“Public libraries are an essential part of a democracy,” says librarian Mary Graf. “Funded by the community, they exist to provide equal access to information and enrichment to everyone in the community, regardless of age, income, education, or social status.”
Graf has been the Youth Services Librarian at Brownell Library in Essex Junction, Vermont since 1993. With a background in Educational Psychology and Elementary Education, Graf has also worked in Montessori schools and two other libraries in New York before settling into her current role.
I was just beginning my school years in the ‘80s as Graf started her work as a librarian, and while I was in Pennsylvania and Graf was in New York, she represents the excitement I felt the first time I checked a book out of the school library.
She could have been the woman who I fondly remember reading Shel Silverstein poems to me and my middle school peers as we sat in a half-circle around her feet. She was not the librarian guiding me through the Dewey Decimal System or microfiche readers, but she was guiding someone.
Technology has expanded research potential and changed the way we navigate information, and there is an over-abundance of media options available for taking in non-fictional and fictional stories. Card catalogs and the little card pockets in the back of books are relics of a simpler time, but libraries are far from obsolete.
Even in our fast-paced, digital world, brick and mortar libraries are relevant and essential to our communities.
Libraries Improve Education
My love of reading and writing has provided me with entertainment, escape, and employment. So far I have been able to turn my three children into book lovers too.
The time we spend snuggled together to read is one of my favorite parts of the day, but as we lose ourselves in a story, I am not lost on the fact that reading to my kids improves their language and literary skills. Public and school libraries and the librarians who run them play a vital role in our children’s learning too. From the free access to quality books on countless topics and the expertise to get your child interested in the written word, libraries play a key role in our children’s education.
Studies have shown that librarians have a direct impact on standardized test scores. Research done by the School Library Journal found that in a five year time span: “19 of the 26 states that gained librarians saw an average 2.2 percent rise in their National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) fourth-grade reading scores. Meanwhile, 9 of the 24 states that lost librarians had a 1 percent rise. Why is this important? Because of the proportion of the difference—the increase in scores of states that gained librarians was two times that of states that lost librarians.”
The librarians themselves are the carpenters, but their tools are books, real paper books. Students concentrate better and understand and retain information better when they read off of paper compared to reading from a screen.
Ferris Jabr, writes in his Scientific American article The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens this: “Modern screens and e-readers fail to adequately recreate certain tactile experiences of reading on paper that many people miss and, more importantly, prevent people from navigating long texts in an intuitive and satisfying way. In turn, such navigational difficulties may subtly inhibit reading comprehension. Compared with paper, screens may also drain more of our mental resources while we are reading and make it a little harder to remember what we read when we are done.”
The desire and need to hold an old-fashioned paperback are real, and the benefits of doing so have been proven.
Libraries Bridge The Gap
As a kid, I rode my bike to the public library to do research for book reports and school projects; looking though the index cards in the card catalogs to find what I needed was a special kind of scavenger hunt.
Heading to the library to get my work done was a necessity. Technology had not yet made finding information as easy as tapping an app on a smart phone; it would be years before the internet or computers were affordable luxuries.
Even today, with high speed connectivity and endless supplies of information at our fingertips, some people still rely on the library to navigate everyday tasks we take for granted. The Pew Research Center found that 47 million, or 15%, of Americans were not online as of 2015. Age, rural living settings, and poverty were key reasons.
Librarian Mary Graf reminded me: “Brownell Library has helped to bridge the digital divide. People have learned to use computers here and many have come in to submit online job applications, make airline reservations, set up email accounts, or look at family photos on Facebook. Librarians offer assistance, and those who need tutorial help can make an appointment with our Volunteer Tech Helper.”
Librarians are also essential to English language learners (ELL). Immigrants and refugees depend on libraries to find books in their native language and find comfort in books that reflect their culture; ELL students also rely heavily on school librarians for reading skills. The School Library Journal indicated that in a four year period while ELL reading test scores were overall on the decline, “States that lost librarians, on average, ELL student scores dropped -2.8 percent—a loss twice as bad as the one suffered across all states.”
Perhaps this goes without saying, but is still worth repeating, students living in poverty may only have access to books, reading instruction, computers, and internet access at their local libraries.
Libraries Enrich Communities
Libraries do more than provide resources and education; they provide opportunities for people to come together and to network, creating a sense of ownership and belonging in their community. Graf referred to her library as the living room of the town. Programs and groups of all ages enjoy quality speakers, knitting groups, book discussions and pot luck dinners. Family movie nights, LEGO building clubs, and children’s story and music times fill libraries with parents and children looking for quality (and free) entertainment.
Many public libraries offer teenagers leadership roles through Teen Advisory Groups, and while it’s not surprising that teenagers benefit from libraries when it comes to school work, they can also be found in the library for fun.
Sari Feldman, executive director of Cuyahoga County Public Library in Parma, Ohio explains that Cuyahoga’s Warrensville Heights branch offers a space specifically designed for teens with a gaming station and recording studio. According to the American Library Association, the peak time for juvenile crime and experimentation with drugs and alcohol is between 3-6 p.m.—the hours after school and before parents come home from work.
By creating and nurturing progressive spaces found in libraries, our teens have access to better and more productive choices.
As summer approaches, public libraries are gearing up for this year’s summer reading program themed On Your Mark, Get Set, Read! From early literacy to adult programs, the goal is to keep people reading, moving, and healthy. The summer months at the quaint, but mighty library in Essex Junction, Vermont are also filled with fresh vegetables, which are grown, harvested, cooked and eaten by teenagers who are learning lifelong skills and the rewards of hard work.
“We bring the fresh vegetables back to the library to prepare different dishes, salads, sautés with pasta or rice, omelets, and smoothies. Kids discover that when they pick them from the garden, vegetables taste good! Parents are surprised and pleased by their expanded palates,” says librarian Mary Graf.
My love of libraries runs deep. They have provided me with books to find information, find escape, and find myself. I am so appreciative of the librarians who promoted this deep running love. Graf will be retiring in October, but the impression she has made on so many people will last forever.
I’m not sure if my twin toddlers will remember Mary the way I remember the first librarian who helped me find a book, but I will always cherish the image of my own children slapping books onto the counter, bursting with excitement to take their treasures home.