Mrs. Van at Vaughn shares library fun


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Chris Fitzgerald, KP News

Library Technician Patty Van Valkenburg has a satisfying dilemma at the Vaughn Elementary School library — books are literally falling apart at the seams from overuse by enchanted students. She doesn’t permit the “I Spy” series, and a few others, to leave the library; still, these stimulating hands-on, oversized books are mighty popular with all ages at the school, and draw together library visitors who would perhaps not otherwise meet one another.

Patty Van Valkenburg, aka Mrs. Van, shows off a new shipment of books to Ms. Puckett's fifth-grade class. Photo by Mindi La Rose

Van Valkenburg (nicknamed “Mrs. Van” at the school) spends part of a day every week with each class in the school. In each of the 40-minute sessions, split between instruction and free reading time, she teaches the children about the standard Dewey Decimal System, the different parts of a book, and how to find research materials in the library. Her job, as she sees it, is to collaborate with individual teachers’ goals for each class, to assist in providing a positive learning environment for children.

The Vaughn Elementary School library is light and airy, full of kid-sized chairs and tables; it has a “quiet only” reading loft for serious young scholars, stuffed animals in the toy cart for rainy days. Sections of the library, such as “dinosaur stories,” are presided over by the appropriate creature or object, in this case two-foot-tall dinosaurs standing on the top shelf. The computer lab is in a side room off the library.

Students are welcome here anytime during the school day. Occasionally, Mrs. Van talks with a student who has graduated to middle school and has returned with a parent to collect a younger sibling, or overhears a current student say, “Mrs. Van has the best library.” She is quick to gently correct. “No,” she says. “It’s not my library. It’s ours; this library belongs to all of us.” That positive attitude has fostered respect among the children for the reading resources, and the privilege of using them.

Louie, the bearded dragon, is a permanent resident of the library, and has developed a fondness for being read to. On any given day, during recess or free library time, a child sits down and reads a story to Louie, and, as they have been taught in the classroom, takes care to also show him any pictures accompanying the tale. Mrs. Van says Louie is a “reading mentor” of sorts, with as much personality as a dog. Another creature sharing the library with students is a ball python named Lucille. Mrs. Van is the primary caretaker of both, although during the summers they may vacation with other willing and able caretakers.

Van Valkenburg began her present career as a temporary teaching assistant when her grown children were young. She discovered she enjoyed being around the children all day, and was encouraged by the librarian at Key Peninsula Middle School to fill a vacant permanent library position at KPMS, learning the system as she went. She has been the equivalent of head librarian at Vaughn for around eight years, for a total of 20 years in service to students of the Key Peninsula. She is a staff of one, with help in half-day increments totaling three full days each week of “incredible volunteers — all qualified, competent, and dependable.” Her day begins at 7 a.m., and ends at 3:30 p.m. When not teaching children in the library, ordering books with a $2,000 annual purchasing budget, updating records, and any number of other library-related tasks, she puts in two hours daily as the school’s “building technology person” — which means she troubleshoots computer problems in the classroom and computer lab, having been trained by the Peninsula School District technology department.

Summers find Mrs. Van enjoying her flower garden, camping with husband Bob in an RV, playing tug-of-war with her bull mastiff, Chewy… and reading children’s books. “There’s so much good literature out there now; it’s just excellent,” she says. She likes books on CD and tape so she can double-task: “I can dig in the dirt, clean house — and still enjoy a good story at the same time!”

On any given day, the library appears to be only half-supplied somehow deficient in offerings. That’s because every day, about 2,000 books are checked out by enthusiastic readers. Mrs. Van says the best part of her job is the children. They come in and bubble over with what they’ve read, or learned from a library book; in this cheerful, smiling librarian, they find a dedicated woman delighted to share in their discoveries. “I just have the best job,” she says.

“Kids and books…It doesn’t get any better.”