Thinking Otherwise: A conversation about a book and library evangelists

It is a winter evening in Delhi and the warm lights and cosy atmosphere of Café Turtle are an appropriate setting for a conversation about bookish love. Usha Mukunda and Sujata Noronha are self-described “almost library evangelists”, women who love stories, books and libraries, and are deeply committed to passing that love on to children. As someone who also shares that love, I feel privileged in sharing this moment with them, reflecting on people and books that can change lives. And so, they tell me about Miss Moore.

It is the early twentieth century and a woman in long skirts stands in the New York Public Library, taking down the forbidding sign that says “SILENCE” in large letters. The woman is Anne Carroll Moore, a pioneering children’s librarian who thought otherwise, at a time when “…many librarians did not let children touch the books for fear that they would smudge their pages or break their spines. They thought if children were allowed to take books home, they would surely forget to bring them back. But Miss Moore thought otherwise.”

In the second decade of the twenty-first century, I listen to Usha and Sujata tell me about their encounter with this book, ‘Miss Moore Thought Otherwise.‘ I listen and I think of this history and the contributions of those who came before us – the storytellers, the activists, the teachers – that have allowed our lives to be as rich as they are. How grateful we need to be that countless women like Miss Moore thought otherwise!

Every child deserves to have at least one grown-up who can open up the magic of stories. Every child deserves to have the chance to fall in love with books. Every child deserves to be the decision-maker of the books that will be read – or not.

Usha and Sujata embody what I am learning about Miss Moore’s vision. The children who walked into the New York Public Library’s Central Children’s Room in 1911 were not so different from those who Usha unlocked cupboards for in various schools in and around Bangalore, or Sujata tells stories to in poor urban communities in Goa.

Usha continues to think otherwise and like Miss Moore who made good use of the retirement present of a set of luggage that her colleagues gave her, traveling across the United States and teaching people how to build good libraries for children, Usha too has not stopped trying.

There have always been people who think otherwise. What we need to reinforce is a sense of community that allows the “otherwise” to grow. We depend upon people like Usha and Sujata, and their tireless efforts to plant those seeds of thinking otherwise. But we too can nurture those seeds in our everyday lives – by sharing stories, books, our own experiences. Perhaps, a first step can be a reading of Miss Moore Thought Otherwise.