School librarian Roberta Sabella Mansfield ’69, M.L.S. ’72, did more than just help Betty Cotter find books. She fostered Cotter’s love of literature and helped her find a sense of belonging.
By Betty J. Cotter
The face on the obituary page brought a flood of memories. Although her last name had changed, I instantly recognized my beloved school librarian, Roberta Sabella Mansfield.
Mansfield, a Cranston resident, died of cancer on Sept. 22, 2020, and I never got a chance to tell her what a difference she made in my life.
In the fall of 1971, I was an awkward, bookish, sometimes-bullied sixth-grader. The only place I felt comfortable was our elementary school’s library, a small book collection tucked into the eaves of the second-floor auditorium. I was reading my way through its fiction stacks and those of our even tinier village library in Shannock.
Miss Sabella, who was finishing up her graduate degree, was our new librarian. She immediately sensed my love of books, and by the end of September I had been excused from the dreaded recess to work in the school library.
I loved everything about my new job: rolling the shelving cart around the cramped aisles and returning books to their rightful places, in perfect Dewey decimal order, of course. Filing the due-date cards alphabetically when a book was circulated; tucking them back into their sleeves when the books were returned.
Some tasks were reserved for the librarian. I watched with interest as she unpacked new volumes and covered them in shiny protective plastic. Every day she changed the due date stamp, which made a satisfying click-it sound when she checked out books.
Mostly, I was in awe of Miss Sabella herself. She was kindly, young, and smart. She did not screech at us to make her presence known. You could tell she had sized up the small library and wanted to make it better.
She brought in a volunteer, a stylish young woman named Miss Reeves who loaned me Jane Eyre. When I accidentally crinkled one of the pages, I was overcome with shame, but neither Miss Reeves nor Miss Sabella said anything about it.
Mostly, the new librarian trusted me. She sent me to the office with her outgoing mail. Having almost lost one of my father’s checks on the way home from the post office the year before, I knew this was no token responsibility. Of course, I was not the only student volunteer. In mid-year she organized us into a Library Club. When my fellow students elected me president, I finally felt like I belonged.
At home, I organized my own small collection of Scholastic paperbacks into a home library. My mother bought me a date stamp and I fashioned circulation slips out of cardstock. Using my mother’s manual Royal typewriter, I created stickers for the books’ spines.
Sixth grade came to a close all too quickly. Ahead was the mysterious and frightening prospect of the junior-senior high school.
In the fall of 1971, I was an awkward, bookish, sometimes-bullied sixth-grader. The only place I felt comfortable was our elementary school’s library.
I was sad to leave behind Miss Sabella. She had recognized my love of literature and given it space to grow. She rescued me from the playground’s tortures and gave me a role model to follow.
That June, she mailed me a letter. “Thank you very much for your picture,” she wrote. “I have it stuck up on my bulletin board, and I can’t help but always smile back at you. I really can’t tell you how much your work in the library helped me this year. To tell you the truth, it was much too quiet up there before you began to come up! I’ll be looking forward to your visit next September.”
Alas, that visit never came to pass, because she left, presumably to take a better job elsewhere. Over the years, as I became a newspaper reporter, wrote books, and taught literature, I often thought of her influence.
Sometimes all a child really needs is to be seen for who he or she is. Roberta Sabella Mansfield did that for me, and I am grateful. •
Betty J. Cotter is an adjunct faculty member in URI’s Harrington School of Communication and Media. Roberta Sabella Mansfield ’69, M.L.S. ’72, worked as a librarian in the Coventry public schools for 39 years.
This story was originally published in The Providence Journal on Oct. 31, 2020.