Nothing Propinks like Propinquity

The Oxford English Dictionary‘s first definition of ‘propinquity’ is “nearness or closeness in space; neighbourhood, proximity”, but there is more to it than that. P.G. Wodehouse depended on this very phenomenon when he created his world of genteel country estates and comedic romances engendered by the nearness of those staying under one roof for any significant time. Jeeves enlightens Bertie Wooster in Right Ho Jeeves (1934) when Bertie asks, “What do you call it when two people of opposite sexes are bunged together in close association in a secluded spot meeting each other every day and seeing a lot of each other?” Jeeves replies, “Is ‘propinquity’ the word you wish, sir?” Bertie: “It is. I stake everything on propinquity, Jeeves.” The title phrase above is itself a chapter heading in Ian Fleming’s Diamonds Are Forever (1956). Whoever coined the phrase, it’s genius.

We, too,  depend quite a bit on propinquity in the world of school libraries. We spend a good deal of time, effort and treasure to make sure we have the materials our students need at the time that they are needed, and we rely on the ‘nearness or closeness in space’, of having resources readily available, to ensure our students will make good use of these resources.

The care and feeding of a collection of materials to support the curriculum is of course a primary function of school librarians, but a not inconsequential secondary function is the care and feeding of student interests partnered with the broadening of horizons where student reading is concerned.

In this secondary function, propinquity is of utmost importance.  A student returning from the water fountain to the library table where his things are settled passes by the newspaper stand, slows down–catching the headlines of the New York Times displayed there– stops, slowly picks up the front page and spends perhaps five minutes reading the article. Five minutes later he is back on his way to the table where he takes out his math homework and gets down to business. There it is: Propinquity in the process of propinking! The paper needs to be there, displayed to advantage, and easily accessible, for the connection to be made.

The same process is in play when a student ambles past the magazine display, glances at Car and Driver, notices an eye-catching cover story from a nearby Atlantic Monthly magazine (maybe “The Fraternity Problem: It’s Worse Than You Think” from March 2014, or “How Genius Happens” with a Shepard Fairey Lennon & McCartney cover from July/August 2014) and picks that up. We know this happens because we see it happening, but also because we find all types of library magazines left about the place. This is one time I LOVE cleaning up after the students. Reshelving Bloomberg Business News, The Nation or New Yorker… now THAT’S exciting stuff!

Much is made of discoverability these days, and for good reason. It is hard enough to find what you want when you KNOW what you want, say for your Art History project. It’s a real challenge when you don’t yet know what you want, and maybe you don’t even know that you’re looking for something.  We need to provide our students with intriguing and inspiring material to foster interest in things known and unknown, authors familiar and new. At our academically rigorous Upper School, many students are highly scheduled, but I notice that our students tend to find the time for activities that interests them, whether that’s connecting with friends on social media, following favorite music or TV shows, or reading books, digitally or in print, self-provided or found in the library. Putting students in close proximity with materials that may catch their interest is an important part of a librarian’s role. Having a copy of Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim on hand for the ‘Library Book of the Week’ display with cover and blurb included in the daily bulletin is one step in the ‘matchmaking’ process. Bringing that (newish, attractive paperback) book across the room toward the display, passing a table of voracious and inquisitive readers who (I know) dream of going to Oxford and Cambridge one day (yes, they argue about who will go to which), and saying to them “Okay, here’s the funniest book ever written about the pomposity of academic pretense in the Oxbridge world”– that’s the trigger. When two students say “Me Me!” that’s pure joy to this librarian.  It helps that this was two days before the Thanksgiving break, that I knew these students from our book club and knew that two students in particular loved intricate, involved novels. The connection isn’t always made, but you need to have the bait– er– books, magazines and newspapers on hand, in the library, in close proximity to where students hang out — for this to work.

Notice I’m talking about physical materials here. Yes, there is a thrilling rush in getting an ebook from the library, downloaded immediately to one’s device, but … there’s that discoverability thing again. The student would need to know they wanted a book, go to the library website, click click click (how many clicks before students give up?), search, find a book, download, and then it’s done. If it all works smoothly, that is. The immediacy of the physical item is really… immediate.

One element of our Library Mission Statement is to foster a life-long love of reading. This is an intangible goal but a vital one. We need to make use of every tool at our disposal, not the least of which is propinquity. It really is true: “Nothing Propinks like Propinquity.”

3 thoughts on “Nothing Propinks like Propinquity

  1. So true, Shannon, and this is a great rejoinder to the age-old issue of “if you build it, they will come” as well as “just in time (JIT)” provision. As librarians we often deal with intangibles, and propinquity, and I love that!

  2. Nonfiction author and SLJ blogger Marc Aronson encourages method he calls “clustering,” by which he means displaying a set of books that are connected in surprising ways. Perhaps the link is that they are all about WWI, but some are fiction, biography, primary documents, retrospective discussions, photographic collections, etc. Students doing research commonly look for a book called something like “WWI for Dummies”, a book that will write the paper for them. Few if any of the display titles will be simple series entries, consistent format but minimal insights; most of the books will be thought-provoking in their inclusion and content. Clustering and propinquity both work to get under a student’s superficial glances to intrigue curiosity, to incite deeper questions, and to inspire new understandings. Independent schools have traditionally done all of this with great consistency – thanks, Shannon, for reminding us to keep working on new ideas and reworking the tried and true cores of other ideas!

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