September 2008


We keep hearing about how the U.S. economy is struggling. Those of us in libraries know how, during those times that hurt the majority of us, libraries tend to be particularly hurt. Here’s a story from the San Gabriel Valley Tribune about the fortunes of the County of Los Angeles Public Library (COLAPL). It’s like old-home week for me, because I grew up among the branches of the COLAPL. One of my first jobs as a teenager – way back in the late 60s – was at the Claremont branch of the COLAPL.

The story says:

As it is, Los Angeles County Librarian Margaret Donnellan Todd said, libraries never fully recovered from the mid-1990s, when the state chopped their funding in half by taking local government money to balance its budget.

Increased foreclosure rates and fewer home sales now are pulling down local property- tax revenues, which the county’s library system depends on to pay for about 60 percent of its budget, Todd said.

“For us in the county, it’s all about money. We never have as much of it as we would want to do all the things we want, but that’s always been the history of libraries,” said Todd, who oversees libraries ranging from the tiny Sorensen Library in West Whittier to larger libraries in Duarte, Rosemead and West Covina.There are county libraries in 51 cities and nearly all unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County, Todd said, “and we’re always struggling to make sure we have enough money.”

Ah, that takes me back. I worked as a clerk in the West Covina library for a while when I was in college. Yeah, back in 1971 and 1972.

But it makes me sad to see how libraries – institutions that have been around for over a century in so many places in the U.S. – continue to struggle financially. I feel that part of the problem, in the first decade of the 21st century, is how difficult it is for so many librarians to explain exactly what it is that we do. We’re not telling everyone that we do literacy – we celebrate literacy, and we support literacy. Literacy is what we are and what we do, every day.

Optenet, an Internet security company, says in a recent report (it’s a PDF) that as of this year, 36.21 percent of all Web sites contain pornography. Online shopping, by contrast, only makes up 10.5 percent of the sites.

Can this really be true? These days, I so rarely encounter a porn site as I’m zipping around the Net – and this was not the case, say, eight or ten years ago – that it hardly seems as if it could be a real statistic. But who knows? I look at the screens of kids and teens using PCs in the branch where I work, and I see, almost exclusively, either games or pages from social network sites in which they’re looking at very non-pornographic photos of friends grinning at each other from their cell phones, doing teenage kinds of things. Am I missing something? Are they zipping immediately to porn when I walk away?

Perhaps in these days of hefty filtering in libraries, especially on PCs that kids and teens use, this immense group of sites are filtered away. And I’ll ignore the fact that Optenet specializes in keeping these kinds of sites filtered away. But if true, that percentage could tell us something about human nature that many folks don’t want to hear. Don’t you think?

You may have heard about the new Roald Dahl Funny Prize (I love that name) for works of children’s literary humor in the UK. If not, zip over right away and read this story in the online Guardian. I particularly like how this story ties children’s humor – which typically isn’t taken very seriously by children’s literature scholars, prize judges, and teachers – and literacy.

Lots of children – especially lots of boys in the middle grades – learn to read at least partly because they want to read books like Dahl’s and Dav Pilkey’s.

Here’s a quote from the story that I feel all of us in library land should read at least twice:

Moreover, humour is one of the best ways to make children into readers. Hence the source of support: Roald’s widow Liccy Dahl believes that not only did her husband think there was “nothing better than a row of giggling children”, but also that he longed for every child to be literate “and you can’t start them on Shakespeare”. Jokes are seductive. Rosen’s theory is that funny books liberate kids from their controlled lives – for the smaller ones by inverting what they know; for the older ones by puncturing teenage angst. And that the best funny books avoid improving morals.

It’s those kids, many of whom are boys, who really don’t want their “morals improved,” who are especially hard to reach, and who need to be told, “Hey, you can be literate and still be your cool and goofy self.” Although we don’t hear from Jon Scieszka in this British piece, I’m certain that he would be nodding along.

I’ve mentioned WETA Public Television’s “Reading Rockets” site and TV series several times in the past, but I particularly wanted to mention their newest programs on young children and reading readiness. This article, called “Toddling toward Reading,” reveals all the basics.

Many members of each new generation of parents – in particular, all the parents whose educational experience might be limited – believe that children learn to read in school, period, and their child doesn’t need any help gaining pre-reading skills before starting kindergarten. They don’t understand that those kids who have the easiest time learning to read in school have been prepared by parents who read to them from infancy, and who talked to them, recited rhymes to them, and sang to them. We library folks need to be passing the word on.

Unfortunately, the program is being broadcast on various public TV stations at all kinds of bizarre times, some of them inconvenient for parents of young children. But this site includes some great resources and materials you can pass along to parents and teachers you know. There’s a link to a National association for the Education of Young Children article called “Learning to Read and Write: What Research Reveals,” and another, “Pre-K and Latinos.” Take a look.