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Q&A: School librarian David Brooks, on following a path from Morocco to Niagara Falls

David Brooks’ life resembles a watercolor painting, with many of his interests blending seamlessly into the next. Details emerge from his world travels and residencies, his knowledge of several languages and cultures, and the handful of careers spanning his lifetime.

To appreciate it, one must take a step back and look at the whole picture.

Brooks said he will retire this year from Niagara Falls High School, where he has spent the past 11 years as a media specialist (formerly known as a librarian), and all that job entails in the digital age.

Prior to this job, the Youngstown resident taught high school geography and history in the Falls, and before that, he was a Niagara Falls city planner, where his expertise in demography came to the fore. He has degrees in library science, anthropology and international relations, is an unabashed Francofile and chess enthusiast, and his technical side includes a proficiency with computers and cameras.

Librarian David Brooks stands in the Niagara Falls High School library on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2016. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Oh, and did we mention he was involved with the Peace Corps following his graduation from Dartmouth College?

Where do you begin a conversation with such a guy? The answer is just about anywhere, and then sit back and enjoy.

Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get from Niagara Falls to Dartmouth?

I went to Niagara Falls schools through 10th grade, then to a prep school on a scholarship and then to Dartmouth. I was an international relations major, because I had an interest in the world, in general, but I was especially interested in Canada, growing up in Niagara Falls, and living on the border.

What did you do after college?

I went to work for the Peace Corps and did summer training in Quebec. I knew a Moroccan student from college, who told me I had to go to Morocco, I would love it, and I already spoke French. I turned down my first Peace Corps invitation to Senegal, but then I was invited to Morocco. It was an agricultural program and there were 49 of us. We were a curious group who knew very little about agriculture, but we were supposed to help the Moroccan farmers….I then took over the management of a chicken cooperative in a primary school. That failed (laugh), and I went to work for the Moroccan Ministry of Agriculture, mostly doing their audio-visual stuff.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask for at least one good travel story.

I went back and forth to Morocco from 1968 to '78. When we were done with the Peace Corps, I convinced a friend to travel with me and try and cross the Sahara Desert, hitchhiking. It was all dirt roads. It took us two truck rides, the first with a Northern Algerian truck and the second with a Libyan truck.

I also traveled around Iran like that. As an anthropology student in 1974, I was looking for research sites and I wanted to learn more Farsi and I needed to get there and back on just $1,000. I had been in the Peace Corps, so I knew how to rough it.

You take beautiful pictures. Did you study photography?

I developed an interest in photography as a teenager. It’s not difficult to take good pictures in Morocco...My daughter, Kate Brooks, is a photojournalist. You can look up her website. She cut her teeth in Iraq and Iran and I used to worry about her being there and now she’s making a movie about poaching in Africa and I don’t know if that’s any better.

How long were you based in Morocco?

I was really there over three different intervals for about seven years total. I had come back here and thought of forestry and was accepted at the University of Minnesota, but ended up studying anthropology at SUNY Binghamton’s grad school. I went back to Morocco to do my Ph.D research but didn’t end up writing my dissertation.

Then what?

By then I had a family and needed a job badly and I had some old friends working for the City of Niagara Falls. They said, ‘You have some experience in government.’ I got a job with the community development project, then became a city planner. I worked on mostly environmental stuff, until (Mayor Jacob) Palillo became mayor and fired all of the Democrats.

My skills were in urban planning and I found some jobs on the West Coast and overseas. But I had a big decision to make then. I had elderly relatives in the Falls. So, I did some contract work for the Niagara Falls Board of Education and then they hired me as a social studies teacher. But then I needed a graduate degree in education, so I got a library degree from UB (SUNY at Buffalo).

How long were you a teacher?

I taught from 1997 to 2004, then became a librarian.

Your wife, Liz, is a retired senior librarian from the high school. Was she a big influence on your career switch?

Liz knows how to run a library. She’s a really good source on good practices and she loved kids and working with kids. I wouldn’t have become a librarian if it wasn’t for her.

How were you able to handle the conversion to the digital age in the library?

The library was the first place computers made it into the school district, aside from administration. The old card catalogues were completely gone by the 1990s.

When the district hired me, before I started teaching, I was doing research for them and computer work. I brought the Internet into the Niagara Falls School District and established their email, and so on, so I had a broad knowledge of computers.

When I was with the city, one of the things we did there that I was most proud of was that we created the Geographic Information System (GIS), which was mostly used by the Planning Department -- and they’re still using it. I had to learn how to network computers with different operating systems.

I was also very proud to be part of helping end hazardous waste dumping in Niagara Falls when I was with the city. A group of LaSalle housewives -- some who had lived at Love Canal and relocated to LaSalle -- went to the city government for help in stopping it. A couple of councilmen listened and the city ended up hiring a New York City law firm to help stop CECOS from dumping hazardous waste there. It’s now a BFI landfill with no more hazardous waste. As city planner, I had a coordinating role but it wouldn’t have happened if not for these LaSalle housewives.

What has been the difference for you between being a teacher and school librarian?

I don’t consider it that I left teaching, but I did leave the classroom. Librarians are curriculum consultants to the teachers, so we have to be familiar with all of the curriculum taught at the school. I miss the classroom. The library is a more placid environment…As a teacher, you’re dealing with 120 to 150 kids that you see every day in groups of about 25 to 30 and you’re constantly preparing evaluations of them through tests and quizzes and then there’s the meetings with parents. There’s a lot of work to all of that.

As a librarian, there is still a population of about 2,000 students, but you’re only seeing a subset of them. You’re instructing them in library skills, in how to use electronic data bases for research and you have to build the library’s collection by adding resources.

I think that even more important than computer skills for students are research skills. They need research skills to make it in college today.

Can you expound a little more on what you see as needed skills for today’s students to be successful?

They need to know about electronic data bases and how to evaluate what they’re looking at. This is difficult to teach. Search engines like Google work against us, believe it or not. We must convince kids that they can’t just go to Google and call up sites and quote them. They have to know how to properly reference their sources.

I know you’re a big proponent of youths studying abroad. What’s your advice to students looking at what to do with the rest of their lives?

The French have a saying, ‘Le voyage forme la jeuneses’ or ‘Travel educates youth.’ You have to find something of interest and make enough money to live the kind of life you want to have.

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