Cultivating readers beyond 'story hour' Children's services: Libraries strive to adapt to social changes as well as technological ones.

August 04, 1998

AS PARENTS and educators continue to debate the best methods for teaching reading in the classroom, one fact remains above dispute: Children are more likely to become good readers and develop a love of reading when they are exposed to books from a very young age.

In Maryland, public libraries are essential players in that process. This is nothing new; local library systems have been offering popular preschool story times and summer reading programs for decades. In the past, such services were treated mainly as something constructive and entertaining.

Today, however, libraries approach children's services more methodically - "as a developmental activity, as preparation for the development of reading," says Stephanie M. Shauck, recently named the first consultant on children's issues to the State Department of Education's Division of Library Development.

What has emerged is a heightened consciousness of the importance of childhood reading as it relates to education performance. One of Ms. Shauck's first directives is to explore the link between early childhood library usage and reading competence.

Citizens for Maryland Libraries, an advocacy group, examined circulation of children's materials in 1997. It concluded that library usage in a community was a greater predictor of scores on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) tests than other measures, including spending per pupil and student/teacher ratios - indeed, more than anything but poverty.

Carroll County reports the highest pre-teen circulation in Maryland, with 56 books per child under age 12, followed by Baltimore County (45) and Montgomery and Howard counties (36). The statewide average is 22 books per child per year.

Common-sense dictates that parents who support reading by taking their children to a library or bookstore will also support their efforts in school. Likewise, it stands to reason that kids who are introduced to stories and letters early are more likely to be ready to read when they reach school and to develop a love of books.

A generation ago, story times were for preschoolers. They gathered around a storyteller while their mothers browsed or chatted together elsewhere in the library. Today, the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore and suburban library systems offer programs for children, even before they turn 1. The goal is as much to teach parents and caregivers how to engage kids with books as it is to engage children during the story time itself.

Last month, for example, the Pratt brought in teen-age mothers from Lawrence G. Paquin Junior-Senior High to teach them how to introduce their babies to books. The Pratt has been encouraging summer reading for school-age children with a Ravens' football-themed program called "Team Read."

In some localities, bookmobiles have broadened their traditional stops at schools to include service to family day care providers and day care centers.

In Baltimore County, libraries and schools are collaborating on a program, "Families That Read Together," that provides incentives for children to apply for library cards. Parents and children sign "contracts" agreeing to visit libraries regularly and receive discounts at major bookstores.

Baltimore County libraries are also cooperating with the schools' first summer library borrowing program, in which children in kindergarten through fourth grade were encouraged to empty school libraries on the last day of school.

The public libraries are prepared to receive the books and return them to the right school.

There is, too, a welcome focus on promoting reading and research skills among older children and urging greater parental involvement with homework assignments. Libraries have become a gateway to the Internet for many students.

That vast universe of information has dark spaces, however. Some area library systems adopted policies to "filter" online terminals so children can't tap into pornography and other questionable material. One librarian wryly describes the blocked terminals in his children's section as the " 'no candy' aisle."

Although the American Library Association decries that as a form of censorship, area librarians say parents, especially in more conservative rural and suburban jurisdictions, demand it.

"We don't see it as censorship," says Irene M. Padilla, president of the Maryland Library Association and Harford County's library director.

In this television age, it is encouraging that libraries still play a significant role in the lives of Maryland's young people. Children's circulation accounts for nearly half of all library material borrowed; programs for young readers fill up quickly in most jurisdictions.

Libraries continue to develop their mission to provide children with informational resources and instill a love of books. Their biggest challenge is to find ways to get families not oriented to reading to walk through their doors.

Library numbers

Richest

Top 3 in per-capita spending

1. Carroll ($37.90)

2. Howard ($37.59)

3. Montgomery ($34.71)

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