I love my new avocation – creating libraries where there were none.


How do you define yourself when you leave the job that defined you? I thought I would work at my job until I died. It had happened to one of the librarians at the college, and it made sense to me.


But a year later I left the college, and redefined myself within a week.


For a number of years I had collected books from affluent neighborhoods and put them in Philadelphia public schools. For one of those schools, with which I had a special connection, I created a library from these donated books, working through a summer between teaching semesters.



Now that I had left my fulltime college teaching job, I had seemingly endless downtime. I did not want to spend it aimlessly.  My first (and only) call was to the school that I had been collecting books for.


I spoke to one of the vice-principals, offering my services to catalog the books and set the library up. I did not ask for a salary, because I knew there was no “Create a library” budget item.


I was fortunate because I did not need to earn a salary. I was past retirement age, and could afford to work for the pleasure of accomplishing a goal, without concern for money. There is lot to recommend volunteerism, I discovered.


The challenge is to find what one really loves to do, and pursue that avocation zealously.



As I began to create that first library, working through the summer and opening the library in January, I had no idea what I would do next. But as each library project ends, another pops up, and I have grown confident that I will always be able to find another project.


My husband jokes that I work harder now than I did when I was a professor. I know that isn’t so, but I do work assiduously, showing up every day, working for five hours in the school and then taking books home to continue to work. I have more flexibility than I had in my paying job. I can work whenever I please, knowing that I am doing a job no one else is free to do.  If I don’t catalog all the books in the library, there is no one who will. Oddly, that motivates me to set my own deadlines, and to meet every one of them.


So here I am three years later. I have created five libraries, each with at least 8000 books. All of the books are entered into an online database, all have call numbers, and each library is organized so that children can easily find the books they want to read. I have developed a style in my libraries, grouping the easy-to-read books separately from those with higher reading levels.


I found plastic shoeboxes at a housewares store, and use those to store series (Junie B. Jones, Magic Tree House, Goosebumps) so that children can root through the boxes and find one they haven’t read. I have created separate areas for books in Spanish, for several bilingual schools. I am working with no real budget, so I haunt thrift shops to find wagons in which to display books, and stuffed animals that are book characters.


Knowing that staffing a library is problematic in the Philadelphia school system, I have made the maintenance of the library as easy as possible. I am happy to share my cataloguing tricks. I am proud that the libraries I have created function well, even with volunteers and parents running them.



I wish all schools had librarians, but accept that this may not be possible in the current climate of underfunded public schools. If anyone can be found to keep the library open, I will commit to create the library. Each library takes about five months to create, and I promise to stay available to help maintain any library I have created.


As a professor of reading and language arts, I know that children must have access to appealing, age-appropriate books so that they can become engaged readers in their spare time. Libraries are essential to accomplish this. I am only one person, and I work on a small scale. I console myself that something is better than nothing, and pray for the day when my services will be unnecessary.


But until that day arrives, I am where I want to be, creating a valuable resource for a school, and enjoying the process of doing so.



It isn’t just the product, the library, that I value. I actually like the work, creating order and interest out of cartons of donated books. When the shelves are filled with books, alphabetized and just waiting for a child to find them, I am ready to move on to another school.



I am not retired. I am redefined. And I love it.



How are you redefined by contributing to areas of need?



Jessica Kahn, Ph.D., has spent her full career being an educator, from teaching school to “teaching teachers”. She is the co-author of Learning to Write Differently, which won the Meade Award of the National Council of Teachers of English, and the author of Ideas and Strategies for the One-Computer Classroom. Since leaving academia, Jessica has organized five libraries in public and charter schools in Philadelphia. She collects new and gently used children’s books from individuals, schools and public libraries in the suburbs. She then catalogs a library collection for a school, so that children can have and choose books to read in their schools. It’s a “job” she loves.