Reading culture

I thought I would “publish” the remarks I made for a panel with Antioch University Library Director Lisa Lepore and Adult Services Librarian (LAPL) Eugene Owens at the California State Library Convention on Friday. Our topic was “Creating a Reading Culture in Libraries.” My part was about public libraries.

When I was a teen librarian, to get kids reading we started a program one summer called Book Café. We set up round tables that seated eight; we served cappuccino and cookies; and we introduced the idea of book-talking. We asked the teens to bring whatever they were reading, and to sit at a table labeled with their favorite genre—fantasy, mystery, or whatever. Our idea was that they would go around the table, each book-talking the book they had brought, and then maybe trade books at the end if someone else’s sounded appealing.


After we did a demo of a book talk from the front of the room and told them to get on with it, a sixth-grader named Harrison came up to me and the other teen librarian.

“Listen,” he said. “I just read a book that was so good, I KNOW that if they heard about it, everyone in this room would want to read it. Can I share it from the front of the room?”

We gave him the microphone. He book-talked his book, everyone applauded, and he sat down. Several hands went in the air. “Yes?” I asked. “I have one I want to do too!” another kid said. So I motioned her up to the front and handed her the mic, and for the next two hours, the mic was handed off from one to the next for about 24 teens. It had become like Open Mic Night but with books.

After this, Book Café became our most popular program. Teens would stop us in the library to request more sessions. Teens would ask other teens, Are you coming? You’ll like it! Attendance for the program climbed from the 30s into the 60s. And the teens clamored to select a book from our stash of teen fiction as prizes for summer reading club drawings.

We had created a culture of reading.

In the 1990s, when online search engines and databases began to accumulate and hold the knowledge formerly accessible mainly in books, librarians had to meet the challenge of information-seeking in a different arena. They had to learn, and they had to teach, adapting to new technologies and formats. Many librarians succumbed to panic. Their relevance was challenged with the familiar phrase, “Why do we need the library when we have Google?” The frantic and continually changing evolution of the library had begun. Books felt less relevant. For decades now, librarians have been like sharks, constantly moving into some next phase of justifying their existence. But a friend of mine, a professor in the UCLA MLIS program, said recently, “Libraries have Shakespeare, we have Toni Morrison, we have all the riches of literature—why are we running from that? We are the keepers of the books, and if it’s education that we want to promote, how better than to do so by creating a culture of reading for our children? Why do we not trust reading, and trust ourselves not only as its collectors but as its purveyors?”

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In 1932, Margaret A. Edwards, the first teen librarian, said essentially the same thing to her colleagues, who were holding fast to the information standard and shunning the idea of devoting their education as a librarian to learning about and giving people books they would enjoy reading. I propose that the same thing is still true
87 long years later, and it’s past time for us to wake up.

In marketing pamphlets and in some online promotions, this year’s summer reading program has for the first time been changed to a summer “learning” program. Children’s librarians are being encouraged to do educational programming. The iREAD theme for 2020 is “Dig Deeper,” and its promotional language no longer encourages reading for the simple—and profound—pleasure of reading. It seems that everything must tie back to STEM.

The CSLP theme for 2020 is “Imagine Your Story.” This sounds more promising until you read the slugs underneath each age group: Building reading and language skills. Motivating teens. Preparing children for success. This is the language of business. Success to me is the kid who’s reading three grades above his age level because he loves books.

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CSLP has published an impressive white paper on their website in which they review all the studies made of students and summer learning loss, and the advantages of participating in a program to combat that loss. One of the things they note is that public libraries face increasing accountability standards and scarce funding, and therefore must resort to evaluation of their programs. But this clinical review of best practices leaves the heart and soul out of the reason for cultivating reading in children and teens: to promote a love of reading that will be of lifelong benefit and advantage. If we persist in equating libraries with school, and take the pleasure component out of reading, we will lose those children.

Dr. Stephen Krashen, the leading expert on the subject of free voluntary reading, reminds us: People who read because they want to, with no assignment components—no book reports, no questions, no tests, no analysis—do better in school by far than those who don’t read or who only read under compulsion. Krashen’s premise, which has been broadly verified, is that the source of a wide vocabulary, good grammar, spelling skills, and competent writing ability is free voluntary reading. He goes on to note that students who participate in sustained silent reading programs go on to read more on their own than those who do not.

