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More Than Words Can Say

Number 5 - February 1992

P. Pirio

When is a Library More Than a Collection of Books and Materials?

The answer - when it is the springboard for imagination, commitment and inspiration; when it is the avenue for unlimited possibilities; when it is the means for teachers to develop confidence in themselves and in their teaching methods for the benefit of their students.

Tucked away at the top of a flight of stairs behind locked doors and through a maze of Education Division office cubicles in the Ridgway Center at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St Louis, Missouri, lies the Stupp Teacher Resource Center. A small, one person education library, this centre is committed to supporting science learning and teaching - part of three missions ordained by Garden founder, Henry Shaw: research, horticulture and education.

As with any library it collects and circulates books, serials and audio-visual materials, in this case in the subject areas of biological science - botany, ecology, natural history, plant culture, and in principles and practice of teaching and outdoor education. It offers a series of hands-on kits, known as suitcase science, on a variety of topics which are popular with teachers. It houses an extensive special collection on the topic of Tropical Rain Forests, facts, information, opinion and curricula, and can even provide guest speakers who have lived or visited tropical rain forest areas to work with students and teachers in the classroom.

However, what makes this library unique are the ways in which it supports community teachers, Garden staff, and volunteers. To enhance communication between teachers and the Center, a Designated Teacher Program was started. A volunteer spent eighteen months visiting principals in schools surrounding the garden. She presented a packet of materials describing the materials and services offered by the Stupp Center and before leaving each school recruited a teacher to serve as the designated member of the staff to receive and forward communication. Additionally, teachers are co-opted onto committees to provide advise and evaluate programmes such as the Suitcase Science Kit program. Whenever the teacher's point of view is needed for new ideas and developments, this committee can be called upon.

Made to order workshops for specific school needs, using Stupp materials, are another feature of efforts to link teachers to the Center and to the Garden. A request from a client about how to build an outdoor classroom led to a series of workshops and programs for two schools in the Archdiocese of the St Louis school system, and even to an Earth Day 1990 celebration for a small community adjacent to St Louis where one of those schools is located.

Underlying these efforts is the attitude that good education is based upon commitment, and that a committed teacher is constantly seeking new means and materials for improved instruction. Where the Stupp Center excels is providing quick and easy access to a deep and intense collection which can offer the teacher in one visit everything needed to produce a lesson or a unit.

There is another level where the Stupp Center serves teachers, in community outreach. As a library, the Center co-operates with more than two hundred other libraries through the St Louis Regional Library network and provides special one-time borrowing privileges to members through the Infopass program, as well as reference and other support services upon request. This capacity has led to the ability to provide materials and services to teachers which they never dreamt possible - as easily as using a telephone!

Perhaps even more vital is participation in a second network for resource centres, which may or may not be libraries, many of which are connected to large museums, state parks, youth groups, or other community organizations. This Resource Center Network sees its common denominator as providing materials and services for adults who work with children. They may be formal or informal educators. Members attend two casual dinner meetings a year, share their programs and activities and developments with other members. Each provides a summary of what the individual group or institution can offer on the letterhead stationery for the group's directory. Once a year, the membership list is updated. Out of this informal arrangement have grown many exciting ideas for programmes, workshops for teachers, inter-institution co-operation in teacher training, kit development, adult programmes, decent cross-training to name a few. The possibilities are endless.

Once co-operation begins at the local level, one quickly discovers the possibilities for co-operation at state, national and even international levels, particularly if one is associated with an international research institution. The State of Missouri operates a dissemination centre from Columbia, a city exactly in the middle of the state, which provides training and resource materials for Missouri teachers. They were most anxious to link with the resource Center Network and with its individual members for the benefit of Missouri teachers. Finding ways to forge these links is more time-consuming and difficult than embracing the desire for co-operation. Functioning at the international level can result from the price of a postage stamp. Writing to international organizations to share one's program is one way, and conducting research into the state of education libraries in institutions throughout the world is another. Developing a brochure which synthesized the essence of the Stupp Center enables sharing one's identity with others throughout the world.

The Stupp Teacher Resource Center discovered also that it could be of considerable help to leaders of youth groups. It began when Girl Scout and Boy Scout leaders came looking for activities to use for outdoor events. Many of the environmental and outdoor education materials supplied them with new approaches to outdoor activities. A natural bond was revealed. Later, in an effort to promote a new publication, Garden Explorer, which offers information for self-guided discovery of special features of the Missouri Botanical Garden, the idea to develop a patch program was born. The Garden Explorer Patch Program is an organized activity to be completed in a one-day visit to the garden which results in the awarding of a triangular embossed patch to those participants who complete all of the requirements during that visit. Two patches have been developed and more are planned. To date nearly two hundred children have earned a patch. The scheme is so successful that even a group of retired "garden walkers", upon hearing about the patch, have asked for the opportunity to earn it too.

Perhaps the best way to understand the Stupp Teachers Resource Center is to describe it as a library with an entrepreneurial spirit. It enjoys the advantage of being a lynch-pin between the institution and its education function and community teachers on one hand, and being a lynch-pin connecting those in the greater community committed to scientific literacy and improving science education, on the other. This position allows channelling of information between both groups. It also allows for the recognition of needs and the opportunity to match those needs with already available resources, both human and material. There is nothing more thrilling than being able to mobilize existing materials to enthuse others, particularly when that enthusiasm leads to generating an interest in the natural world.