Free kids from reading lists and they thrive

A few summers ago here at Nocturnal Librarian I wrote about the tyranny of summer reading lists. I argued then that kids should be free to read whatever they want in the summer instead of being made to choose from a list, because reading is more appealing when we have the freedom to decide what we want to read. Turns out I was on to something. The Washington Post reports that a series of studies have shown that when it comes to countering “summer slide” — the loss of skills and knowledge during school vacation — the freedom to read anything they like is a tremendous boost for kids. Those granted this freedom performed better than kids who had to read what their teachers chose.

One paragraph from the story really caught my attention: “For one class, researchers ran a book fair, where each student picked 13 books to take home at the end of the school year. The fair featured a broad range of selections — fiction and nonfiction, classics and newer works — and students eagerly passed the books back and forth, reveling in the opportunity to pick those matching their personal interests while chattering with one another about familiar stories. (An adaptation of Disney’s “Frozen” was especially popular.) Many also chose works considerably above or below their reading levels so they could share with siblings.” The kids in this class were in second grade in Rochester, New York, and an eye-popping 96% of children from their school qualify for free or reduced lunch.

What struck me, besides the tragically high level of poverty? First, the scene: I can recall many a book fair when I was in elementary school, and how exciting it was to pick books knowing I could take them home and keep them. Second, the image of kids “chattering” and “reveling” not over tablets or computers or video games, but books. And third, that strong desire kids showed to “share with siblings.”

This affirmed for me everything I already know to be true about reading: it’s a joy, when it’s allowed to be. There was no book report or test looming after the fair, the kids just knew they could pick a whole armful of books to read. And they couldn’t wait to share their choices, with each other and with their families. Books are meant to be loved not just by one person, but many. The communal experience of hearing a story together, or reading aloud to other people, is a pleasure just about everyone in America experiences either in school or at their local library, if not in their homes. These kids were not only going to read to themselves over the summer, but to others.

I also wondered whether the researchers considered taking kids to get library cards? Or directing families to the summer reading program at their local public library?  Don’t get me wrong — I love that these kids got to own books, and I wish every kid could. But it seemed very obvious to me that libraries are schools’ best partner in helping low income families keep their kids reading during summer break.

Books on the Nightstand, one of my favorite podcasts, has a Summer Reading Bingo card on their site. I might try it. Or I might throw all suggestions to the wind and just read whatever strikes me this summer. What are your summer reading plans?

Supporting libraries

My husband sent me this great article from the New York Times, Denying New York Libraries the Fuel They Need.” Jim Dwyer provides some startling facts, like this: “The city’s libraries — the fusty old buildings, and a few spiffier modern ones, planted in all five boroughs — had 37 million visitors in the last fiscal year. . . . So the city’s libraries have more users than major professional sports, performing arts, museums, gardens and zoos — combined.”

Dwyer notes “No one who has set foot in the libraries — crowded at all hours with adults learning languages, using computers, borrowing books, hunting for jobs, and schoolchildren researching projects or discovering stories — can mistake them for anything other than power plants of intellect and opportunity. They are distributed without regard to wealth.” And yet, he goes on to explain, the city’s professional sports teams have enjoyed hundreds of millions of dollars in capital funding and tax incentives while the public library system faces a fight each year for adequate funding.

Here’s where I’d better remind you, dear readers, that my opinions are mine and not that of my employer, a public library.

That fight goes on in your town too — it’s known, in public sector parlance, as the budget process. In New York, it seems, libraries have to fight for their hours every year, as part of a carefully choreographed dance between elected officials who are haggling with each other for their preferred projects. I am guessing that process isn’t so different in your town, or mine, just on a smaller scale than New York’s.

Meanwhile it seems every year there’s some non-librarian academic expert who comes along and fuels the idea that libraries are obsolete. Public officials love this, and it does libraries a disservice during the budget process. The latest is John Palfrey. Palfrey’s book is called Bibliotech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google and the Washington Post review is provocatively titled, “Do We Still Need Libraries?” Palfrey’s main point seems to be that libraries as we remember them from  our childhoods — and as I’ve noted in this blog before, in most towns across the country, they are still very much the same — must transform themselves into highly connected digital hubs, or die.

Palfrey should ask Dwyer to show him around the libraries of New York (or any neighborhood in America, I’d wager) and talk to the patrons who are using what he rightly notes are the backbone of egalitarian society. In our public libraries, where information is free and available to all citizens, people are reading or making readers of their kids. Mostly in print, which is still a better deal for libraries and the taxpayers who support them, because physical books don’t expire after a certain number of checkouts or a certain amount of time, as many library e-books do. When they open these books, people are discovering all the things that make us human, and what that means to them. They’re getting to know their neighbors. They’re becoming informed citizens.

