Allen Chamberlain: Teacher, Librarian, Steward Of The Land

“This is one of my favorites. My hand is at the top of a baby tree, one just planted, and my beloved springer spaniel, Buddy, is also checking things out.”

In her (almost) 30 years at Collegiate, Allen Chamberlain has made a lasting impact not only on Collegiate’s library, but also on the entire community. Before coming to Collegiate, Chamberlain worked as a librarian at public libraries in Williamsburg and Martinsville, VA, where she enjoyed the diversity of the library members and the “service-oriented nature” of the position. Chamberlain remembers that “it felt almost always as if you were being invited into something very significant: to stand beside someone who was having to make a hard decision.”

After working as a public librarian for ten years, Chamberlain sought a change. As a single mother, she searched for a library that could provide her with more flexibility. She stumbled upon Collegiate, which she remembers was a “very different place” in 1987. Aside from the many new buildings and the increase in student population in the past 30 years, Chamberlain also remembers the changes that have come as a result of the merging of Collegiate’s boys’ and girls’ schools. She came to Collegiate just after the combination of the girls’ and boys’ Upper Schools and the coordination of the girls’ and boys’ Middle Schools in 1986, and Chamberlain described the environment at the time as somewhat “unsteady.” She remarked that the library was “unconventional for a school library” because it combined a “haven and an academic” environment. “We were not the kind of place where there was a lot of shushing or rules and regulations,” Chamberlain added.

Chamberlain is now the Head Librarian of the Saunders Family Library. In the fall, when she is not working in the library, Chamberlain also teaches her junior and senior English elective, What Do I Know? Explorations In Creative Non-Fiction, a class that includes the study and creation of audio essays.  

“A sunset view from our camphouse looking out toward the lake.”

Apart from her work at Collegiate, Chamberlain manages a 3,000 acre tree farm in Mississippi, which she calls a “nice partner to to the intellectual and creative life that I have here at school.” The farm holds tremendous sentimental value for Chamberlain (a native of Meridian, Mississippi), having been in her family for many years. Chamberlain feels “honored to be entrusted” with something that her parents and grandparents worked so hard to grow. The farm is gratifying for Chamberlain because it provides jobs in an area that is “traditionally low opportunity.”

When at the farm, Chamberlain stays in “a little camphouse on one of our tracts of land that was really built from scraps from my grandfather’s lumber yard.” The house is filled with objects found on the farm, from arrowheads to old tools and compasses; each item holds special value for Chamberlain. Although she is only able to visit three or four times per year, Chamberlain always goes with a specific plan in mind. She thinks about exactly what she wants to accomplish in her limited time at the farm. Part of the excitement of visiting the farm for Chamberlain is that “you understand life in a different duration, in a different time.” “Watching things grow and being more in touch with the weather” are some of her favorite takeaways from her time in Mississippi. Another one of Chamberlain’s favorite aspects of being the stewardess of the land is “the extraordinary [sight of] a little pine seedling that is maybe six inches tall grow into a magnificent tree over 15 years.”

As for the future, Chamberlain would love to spend more time in Mississippi. She has a few new ideas for the farm and plans to experiment with new methods of managing the land. Additionally, her farm currently grows mostly one type of tree, the Loblolly pine, and she is excited to try planting different types.

Chamberlain is regarded as one of the sweetest people on campus to all who know
her. Upper School librarian and Senior Seminar teacher Melanie Barker, who often works alongside Chamberlain, admires her because “
she takes a genuine interest in people and their stories, and I think this is why she is so good at discovering students’ hidden talents and what excites them.” Barker adds, “Any time you’re conspiring in a room with her, you know you’ll walk out with a brilliant, unconventional, delightful plan.” Emily Mendelson (‘18), a member of Chamberlain’s junior advisory, says, “Ms. Chamberlain is more than merely an advisor to me; her kind words, friendly smile, and passionate demeanor are what truly bridges the gap between being an advisor to being a mentor and friend.”

All photos courtesy of Allen Chamberlain.

About the author

Amy is a junior at Collegiate.