June 2008


Jazz by Walter Dean MyersIt’s hard to find much time to blog while you’re running around ALA Annual, but I did want to post a couple of things I heard in sessions. Last night I went to the Odyssey Awards program that Booklist puts on to honor youth audiobooks. The winner was Live Oak Media’s version of Walter Dean Myers’ Jazz. Children’s author and audiobook producer Bruce Coville was pretty funny giving us a mini-history of kids’ audiobooks.

He told us how American educators have long been of two minds about audiobooks, because Americans expect kids to be working hard to get their literature, and listening to an audiobook seems kind of, well, cheating, especially now in the era of No Child Left Behind: “Teachers and librarians ask, ‘Is that child suffering enough? Working hard enough?’ Teachers are being told not to read aloud so much these days.” Coville, on the other hand, wants families to listen to books read aloud, and it sets his teeth on edge when kids are constantly watching DVDs in the back seat: “Every time I see a family going down the road with a damned DVD player in the car,” he said, “I know it’s wrong.”

Instead, Coville pushes hard for us to listen together: “Every great teacher knows the story is the most important thing. We’re a vast and diverse culture in the US, in danger of flying apart at the seams. Stories help us understand each other, and audiobooks are a way to get more stories in our lives.”

He also joked about his experiences driving across the country with his then-14-year-old daughter, saying “when you’re driving through Kansas, I learned that Pride and Prejudice is riveting.”

Today I attended several sessions, but the one that sticks in my mind the most is the one about Maricopa County (AZ) Library’s Dewey-less branch library. Instead of “973.2,” the label on a book’s spine says simply “History.” During the questions, one librarian sounded a little hot under the collar when he asked why the library couldn’t simply put the Dewey labels on the books and put them into a section marked “history,” but the librarians from Maricopa County replied that their users didn’t know Dewey and didn’t understand Dewey.

The feeling I got was that in the era of Google, Dewey wasn’t necessary any more. If people came to the library and were looking for a subject for an assignment, they’d find it more easily in a face-out display of newer, shinier, subject-related books. They say it works for them. The name of the session, by the way, was “Dewey or Don’t We?”

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Robert McCloskey\'s \All of us know Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings, which takes place in Boston. We would never expect, though, to see a mother duck leading eight or nine ducklings near the heavily-trafficked Katella Blvd near Disneyland on the first day of the ALA Annual Conference in Anaheim, CA. I was, unfortunately, about a block and a half away – inside the Anaheim Convention Center – when it happened, so I missed it. But two members of the Austin Public Library youth services staff, Stephanie Shipman and Suzanne Sanders, spotted them as they walked from a restaurant toward the Convention Center.

“We looked over and saw the mama duck with four or five ducklings on the curb and four more in the gutter,” Sanders told me. “She leaped down to get them, but couldn’t get them up, so we ran over and gave them a little boost onto the grass. They started crossing the sidewalk, and another woman started coming over to see. When she did, that mama duck gave out a tremendous ‘QUAAACK!’.”

They waddled away into a big flower bed. Sanders and Shipman wonder – where did they come from? But that family of ducks was, after all, right next to Disneyland.

Tasha Tudor\'s Pumpkin MoonshineYou’ve probably seen one of the mentions of picture book illustrator/author Tasha’s Tudor’s death at the pretty remarkable age of 92. Since I’ve been working in library children’s areas for a long time, I’ve always been aware of her books. But being more the sort who preferred Dr. Seuss and Dav Pilkey, I never paid much attention to her books, finding them far too feminine and fussy, and I can’t remember when I ever used one in a storytime. I know she had plenty of fans, but I was unaware until this weekend that she’d still been alive.

When I read her New York Times obituary, I was surprised to learn that she had lived the kind of life – in a 19th-century, close to nature style – that had been way hip before its time:

She wore kerchiefs, hand-knitted sweaters, fitted bodices and flowing skirts, and often went barefoot. She reared her four children in a home without electricity or running water until her youngest turned 5. She raised her own farm animals; turned flax she had grown into clothing; and lived by homespun wisdom: sow root crops on a waning moon, above-ground plants on a waxing one.

Who would have thought? Now I’m sorry I waited so long to learn more about her.

Flooded Cedar Rapids Public LibraryIf you haven’t seen the news about it yet, take a look at the news about the flooded Cedar Rapids (IA) Public Library. The Iowa floods have been all over the news lately, but nothing brings it home for us library folks like seeing the first-floor stacks in several feet of water.

The CRPL goes on, though. As you can read in the story, the library building has no power, even after the water receded. The staff just held a summer reading program in an empty, closed-down shoe store. The adult collection on the flooded first floor has been pretty much destroyed and will probably have to be discarded, but the children’s collection on the unflooded second floor may still be in danger from humidity, mold, and toxic chemicals. This quote is from Library Journal‘s Norman Oder’s interview with the CRPL’s Marie DeVries:

Obviously the water didn’t get up there, but every day that passes is a problem. The humidity is incredible. You can hardly be there without a mask for 15 minutes. The muck left behind by the river is filled with who knows what. We have a lot of industry in downtown Cedar Rapids. They all are located along the river, and they’ve all been compromised, so many of the chemicals they had in storage are in the river. And, of course, [there’s] raw sewage.

It looks as if the CRPL, which was very close to the flooded Cedar River, will need to be gutted and reconfigured. And, ironically (for those who believe that the Internet means than we don’t have to deal with the real world), among the things lost in the flood was access to the library’s servers. The library’s Web site is currently unavailable. The nearby Hiawatha Public Library’s site is up, though, with FEMA information and announcements of canceled summer kids’ programs and shortened hours.

