Survival, libraries, and your students

Imagine living in a dystopian novel: the world gone mad–maybe through human destruction, possibly through environmental breakdown. Either way, life as we know it…is no longer. What do the survivors and their children do? In the classic (and one of my top 3 best books ever) George Stewart novel Earth Abides, Isherwood Williams is a young geographer who survives a devastating outbreak of disease that kills most of humanity. The story centers on Ish’s discovery of other survivors and the creation of a new society built upon the relationships of the few remaining survivors. One of the things that appeals to me about this story is Ish’s use of the University Library (U.C. Berkeley) as his information center, using it to learn about electricity and other necessary survival tools. While the book follows the lives of these survivors and their offspring, and as artifacts and social mores from the past disintegrate, it isn’t hard to imagine that generations later, people will find those libraries again and begin to scour the stacks for information about their history.

As more and more dystopian novels paint a rather scary future, it’s easy to dip into the imagination and pull out an image of humanity without a history. In the normal scheme of things, us old folks share through school, home, and community activities our stories. We spend much time in school ensuring that each generation knows and understands the ramifications of Rome, or Greece, and/or World War II. Imagine having to re-invent things, because the knowledge of them has been pushed into the realm of fable or folklore.

Historically, the fear of whole-world catastrophe caught fire with the advent of the atomic bomb. While George Stewart (writing in 1949) never mentions war in Earth Abides its overriding theme is of  environmental devastation, physical and social re-building. In the past, cultures were often changed: whole armies and their cultural baggage walked away (think Britain late 400s) or thousands of people decimated or relocated (Moors in the 1400s) the Holocaust (1930’s-40’s) among others–leaving gaping holes of cultural, environmental, and physical knowledge behind. In the book When the Irish Saved Civilization (Thomas Cahill, Anchor, 1st edition, Feb. 1996) author Cahill demonstrates the powerful effect of scholarly monks and their libraries on the transition from Roman dominance to Medieval Europe and how important it was for scholars of their time as well as for us since modern knowledge of history depends on this work. Libraries from Alexandria to New York Public Library are the repositories of information and ideas through time. So….what if “the big one” comes?

Turns out some folks have been thinking about this and have begun collecting information about how to live pre-industrial revolution style. How does one plant corn without a tractor? How about preserving the summer crop? Looking to help humanity after the first year of a disaster, this library offers up information to help re-build using only what is left behind: creating new tools out of materials at hand.

How might we use survival as a theme in our libraries?
A. Using the survival library website as a jumping off point, work with CTE, English, or with an interdisciplinary department to think about the big ideas that survival encompasses for us today. What should be included in such a library? Should every town have one? What does it look like? Do we already have models for keeping this kind of information? (Hint: yes.)

Students could research: how do I hook up a buggy to a horse? How do I make a plow? How do I pluck a chicken? An excellent questioning activity such as the Question Formulation Technique could include asking questions about what we might need in order to survive. So much of what we do each day we take for granted. What will not be available should there suddenly be no electricity?

B. Collaborate with your science department to get students to think about what kinds of information might be needed for long-term survival. Students often study about the population explosion, or the global ecology of climate change, or pandemics. Maker activities can encourage out-of-the-box thinking on devising tools for survival. Tapping into student creative thinking will bring out their critical thinking brains.

C. Survival –and how to do so – has been on our minds for centuries. Bring your history teachers to the table with this video from the Cold War “The Atomic Bomb.” This Civil Defense video would make an excellent introduction to the Atomic Age and Cold War. Utilize it as a primary document questioning activity (see above) to really get conversation flowing.

D. Collaborate with your English department as they search for class books to read. Books about survival are often high on the list of engaging books – why? Because teens and tweens are already on the “edge” of survival in their own lives, many go through periods of great interest in reading about survival. Invite your faculty to create literary circles with students reading widely on the theme of wilderness survival. Create a survival theme highlighting survival tactics in the wilderness. Locate books that show how others have survived – there are many to choose from. Here are just a few starters for ideas:

  • Hatchet (series) by Gary Paulsen
  • Never Say Die, Downriver, Bearstone (and others) by Will Hobbs
  • A Girl Named Disaster by Nancy Farmer
  • Not a Drop to Drink by Mindy McGinnis
  • Life As We Knew It (series) by Susan Beth Pfeffer
  • Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

Invite a local expert in wilderness survival to come for a brown bag lunch event and invite everyone to bring their lunch and learn some useful things about hiking, camping, and being in the great outdoors.

E. And finally… where might the depositories of this information be? Libraries are the anchor institutions for knowledge, culture, and engagement– and have been so for (as the meme shows) thousands of years. While the Survival Library is collecting books digitally (and offers information on how to create a digital version that theoretically will itself survive), local print versions will most likely be available more quickly and more reliably. Even as futurists predict that the “library of the future” will consist of lounges for reading from e-readers, phones, or other yet-to-be-developed devices, without print materials, there is historical precedent for the keeping of paper-centered collections. As Ish discovered, after collapse the world of information can be found through the doors of libraries; and keeping them viable and available may just prove to be the key to continuing to save civilization. Helping students identify how information passes across centuries and how it is organized will keep this valuable knowledge going forward.

I wonder if we might be able to re-think library activities such as orientation, or search strategies if we were to create a survival scenario:

There’s been a disaster in the city. Your job is to help the city and its people get back on their feet. What kinds of information will they need? How will you know where to find it? Today’s orientation will get you started.

 a. Develop a list of questions in response to this statement: The city is devastated. Citizens need to re-build and need your help. There is no electricity, no running water.
Together as a class we will share out the questions and prioritize them into categories.
(After sharing, ask:
What are we missing? Draw out those areas that were not included. Put them all on the board in the categories students designate.)

 b. Each group will choose 1-3 (depending on the size of the class) categories to research. Locate print copies of sections, paragraphs, and/or books that can give the information needed to the people who need them. For example: a category might be: create gardens for food (600s).

 c. Create a bibliography (or list) of these titles with their call numbers.

 What I have discovered doing similar activities is that students tend to create the categories that are already in place; that is, they will often devise a system of categories that looks remarkably similar to the Dewey Decimal Subject headings list. This makes it easy for you to end by showing them their list and compare it to DDC. This could also help them to think about those areas they did not include in their questions and from which you can add those in so that they too get covered.

While survival might seem like a topic of great despair, it really is one (IMHO( of hope. Knowing that even if the worst were to happen, that there are things we know already, plans in place, and safeguards given will go a long way toward helping us all to work hard to make sure that humanity never causes these events…and that we’re prepared should nature throw them our way.

P.S. Full disclosure: I have several tattered copies of the Firefox books (each are an excellent example of hands-on education since they were created by students who interviewed local elders to gather their stories of living off the land) in my home library… really; you never know when you’ll want to know how to keep weeds out of your garden or bake delicious bread by hand, or dress out that hog. Hopefully, no one will ever have to use them to survive.

Author: Connie Williams

NBCTeacher Librarian and author of “Understanding Government Information: a Teaching Strategy Toolkit for grades 7-12”. Member of the CA State Library Services Board, and History Room Librarian at the Petaluma Regional Library [Sonoma County Library]. She welcomes all conversation.. give a holler!

Categories: Blog Topics, Community/Teacher Collaboration, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

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