you wanted to work with children’s books?

WM: No.  I knew I wanted to read them, and that led me to a bookstore, which then led me to a job in publishing.

TRC: Can you tell us your overall responsibilities as the librarian at The Girls' Middle School in California?

WM: A list of all the things a school librarian does would be way too long for the space you have for this response! I have devised a one-sentence description that covers it as best I know how: I am responsible for fostering and nurturing the culture of reading throughout our community, as well as teaching information literacy. I also help coordinate the curriculum with our Department Heads.

I am a one-man library, so the selection, ordering, processing, circulation, evaluation, maintenance, and running of our 9,000-volume library are all parts of my job.  

There's a lot of listening to girls, both directly and discretely, that seems ancillary to the job but is actually quite essential. 

TRC: Is there a part of your job that you never thought a school librarian would do, until you became one?

WM: Being a school librarian is sometimes like the mom who drives the car pool --- if you're quiet, you learn a lot! There's a lot of listening to girls, both directly and discretely, that seems ancillary to the job but is actually quite essential. I spend a lot of time listening and giving advice on things that have nothing to do with what the girls read. 

TRC: Do you get to decide what books to stock in your library? What influences your decisions?

WM: I make all decisions about what is in our library, and the only criterion for a book’s selection is whether or not our girls would want or need to read them.

TRC: How do you decide what to call out and display in your library?

WM: Some displays are dictated by the calendar (holidays and celebrations), some by what is happening in the school (back to school, sixth grade studying Greek myths, science exhibition), and others purely on a whim. Last week I put up a display of books I read and didn't like just to show the girls that there are lots of different choices in the library.

TRC: Our readers may not be familiar with the term “weeding” as it pertains to libraries. Can you tell them about that?

WM: There is a finite amount of space in a library and new books are being published all the time. In order for the new books to have room to sprout and become popular with the girls, older books that are no longer relevant or popular must be removed from the collection. 

TRC: How often do you weed your library?

WM: Every year.

TRC: What’s it like to work at an all-girls school?

WM: I have six younger sisters. At times it is like being home for the holidays, with intense emotions flying everywhere. There are some things about our experience at GMS that are dictated by the fact that we have only girls in grades 6-8. However, we are also a hands-on, project-based learning environment that doesn't give letter grades, so being a progressive school is as much, if not more, of a factor in our identity. 

I find that in order to work successfully with adolescents, you have to deal with any leftover issues you may have from middle school. One of my students told me that the reason I work so well with girls this age is that I am one!

The only criterion for a book’s selection is whether or not our girls would want or need to read them.

TRC: What’s your favorite part of your job?

WM: Each day I have the opportunity to do good work. Each day, with each interaction I have with a student, I am given the chance to make a difference in her life.  I'm not saying I do it every time, but I try to stay mindful of the privilege of working with these young women.

TRC: What’s the most frustrating part of your job?

WM: Adults who are stuck in adolescent behavior patterns --- I go nuts when my staff or parents talk to me or treat me the same way the girls do. I have become highly sensitized to this.

TRC: What makes your school’s library unique?

WM: There's a sign that says “There is something in this library to offend every sensibility.” Being an independent school has meant that I am not beleaguered by challengers or adults trying to second guess my selection.  I have books that are right for our community, and I also have only 200 students, so I know which book is right for which girl at which time in her life, and I am able to help them choose them. 

TRC: How did you get your nickname, “Walter the Giant Storyteller”? What do you love about storytelling?

WM: I've been a professional storyteller for over 30 years. A bookseller in Twin Falls, Idaho, booked me to come to her town and be the Grand Marshall of a "Hooked on Books" parade she ran. I arrived in the town to find a banner across Main St. saying "Welcome, Giant Walt!" I put the kibosh on it pretty quick and became Walter the Giant Storyteller lest the nickname "Giant Walt" stick.

Storytelling is akin to stand-up comedy and performance art for me --- I forge a connection with an audience when I am alone onstage and we go on a journey together.Though I perform a lot of the same stories, no performance is like any other. It's bracing, exciting and feeds my need for applause!

TRC: We heard you have a lot of pop-up books and graphic novels in your library. Why do you care about those genres so much?

WM: It's vital that all kinds of materials be available to students, making the library a destination for everyone, not just those who read traditional books in a traditional manner. Graphic novels are here because they are an essential part of my students’ reading culture as well as the culture at large. Pop-ups are a draw for the more kinetic kids who like to interact with a book in more tactile ways.

TRC: Have you ever been a librarian at another school?

WM: Nope. Here is where my librarian career started and here is where I'll stay. I can't imagine being lucky enough to find a school that allows me to be myself the way GMS has these 13 years. But I've been to thousands of schools in my career and interacted with a lot of librarians, so I know I am definitely an outlier.

TRC: You’re currently a school librarian. Have you ever worked in a public library before? What do you think are the main differences between the two jobs?

WM: Nope. Independent Schools are a different beast --- my selection policy and the way I interact with my patrons is very much tailored to my talents and the needs of my community. Plus, I focus on the needs of a very specific segment of the library population. A public librarian has to work with everyone!

TRC: What do you think makes a great school librarian?

WM: The chief skill one has to acquire to be a great a school librarian is the ability to be an on-call source of support and information. If you are the kind of person who gets frustrated when you are trying to get things done and you keep getting interrupted, do NOT become a school librarian. We are service employees, and every inquiry from a student, parent, teacher or staff member is the most important thing in any given moment. 

TRC: Can you tell us about a particularly memorable interaction you’ve had with one of your students in the library?

WM: This is as much about the culture of the school and my place in it as anything else. We have a very progressive social and emotional learning curriculum at GMS, something that informs the entire culture of the school. My library has quite a bit of information on girls becoming women, and I have books that do not pull punches as well as those that are deemed more age-appropriate. We believe in giving the girls solid information on all aspects of adolescent development. It is not unusual for girls to be over in a corner looking at a book about puberty with much the same glee that they look at magazines.

An 8th grade girl who was the third of four girls attending our school was alone in the library one October. She was looking at the shelves and sighing. I asked her if I could help her find something. She asked me if there were any books about girls and their periods. I said sure and determined she wanted something in fiction. When I offered her a few choices, she sighed again, looked at me and said, "Do you have any books about girls who don't get their periods?" It turns out that she felt she was "the last girl in her grade" not to have started, and since her sisters were all teasing her about it, she was hoping there was a story about it. So we found one, she checked it out, read it, returned it and I forgot about it.

Three weeks later she comes running into the library and with a huge smile on her face asks me, "Guess what?" I was the first adult she told after her mother.