Lis Clemens is retiring on Dec. 31, 2018, after 15 years as Head Librarian at Selwyn House School. She recently recounted her life story—beginning with her childhood in Melbourne, Australia—as well as her views on the future of literacy.
Books and reading have always been an important part of my life. I grew up in a house full of books. My father, a teacher and then a headmaster, fancied himself a champion do-it-yourself-er, but his only really successful projects were bookshelves, and we had those in every room in the house, overflowing with books.
I was an indifferent student at school, bored unless I could be reading. My parents were always supportive, though I think even they felt that my later acquisition of four university degrees (including a Ph.D.) was perhaps overdoing it!
It was decided that I should train as a teacher (“Lis is so good with children....”), and the added chance of going on to train as a teacher librarian seemed a great idea to me. A job where you could read all the time, what could be better? The 60s were the heyday of school librarians in the US and Australia. A modern library was the new status symbol for every school, and a new and exciting place to be.
Like many Australians of my generation, travelling to England for a “working holiday” was what one did. I travelled with a friend who was going to study at Cambridge (by way of the Trans-Siberian Railway, an adventure in itself), and got a job teaching in Ely, a cathedral town outside Cambridge, a wonderful place to live, surrounded by history. Every holiday was spent travelling, first in England, then in Europe. My friends were either teachers or students, and books and reading remained central to my life. Cambridge had a large, magnificent bookshop, and was full of second-hand bookshops. Buying books was a favourite weekend activity.
My circle of friends included Robert Seely, a young Canadian from Montreal who was doing his Ph.D. in mathematics and was also a reader and a book collector. Like my father, he couldn't walk past a bookstore. On at least one memorable occasion he spent our weekly grocery budget on books.
My future husband and I shared a common literary heritage, and had both had a private-school education, mine at Presbyterian Ladies’ College in Melbourne, and his at Selwyn House (Class of ’68). We amused each other by comparing stories of eccentric teachers, arcane school rules, and strange uniform restrictions. At that time I had no idea that his school would have any further part in my life.
On finishing his Ph.D., Robert was offered a post-doc at McGill, so we got married and travelled to Montreal.
Although my Australian teaching qualifications were good enough for England, Quebec was more demanding. You had to be a Canadian citizen, and also have a degree. So, off I went to McGill, as an “older” student. First, an undergraduate degree, then a Master’s in education and development, with a thesis finished during the naps of my first child. Three years later, a second child and a career as a stay-at-home mom. For the next eight years, I worked as a volunteer in my children’s school library, sat on parents’ committees, painted backdrops for concerts, went on every school outing, and generally spent almost as much time in their schools as my son and daughter did.
To consolidate my experience, I decided on a Master’s in librarianship. I was a little daunted on my first day, when a professor said to us all, “Well, I hope you’re not here because you like books and reading!”
In the final year of this degree, we had the opportunity to do a stage in a library. One of my fellow students had a son at Selwyn House and was loud in her praise of the librarian and the library. After 12 years as a student in a private girls’ school, I wasn’t drawn to working in one. But, a boys’ school seemed an interesting possibility, and with three brothers, the idea of boys didn’t bother me. Besides, I already knew a little about Selwyn House from my husband.
Virginia Ferguson turned out to be a wonderful librarian, and I enjoyed working with her. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed being in a school again. I replaced Virginia frequently when she was on leave, and got to know the staff and the school. I was also doing a Ph.D. and teaching graduate courses at McGill.
But, although I enjoyed doing research, I had long ago decided that I wanted to go back to my real interests: books, reading, and children. My Ph.D. subject, Images of Masculinity in Young Adult Literature, was also a good fit for working in a boys’ school. So, in April of 2003, when Virginia retired, I applied for her job.
The next 18 years were an interesting ride. Once a key part of any school, libraries had become sidelined—and in some cases completely eliminated—and even here we have had our moments. The magic little screen and the fascination with technology have seriously eroded any belief in the importance of books and reading. I am not a technophobe; I read on a Kobo, I read on my iPad, but I prefer the feel of a real book. And I deeply believe that reading a book remains a fundamentally important human experience. We are in danger of losing something invaluable. Actual physiological changes in the brain are taking place, and the abilities to develop critical thought and to analyze ideas are becoming threatened.
In many ways, I am glad to be retiring. I will miss reading stories to the young, and the smiles on their faces when they find the books they want to read and borrow. But I will not miss the decline in reading among the older students, and even teachers, the feeble excuses about not having enough time, the need to be “connected,” the search for facts rather than knowledge, the growing inability to listen and think, and to enjoy solitude.
I would like to thank all my colleagues who, over the years, supported the library and wanted to talk about books and reading, and life, the universe, and everything, as well as to all the students who told me with joy in their voices about the books they were reading. You made it all worthwhile, and I will miss you all.
I am certain that books and reading will remain central to my life, and this Christmas I will enjoy sharing books with my family, reading to my small grandson and enjoying his pleasure. To those of you who don’t read, you don’t know what you are missing. There is a book out there for you somewhere. Keep looking!
“I get sad every time I hear a person say ‘I don't read,’” said author Alafair Burke. “It’s like saying, ‘I don't learn,’ or, ‘I don’t laugh,’ or ‘I don't live.’”
Good luck to all of you!