By DONNA URSCHEL
Rene Sayles, a librarian technician in acquisitions for the Geography and Map Division, is a natural-born teacher. And luckily for the Library of Congress and several thousand school children, Sayles has found an effective outlet for those teaching skills.
For the past 11 years, Sayles has given tours of the Geography and Map Division (G&M) to students in K–12. Sayles not only maintains the children’s attention, but enlightens and inspires, exposing them to the importance of maps and the extent of the G&M collections.
Her tours have generated many letters of praise, from students themselves to teachers, parents and even a U.S. senator. What they all recognize is that Sayles sparks an interest in a whole new area of learning for children. Many young students are not familiar with maps and probably consider them boring or irrelevant—until they meet Sayles.
“This is such a great classroom,” said Sayles, while standing in the midst of the G&M stacks. “I have the whole collection at my disposal.”
Sayles starts her tours in the hallway outside the division in front of the Big Globe, an illuminated replica of Earth that shows in raised relief surface features, including the ocean floor. Sayles points out the mountains, plains, rivers and oceans. The children see how islands are tops of undersea mountains.
She then directs them to the other side of the hallway, to a tabletop topography map of Los Angeles and the San Gabriel mountains. To get the children to connect to this artifact she asks if they are familiar with college football teams or the Rose Bowl Parade. She then points out the Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena, in addition to Malibu Beach, the Pacific Ocean and a few other sites. She also shows them the San Andreas Fault and talks a bit about earthquakes.
When it’s time to take the tour inside the division, Sayles pauses before entering the stacks. She has the children stand at the double doors and feel the cold air seeping out. She takes that moment to explain why maps need to be stored at cool temperatures—a little lesson in preservation.
In a 2005 letter of praise, Vermont Senator James M. Jeffords said Sayles “put together a fantastic tour for the sixth graders and their teachers, emphasizing information about maps, their diverse forms and purposes, ways they are acquired and preserved and how to read them. … Ms. Sayles has a knack for getting and keeping kids’ attention … .”
One way to grab their attention is through games, and Sayles has invented a series of them. Her most popular one is “Geography and Food.” Sayles posts about 100 pictures of food with geographic identities on the drawer units throughout the stacks. The pictures are covered with Mylar and have a magnetic backing. Sayles tells the children to pull down the picture if they can identify the geographic location (such as Hawaiian pineapple, Idaho potato), and at the end of the tour they will get a prize if they have collected enough pictures. Consequently, they are eager to collect and listen.
As Sayles takes the children to the various geographic regions in the stacks, she pulls out interesting maps and shows the children how to read them. She also discusses how the maps are stored—in individual acid-free folders—and how the maps are filed.
A highlight of the tour is the collection of treasure maps. There are 154. She points out that treasure was not only found in water with sunken ships but also in landlocked areas where outlaws had buried their booty.
Sayles attributes her love of maps and natural affinity for geography to her upbringing. Her father was in the U.S. Army, and her family moved around a lot. “Geography was always fun for me,” she said.
At Virginia State University in Petersburg, Sayles majored in international relations with a concentration in geography. In her last year in college, Sayles realized she would like to be a teacher. “But it was too late for me to go back and get the teaching credits,” she said.
Word-of-mouth recommendations in the school community result in many of Sayles’ tour requests. Sometimes the Library’s Visitor Services Office will send Sayles a tour, too. Many of the tours are a general overview of the holdings, but she can also organize a tour around a specific topic, such as the Civil Rights Era.
After some time spent in the Geography and Map Playhouse, a large play area, Sayles sends the children off with small goody bags with geography-related items (map erasers, fake treasure maps and Slinky-type globe toys).
“It’s fun for me to do these tours,” said Sayles. “I truly, truly enjoy it. I’m just trying to grow some readers and map-lovers.”
Donna Urschel is a public affairs specialist in the Library’s Public Affairs Office.