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Longtime Kingsport/Sullivan librarian set to turn the page

Rick Wagner • May 25, 2013 at 10:55 PM

KINGSPORT — One of the certainties of life, as well as a longtime career as a school librarian, is change.

So Kennedy Elementary School librarian Joy Branham is retiring after 42 years on the job, including 30 years in the same building in the Lynn Garden community.

“There are always new attitudes,” Branham said of students asking her not to retire. “I tell them everything comes to an end. You have to get ready for change.”

The last day for students was Thursday, although Branham’s last day is technically not until the end of the month.

“She’s teaching the children of the children she taught,” said Donna Salyers, art teacher at Kennedy. “There’ll be a lot of people who will miss her.”

Branham said in some cases she’s taught three generations.

“I’ve been teaching my children’s children for many years, and I even had students who are the grandchildren of children I had 40 years ago,” Branham said. “One of them told me I taught her great-grandfather. I think she was wrong.”

Days in a librarian’s life

Branham this year spent 50 minutes a week with students, plus extra time for study skills. The older students checked out and returned books on their own because of necessity — she has help from a part-time assistant and some volunteer parents.

“I think it has given them a feeling of ownership in the library,” Branham said. “The library is all about connections, connections to life through books, connection to learning.”

Thinking back over her 42-year career, Branham Wednesday said that she ordered about 95 percent of the books in the Kennedy library, as well as most of the tables and chairs, bulletin boards, cabinets and pictures.

When Kingsport took over the school from Sullivan County in 1990, she had to start handling orders from vendors and money she hadn’t dealt with while in the county system, a move she said gave her a new skill set.

On the down side, she said in 1990 she lost the county’s modified flexible schedule to give time for individual students to receive instruction and research, which she said she believed contributed to increases in TCAP (Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program) test scores.

As time went on, she said the city system got a little more rigid and used librarians to help provide teachers planning time away from students.

“I’ve seen the changes. Some of them were very good changes,” Branham said, although she said she is not a fan of micromanaged, top-down control of education.

She also said children are more transient and have more behavioral problems than four decades ago. She said one student at the school this year had been in five different schools.

In the past few years, Branham said she has had more time for additional instruction but that teachers are driven by mandates of when and how long they teach certain subjects.

Branham began her career in 1971 with the Sullivan County school system as a librarian splitting her time between Bell Ridge Elementary in the Morrison City area and Cedar Grove Elementary in Bloomingdale. She also worked at Gravely and Lynn Garden elementary schools while split between two schools over the years.

Thirty years ago, she started at Lynn Garden as a split-assignment librarian, and 27 years ago she became full-time at Lynn Garden.

In 1990, the city took over Lynn Garden and by a vote of students it was renamed for the late John F. Kennedy.

“The children voted. I said they picked it because it was the only name they knew,” Branham said.

All told, she spent 19 years working for the county system and 23 years with the city system.

Computerization, other changes

One of the changes since she began as a school librarian during the first term of President Richard Nixon is the addition of computers.

“We run the library with computers,” Branham said. Card catalogs went away around 1992 or 1993, with that function and a lot of research, including use of online encyclopedias, done with computers, as is checking books in and out.

“The one (automated system) we’ve got now will do everything but walk the dog,” Branham said.

She said the library has some electronic books, fitting in with the new BYOD or Bring Your Own Device program of the system, and is working with public libraries to offer more such shared content. Wireless devices also put research at students’ fingertips.

“That’s a librarian’s job, to show them how to access information,” Branham said. “Media is anything that gives you information.”

But she said printed and bound books are still important. She said she adds new technology to the old technology that still works.

Not all titles are available electronically, not all students have access to devices, books can be more convenient and e-readers give no tactile satisfaction.

“You don’t make a literate reader out of a person without a book in hand,” Branham said. She said books allow readers to flip back and forth, write notes in the margins if it belongs to the reader, share easier with others and “feel” the book.

All that said, she said the computer revolution was not the biggest change during her years at Kennedy.

“What has changed is attitude,” Branham said.

“This is the heart of the school,” Branham said. “This has moved from a luxury to a necessity. And that was by design.”

She said a school library should engage students and support the school’s curriculum through up-to-date, viable, easy-to-use and open resources.

Quilt projects 2000, 2013

In 2000, she initiated a quilt project in which the students wrote letters to children’s book illustrators and authors, asking them to sign a quilt block. Thirty-seven responded, including some who included illustrations.

Those blocks, copied onto fabric, were paired with student-drawn art work blocks and turned into six panels, one for each grade K-5.

Some students helped quilt the blocks, and Branham finished up the rest that still hang on the walls of the library 13 years later. She said it will be up to the next librarian what to do with them.

Over the years, she also did a storyteller’s club, after-school book club and mind games club at the school, as well as putting together a database of books to teach life skills, and she also has written grants that helped get free books for children. But she said the quilt project received an award and was the subject of a national magazine story, newspaper, radio and television accounts.

Branham, a quilter, said she believes that is because most everyone can relate to a quilt because of a mother, grandmother or other family member who quilted.

She said current students are interested in the quilts and often point out older brothers or sisters who helped with the project.

In retirement, Branham said she plans to do gardening and farming on the Hancock County family farm where she and her husband, Jim Branham, have lived for 40 years. He is owner of Eagle Arms & Ammunition in downtown Kingsport.

Living on a mountain with a house in Tennessee and a barn in Virginia, Branham said she has occasionally had to miss school, including one time in the 1970s when a flood made a bridge impassable.

She also plans to remain involved with Delta Kappa Gamma International, a service organization for woman educators that gives scholarships worldwide for women studying to be teachers.

She also plans to do some personal quilting. “I’m going to try to finish one of the six quilts I’ve started,” Branham said.

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