By contrast with the curriculum-based initiative to push school children into reading with education and information as an end, some progressive library systems are taking note that a return to our roots—to the philosophical underpinnings of library culture—might actually be the most modern and up-to-date course we could pursue as librarians. The Sacramento Public Library has recently created an initiative for its entire staff, one in which that staff is expected to place reading and readers’ advisory at the top of their list of job priorities as they create a culture in which literature is as important as information and technology, and readers are valued.

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Sacramento PL took an in-depth and global approach to this goal. First, they created the culture within their system by involving their entire library staff.

  • They incorporated books into library meetings as icebreakers;
  • They sent out weekly emails asking what “you” are reading, and actually expected an answer;
  • They encouraged reading through staff challenges;
  • They provided time during the workday for reading;
  • They incorporated reading into job performance evaluations;
  • And they provided formal readers’ advisory training.

Then they expanded to consider the library itself:

  • Reading displays and staff picks were created for every section of every branch, and staff were assigned to maintain them;
  • Books became central on all fronts, using merchandising standards;
  • They made sure that everything from library events and programming to social media posts reflected their new initiative.

Finally, they started taking the initiative outside the library with outreach events.

  • They hosted a readers’ advisory table at the state fair;
  • They did a Chamber of Commerce mixer with stacks of ARCs on each table as décor, so people could take books home with them to keep.

Their new unofficial motto became “books are the hook that get people in the door,” and everything reflected this.

In other key places across the country, this is also beginning to happen. Libraries in Colorado and in Chicago have readers’ advisory interest groups or committees, and belong to such global initiatives as the Panorama Project, a coalition of readers’ advisory professionals who offer support for librarian networking and training and are also involved in ongoing research on the impacts of such activities as community reading events.

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As librarians, we cannot afford to view our entire function as transactional. Our intellectual lives are important and should be valued. Public libraries, unlike academic settings, have not traditionally promoted time for librarians to take in reading and to produce new knowledge, but this needs to change, especially in an educational climate that has eliminated school libraries and teaches to the exam. As a public librarian for 11 years, I know what we are up against, besieged by both small tasks and large social concerns, until our work-day is so fragmented that we are in danger of losing focus. But I am asking you to make reading your priority, for the simple reason that no one else is doing or will do it.



No matter what other services you offer, when you observe your work space you realize that you are sitting in the center of a great big box full of books. And although librarians religiously keep up with their collection development, buying the worthy and the popular each year and expanding their collections, we need to acknowledge that sometimes we forget it’s our job not just to maintain our collections but to have deep knowledge of them and know how to present them to our patrons.

Let me share some statistics with you:

  • According to a 2017 Pew Research survey, 64 to 73 percent of patrons say they come to the library to find a good book.
  • For a 2016 Materials Survey for Library Journal, Barbara Hoffert discovered that FICTION accounts for 65 percent of print circulation and 79 percent of e-book circulation in libraries.
  • In 2015, NoveList conducted a “secret shopper” survey. The main question was, “If the book the patron was seeking was not in the library, did the librarian then suggest an alternate title?”
    75 percent of patrons answered NO.

In the face of these figures, are we not derelict in our duty as librarians if we fail to create opportunities around books? What better way could we serve our public than to realize that reading and advising are a skill set, to enable ourselves to be readers, and to advise our community that we are not only able but eager to connect them with the books they want?

The sad truth is that most library patrons don’t even know this is a service we offer. If people don’t know what we have and we don’t tell them, we are and will remain invisible. When we choose to adopt philosophies imposed upon us by schools, by business, by those who don’t understand what a library can be and what librarians can do,
we weaken our impact.

I would like to challenge you to take these ideas back to your home libraries, to consider the benefits of a community rooted in a love of reading, and to share your knowledge and expertise with them by creating a pervasive reading culture in your community. I believe the benefits of truly “making story our brand” will be immeasurable.

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