A boy readingWe all know that kids often admire the men in their lives – and often it’s because men possess the mystery and charm that comes from keeping a greater distance than the many women in most kids’ day-to-day existences. For boys in particular, it means that whatever these men do, the kids will take seriously.

Because many men aren’t enthusiastic readers, and in particular not readers of books, boys often will quickly get the message that reading isn’t a thing that men do. The Reading Rockets site from WETA Public Television recently posted two pages of tips on ways for men to encourage children’s literacy. Here’s one, and here’s another from the National Literacy Trust in the UK. These pages were created with fathers in mind, but not all kids have fathers who play active roles in their lives. Depending on the family situation, moms’ boyfriends, or children’s uncles, grandfathers, and male family friends can fill this role, too.

The most important part of this message, though, applies to all of us who spend time around kids, and is titled “Walk the walk”:

Your child learns from what you do. Make sure the messages you are sending about reading tell your child that knowledge and literacy are valuable, achievable, and powerful.

All men who interact, even in small ways, with children need to get this message. It’s harder for those of us in public libraries to talk and work directly with the men we need most to reach – the ones who aren’t readers, yet have children at home. Any time we have the opportunity to speak with them, we should make it a priority.

One Laptop Per Child classroomIn a recent Slate article, “The $100 Distraction Device,” Ray Fisman writes about a study conducted in Romania in which lower-income families were offered vouchers for free PCs for their children. The goals, of course, were to get these kids studying harder and more efficiently. But the results show what you might suspect – that yeah, these kids watched less TV. But they also slept less and did less homework.

Guess what they were doing instead?

Every study I’ve seen about low-income kids, games, and computers suggests the same things. It’s parental guidance that makes all the difference, and the poorer a family is, the less likely that parents encourage their kids to develop good study habits and limit their access to games and other amusing Net stuff.

That’s not always true – I worked with several groups of poor Latino families in New York City Head Starts with moms who were adamant about giving their kids good study habits. They asked lots of questions about ways to improve their children’s reading readiness and were hungry for the answers. But there were lots of other families I knew I’d never see, without a clue about helping their kids do well in school. Fisman compares the kinds of parents who choose to buy their kids PCs vs. those parents who, as in this case, were given free-computer coupons randomly:

Parents who buy computers tend to place more value on education—they’re also more likely to live in good school districts, pay for extra math classes, and generally provide a richer learning environment for their kids than parents who don’t buy computers.

Fisman remembers how involved his parents were when he got a computer growing up. He describes them as “education-obsessed” – the kind of parents we commonly see in libraries serving striving immigrants and/or upper-middle-income families. But both parents in lots of poor families are working long hours and their kids are often free to do as they like:

… my parents stepped in to make sure Space Invaders didn’t crowd out homework. Where were Romania’s parents? The voucher program was specifically designed to help poor households, and their dire financial circumstances meant that these families were probably less able to afford after-school care or otherwise see to it that the computers were used for learning and not just recreation. Indeed, the authors found that when they looked specifically at families with stay-at-home moms who may be more present and able to police computer use, the negative effects of vouchers were greatly reduced.

When I worked in New York City public libraries, almost all the kids competing for slots at the PCs were non-white and/or non-Anglo. In Austin, it’s the same. I’m willing to bet – although I’ve never been so crass as to ask – that their families are poor. The better-off kids can go home and have a fast Net connection waiting for them. Lots of the poorer kids must come to the library for one.

It’s not an easy job, but we folks in libraries serving lower-income families need to do what we can, when we can, to help parents and kids see the importance of holding off on the Mario Kart or the Nickelodeon Web site until after the homework’s done. And I’m hoping that the countries in the developing world that are providing the One Laptop Per Child computers to families with subsistence incomes are also training the parents to keep those games switched off until the homework’s done.

Hubbardston PLI would not want to be working as a public librarian in MA just now, because it appears that the citizens of that state are not feeling particularly positive about their public libraries.

The Hubbardston Public Library is closing down June 28 (that’s the HPL there on the left), after a property tax limitation measure passed and citizens voted against restoring its cuts. The tax limit cut its budget so much that it can’t survive. (I originally said it was the Worcester PL – I’ve corrected the error.)

And in Saugus, MA, the public library’s budget is being cut by $75,000, with that money being given instead to the city’s schools, to hire two reading specialists. (Two reading specialists for that little money? Wow, I hope they’re able to pay their bills, since I’m assuming that the $37,500 each will receive includes their benefits, too.)

The debate at Saugus’s town meeting was pretty intense. The Saugus Public Library had already lost its certification with the state library commission. Library folks pressed hard to keep the library staffed, while the school supporters, living under the shadow of No Child Left Behind, pressed for support for helping poor elementary-level readers:

“The $75,000 would make it possible for people to keep working in the library, and back up the reading programs in the schools,” said resident Martha Clouse. “It will bring us a step closer to recertification.”

Town Meeting member Barbara Malone, a former School Committee chairwoman, countered that the schools must produce strong readers.

“What is the point of having a library serving children who can’t read?” she said. “I’d just like you to think about that.”

It’s a tough decision. Both schools and libraries need better funding, but conservative voters, especially those without kids in school, don’t want to pay taxes. I’ve seen it happen all over the US, and it will not be easy – especially in these hard economic times – to convince a lot of voters otherwise.

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