Currently, I’m working as the Assistant Director of Youth Services
for the Rolling Meadows Library [in Illinois]. On a daily basis, I work
the children’s reference desk, purchase new materials, discard old
materials and help manage a 13-person staff. I’m frequently involved in
helping to write proposals, board reports, press releases, as well as
compiling statistics for the state.
When I was a little sprite, I remember being totally awestruck by the
idea that there was a building in every town where you could get the
answer to any question you wanted – for free. In some ways, I don’t
understand how anybody could not be amazed by that, and why there are
people in the world who don’t want to be a part of it.
I think that, as a group, unschoolers are exposed to knowledge much
more early, and much more closely, than other groups. It makes us
hyper-aware of the importance of knowledge and information. I’ve never
wanted to be anything else than a librarian.
Connecting the Dots
This is a very challenging time to be a librarian. The Patriot Act
has divided librarians. The Children’s Internet Protection Act has
divided librarians. No Child Left Behind is beginning to affect the way
we work and the services we provide. It is possible that I see these
issues more clearly, or at least from a different perspective, thanks to
not having come up through a traditional school system.
These three issues aren’t fully separate; they interrelate, but
people who have been trained to think about one subject at a time, to
the exclusion of others, can have a hard time seeing that. Some of us
choose to voice our complaints with the Patriot Act, under which the
government can seize your activity records from the library without
notifying you, or we voice our complaint over the Children’s Internet
Protection Act, which requires that all public access computers be
equipped with filtering software in order to be eligible for certain
federally funded grant monies. On the surface, these are distinct
issues. What only occurs to some of us, though, is that both laws
inhibit your right to access information. So we can end up with two
groups, fighting two fights, when we could pool our resources and make
Unschooling got me past straight-line thinking, I think. I had no
structure growing up. I’m sure it was there, but I wasn’t aware of it,
and I never felt like I was being herded in any given direction. I never
was told not to answer history questions with math. There are times when
that approach works. Granted, there are times that it doesn’t, but it’s
given me a broader approach to issues.
Hands Off at the Library
One of the things I find most valuable about my unschooling
experience is that I tend to be much less judgmental about the way
people use my time at the library. Dr. Pat Montgomery [homeschooling
speaker and founder of Clonlara School] once told my mother not to worry
that I was just goofing off all day. Mom backed off, I turned out okay,
and since then I don’t get upset when some child isn’t reading a “good”
book, or when he is playing games online instead of doing something
It practically is impossible for the mind of a child to be completely
un-engaged. I see children as learning all the time, and I want to
encourage them no matter what their pursuit. How else do we get video
game designers, astronauts and revolutionary thinkers?
Library school isn’t necessary for the daily job of being a
librarian. This used to frustrate me. I had a lot of library work
experience for my age. I’ve been working in my field for not quite 12
years now. And yet, my career was not going anywhere without the
graduate degree. It was highly frustrating.
Now, I do think some form of library education is necessary. It
doesn’t need to be graduate school, but so much of what is learned there
is the “why” of libraries. A librarian is fanatic about privacy.
Fanatic. But, it’s in library school where you get an intense
understanding of why we feel that way, what the forces that shaped us
that way are, and how to explain it to those who don’t yet get it.
On the other hand, my degrees are tools, nothing more. Neither one of
my graduate degrees has had a profound impact on my personality. I use
them to get the attention I need to achieve my goals.
Shaking the Tree
I refuse to let myself get shackled to “conventional thought,”
because I don’t even know what it is. One of the advantages of
unschooling was that I was exposed to a thousand new ideas a day, and I
didn’t automatically discard one just because it was initially
One of the mainstays of any library is the reference section. Books
that are intended strictly for library use can’t be checked out, and
they primarily are used as a source for basic information. It’s one of
my goals to disband that collection in our library, making room for an
expanded Spanish section. It runs counter to conventional library
wisdom, but in essence the reference section duplicates information that
can be found in the circulating collection – or is easily available in
I think this really ties back into the “no one way” method I used for
learning. Sure, we have World Book in reference, but if you only offer
one tool, you get over-dependant on it. So, we’re planning on
decentralizing that area of the department.
Peter Kowalke grew without schooling. He is a journalist and
the producer of “Grown Without Schooling,” a documentary about
grown homeschoolers and the lasting influence of home education.