Nostalgic and old fashioned? Ok, if you say so, digital experts. But in a society where there is almost nowhere to be quiet, study, or think, libraries offer that space. In a society where it’s hard, on a limited income, for retired people to meet friends and chat over the day’s newspaper, libraries offer that community. In a society where after school enrichment for kids almost always costs more than the working poor or even the middle class can afford, libraries offer that opportunity. In a society where the under and unemployed have almost nowhere else to access the internet, learn computer skills, apply for jobs, or print important documents, libraries offer those resources. In a society where the mentally ill, the disabled, the homeless, and the recently imprisoned are often unwelcome, libraries offer radical hospitality — we are open to all.

From information and books to early literacy, education and support for marginalized adults and new Americans, community and small town (or big city) culture, public libraries’ work is not diminished by people claiming that Google can replace your local librarian, or that libraries should “hack” themselves into “‘nodes in a larger network’ of organizations and must move toward ‘the digital, networked, mobile, and cloud-based library'” Palfrey envisions. And imagines private philanthropy will fund.

Space. Community. Opportunity. Resources. Books. These are real life, everyday services of public libraries. That we fund vast caverns where millionaires play sports and then leave libraries to fend for themselves every budget cycle sounds crazy because it is. That we think placing our hopes in some hypothetical network of charitably funded digital collections will improve upon what’s already going on in library branches all over America is silly. Build your fancy networks, go ahead, but in the mean time, don’t patronize the vital role of public libraries as “nostalgic” when for many ordinary citizens, that so-called nostalgia is actually a vital service they rely on.

 

Bookmobiles to the rescue

I have fond though somewhat vague memories of visiting a bookmobile when I was a kid. A recent thread on the New Hampshire State Library’s email list confirmed that most libraries in this area of the United States no longer have bookmobiles. I’m hoping some of them are in storage somewhere.

This morning in the New York Times I was happy to read that in the Rockaways, where several Queens Borough Public Library branches were damaged by Hurricane Sandy, an old bookmobile bus is making a real difference to residents impacted by the storm. The article says that while information, power outlets, and free coffee were the initial draws, books are what people are seeking now. And that the staff actually drove to Connecticut for fuel. Librarians rock.

American Libraries reports on the Queens bookmobile as well as the library’s programs for families in area shelters. The article also mentions other flooded and damaged libraries in New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts, and efforts to aid their recovery. Galley Cat reported on storm aid from publishers for libraries and schools, and also noted that Brooklyn Public Library’s bookmobiles were delivering relief supplies earlier this month. The library’s website listed other ways they are helping storm victims, from online learning to pop up library service.

So if your library has a mothballed bookmobile, it might not be a bad idea to give it a tune-up from time to time. It may come in handy if there is a natural disaster. And it also might be wise to think about how your library could help the community in case of a large-scale emergency. Our colleagues in  Sandy-impacted states are providing plenty of inspiration.

Sunshine on Book Mountain

Mountains in ancient times were considered the homes of gods, or places where man could draw near the divine. My brother sent me an article about a book mountain in the Netherlands which looks like heaven to me. 

Architecture firm MVRDV explains the way the 10 year project, actually named Book Mountain and Library Quarter Spijkenisse, ties into the town’s history and setting. They plan to release a book, Make Some Noise, in late 2012 that will be a “photo novel” about the project. The Library Quarter includes 42 apartments from studios to large family units. Can you imagine living here?

There are many more photos at both links above and at inhabit. Several comments at these sites mention sun being bad for books. On the project’s website the architects anticipate criticism on this point, noting, “damage to the books by sunlight is off-set by their normal 4 year life-span due to wear and tear from borrowing.”

Wow. Really? My unscientific research reveals that library books have expected lifespans of 25-50 check-outs (which shows that there isn’t much consensus on this topic). Mending keeps some books going longer. I am pretty sure 4 years is a low estimate. Does anyone know the average shelf-life of  books in your local library?

I don’t have any idea how much the sun damages books. But I looked up average annual hours of sunshine and Rotterdam, near Spijkenisse, averages 1542 hours, versus 2519 where I live in New Hampshire. For reference to notoriously rainy and sunny places, I found that London averages only about 1600 hours of sunshine a year and Seattle, 2019 hours; Miami, 2900 hours; San Diego, 2958 hours; Honolulu, 3041 hours.

Even New York City, which I would have guessed wasn’t particularly sunny since its weather is quite variable and it’s roughly in the middle of U.S. latitudes, averages 2677 hours. So if sunlight is detrimental to book life-span, Book Mountain might work better in Northern Europe than in many parts of the United States. I am stepping away from this post now, rather than spending the rest of my afternoon finding out which places in the U.S. have the least hours of annual sunshine. Because I’m tempted to look into that.