Library works to reverse national trends

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The door to the library is magical: As you pass through it, all your problems disappear, librarian Vickie Howard tells her students at Central Middle School.

Books are the key to escape, the passageway to a world where new ideas are exposed and thought-provoking discussions begin. Libraries can be a haven, a place to make connections or discover something about yourself.

At least this is what librarians Howard and Libby Wilson are trying to create, battling a national trend of students reading less and reading "less well."

Wilson is the librarian at the junior high and is all too aware of the challenges of getting teenagers to read.

A November study by the National Endowment for the Arts found that only one-third of 13-year-olds read daily, down 14 percent from two decades prior. Nineteen percent of 17-year-olds don't read at all.

The study, titled "To Read or Not To Read," analyzed results from more than 40 studies. It states that the declines will have "civic, social, and economic implications."

Both Howard and Wilson are trying to reverse the downward trend in reading, breaking from the traditional role of a librarian.

Using the library

On Monday, about 25 junior high students munched on snacks and engaged in an activity often reserved for outside the library: They laughed loudly. The students had agreed to spend time in the school library when it wasn't required, after classes, attending Wilson's book club meeting.

"Our issue is that we haven't had the usage in the library; in the last couple of years it hasn't been used. I want to get them comfortable to come back, and just spark that interest and creativity," said Wilson, who is in her first year of working at the junior high.

Instead of telling students which book to read, Howard allows students to select a book, keep a journal and then share their thoughts about the book in an open forum.

The atypical book club works because junior high students are "choice driven" and "get turned off" when told what to read, Wilson said. Hearing other students' reactions to books inspires them to read, she said.

Sharon Anderson, the services coordinator for the Cape Gir-ardeau Public Library, attended the meeting and brought a surprise for the students -- jeans modeled on those described in the book "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants."

Covered in multicolored autographs, beads and a key chain, the jeans have traveled around the continent, making it to Cape Girardeau after two years of waiting and a delay after getting stuck in customs in Canada.

Students clamored to try on the jeans and add their mark to the cloth. They slapped their thighs, pointed and even rolled on the floor when one brave male tried on the pants and couldn't get the zipper up.

Anderson used the experience to recommend other books about friendship before students began a writing activity.

Changing ideas

The book club is a far cry from the traditional, ho-hum idea of a library being a boring place to work independently, students said.

"A lot of them hate to read. But the library is the only place I can find my friends," said seventh-grader Katey Lastrapes.

At the middle school, Howard is using her experience with the People to People Ambassador Program to pique students' interest in reading about different cultures. Howard, along with about 300 other educators, traveled to Cairo, Egypt, from Nov. 25 to Dec. 2, visiting schools to spread goodwill.

Her students are amazed, she said, when she tells them students in Cairo go to school every day of the week except Friday -- often walking long distances to get to school -- and that some classrooms have up to 80 students. Even though children have to sit on the floor in some cases, they have a love for learning, Howard said, something she wants to instill in her students.

The Jackson School District is also working to get young adults in the library by creating themed, schoolwide reading units. The middle school is focusing on author Rick Riordan, who writes fictional stories about Greek mythology.

In addition to book clubs and book fairs, librarian Donna Brown has helped organize a book character dress-up day and a themed assembly.

"We do everything we can think of to celebrate the joy of reading," Brown said.

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