Pratt Library making new connections to youth Computer services are prepared them for lifetime of learning

April 13, 1997|By Carla Hayden

TODAY MARKS the start of National Library Week, which was organized by the Book Committee and the American Library Association 39 years ago. This year's theme, "Kids Connect ( )) the Library," is particularly timely and relevant and has special meaning for the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

Until the 1870s, most public libraries denied access to anyone under 12 or 14 years old. However, service to children and youth became a primary focus of public librarianship and continues to be one of the most important services libraries offer.

More children participate in summer reading programs at the nation's libraries than play Little League baseball. In fact, national surveys show that 37 percent of all users of the nation's public libraries are under 14 years old. The findings were recently reinforced by the Pratt Library's User Survey of fall 1994, which showed that 38 percent of its users were public school students under 12 years old.

Today's library helps children to learn to love reading and more. Children need books to stretch their minds and imaginations, but they also need computers to learn the skills they will use in the 21st century.

Only one American household in three owns a computer, and there are even fewer in economically disadvantaged households. The nation's public libraries are helping to make up for the disparity by offering Internet access, online databases, CD-ROM resources, and electronic links to other organizations and institutions.

As equalizers of opportunity, public libraries have long played a significant role in helping to level the playing field for those who could not afford to purchase books and reference materials. That role continues as libraries offer free and instructive access to the latest technologies and the vast array of resources available PTC through them. This access is particularly important for children as they prepare for a future in a information-based society.

The Pratt Library, building upon its tradition of quality services for children and youth, has created a number of nationally recognized programs that serve as models for other libraries and for the future.

The Pratt's special educational services for youth include a Student Express Center for middle and high schoolers at the Central Library, where reference materials and study aids, computers and copiers are gathered in a reserved space staffed with a youth librarian.

The student center concept is also being replicated in branch libraries so younger children can have materials and resources for homework. An exciting addition to the library's services for children is the new Pratt Library Smartlink areas scheduled for installation in three Police Athletic League Centers this fall. These areas will include direct electronic connections to the Pratt Library resources, homework assistance materials, and regular bookmobile and librarian visits.

A popular connection for children is the library's "Story Anytime," a free telephone service that children can call to hear prerecorded stories told by staff and volunteers. The expansion of children's programming is being enhanced by the new "Steps to Learning Campaign," a fund-raising project that seeks to provide more programs like "Grandma on Duty," a support program in which older adults help children to learn. Starting this week, branch libraries will have specially designed multimedia computer stations for children age 2 to 10. The Pratt is proud to be the first of the nation's public libraries to provide a special electronic literacy program for children who are unlikely to have computers at home and have only limited access to them at school. The project is titled "A Whole New World." The children are trained by staff and volunteers from all walks of life - an attorney, a library trustee, a retired NASA employee, an electrician - to gain access to information through the Internet.

Members of the original group of Whole New World participants are now part of a Whole New World home page, which offers a selection of adventurous and informative Web sites. They are also the library's best public ambassadors, selling their peers and siblings on the library. Vincent Dawkins, the "Cyberkid" recently profiled in The Sun, was the hit of the recent American Librarian Association conference as he held up his Pratt Whole New World Drivers Card before 3,000 attendees and proclaimed, "I have a license to learn."

Mary Sommerville, president of the American Library Association and a former children's librarian who selected this year's theme, said "America's librarians share a wonderful secret. We know that every time we share a story or a book, a game or a song with a child, we have a chance to light a flame that will last a lifetime."

As director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, I have a chance to see the impact that libraries and their resources and staff can have on a child's life. I have been struck by the number of people who've told me Pratt Library stories. Their fond memories were related with obvious feeling and conviction that the Pratt Library had contributed to their development and helped them connect to a better life. As we move forward to ensure that more kids can connect the library, we are also making sure that another library director 30 years from now will hear as many or even more wonderful Pratt Library stories.

Carla Hayden is the director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

! Pub Date: 4/13/97

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