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Cultural Exchange

Published on isbi School News dated Friday 23rd of May 2014

Earlier this year, my family were fortunate enough to host an American exchange student, courtesy of a scheme set up by my son's school. Of course, the point of these programmes is to learn about another culture by immersion but, in attempting to demonstrate British culture to our guest, we inevitably ended up having another look at it ourselves. On a micro scale, this meant trying to define British food, music and entertainment think liquorice allsorts and Monty Python but on a larger scale, we revisited landmarks we had not seen for some time.

In particular, we had a day trip up to Oxford to see the colleges and, more specifically, the Bodleian library. For the Americans on exchange, this began as a chance to see the infirmary from the Harry Potter films but, thanks to an enthusiastic tour guide, soon became a celebration of one man's vision. This was the story of Sir Thomas Bodley who, with a fortune made in pilchards, rescued the university library and turned it into one of the most celebrated places of learning in the world. Not only does the library house over 11 million books these days, but it's also a dramatically inspiring place, populated by a mixture of students, researchers and awe-struck tourists strolling under carved arches, watched by gargoyles. As an English teacher, I am particularly prone to this kind of influence; think of all the characters living on those pages. But it would be hard for anyone to remain totally unmoved.

This time last year, we at Kent College hosted the poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, who opened our new library. When we first planned this initiative, I did come across detractors who questioned why we needed a library at all in this electronic age. On a practical level this is easily answered. Print is far from dead in our library or any other but it is also the centre of electronic learning with kindles, computer rooms and WiFi. However, beyond that it has become a place to gather, to share ideas and to relax. One corner, with coloured glass windows and low 'pebble' stools, is a favourite place for quiet readers and story-tellers and we even have a café for girls and visitors. It's cool, it's smart and it's comfortable. Above all, it's staffed by imaginative bibliophiles keen to share. Our librarians support our academic departments, run book clubs and writing competitions and get over excited when new novels arrive. They are heroes.

I was touched twelve months ago when Carol Ann Duffy declared that she could think of no greater gift for young women than to give them a library. Having had the privilege of meeting her, I was not at all surprised to see her outside Pentonville prison campaigning against the decision to deprive inmates of books. I can't be the only one who has been reminded of Andy Dufresne's spiritual victory through the extension of the library at Shawshank Prison. In her speech at Pentonville, Duffy spoke about the 'values which distinguish our country imagination, sympathy, tolerance and compassion' being at stake. So, if we are certain that regimes that burn books are to be mistrusted, perhaps the height of civilisation is to build a library. And that's the British culture I was proud to share with our new American friend.
Cultural Exchange - Photo 1
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