Shadowing Mrs. Levi
October 6, 2011
Filed under Local/Community
In an era of bleak economics, when even the survival of the US Post Office now seems in jeopardy, Americans despair. Despite shrinking state budgets, in Baltimore, the local library continues to perform its essential role for our community with notable success. The children’s department at the Enoch Pratt Central Library, in particular, demonstrates the strong commitment to early education, as well as its winning strategy, reaching out to its reading patrons and their families in these worst of financial times. Dickens would be pleased.
Selma Levi, the supervisor of the children’s department is one of two full time staff members, assisted by two part time associates and a secretary at the central branch on Cathedral Street. Asked to comment on the financial restraints confronting the library, she acknowledges, “We are extremely short-staffed.” But then she smiles, revealing optimism about the creativity of her colleagues and the future of the library system as a whole.
On this busy afternoon, a computer glitch stretches Mrs. Levi’s staff resources thin. As she darts back and forth between the shelves in another room and her desk to generate a list of books for a teacher, two boys are using the research computers to play online games. Children are permitted to play one game per thirty-minute session. It is recommended that they play the pre-approved games listed on the library’s “Kidsbuzz” page. If they change games, an administrator must unlock the computer. Mrs. Levi is the only one working on the floor. Visibly stressed by the children’s frequent demands, and their growing frustration with the computers, she nevertheless remains patient. “If we are accommodating and inviting, 90 percent of the time the children playing games on the computer will take a look at a book once their computer time is finished.” Levi observes.
Her reflection demonstrates the fundamental role that the library plays in American education: exposure to the written word. Mrs. Levi stresses, “The library exists to open doors and facilitate processes of learning and discovery.” The adoption of new technologies into the library setting, like computers, and Nook Ereaders, should therefore not be frowned upon, even if they come at the expense of additional demands on supervising staff. In the long run these tools broaden the spectrum of what is possible, offer children and adults knowledge at their fingertips, and, sometimes, help to engineer new and unconventional pathways back to the library’s most prized asset: its treasure of books and skilled librarians. For Levi, the outreach strategy is simple. “You use everything you’ve got,” to achieve success.
What is not immediately evident on a trip to the library is the degree of assessment and applied psychology that the Enoch Pratt staff performs daily. In the children’s department, librarians provide a “Readers Advisory” service geared toward finding young readers books that suit their interests. This is no easy task. “You have to evaluate the child’s perspective, and spot the outside influences,” Mrs. Levi says, acknowledging the sway parents have over their child’s reading choices. “If parents want their child to be reading chapter books, and the child only wants to read about sports, then you have a problem. The challenge is to find something for both the parent and the child so that they can share the experience of reading simultaneously. Bottom line; you have to use finesse. You may only have one chance to get the child to read.”
To accomplish this, librarians use a “Goldilocks” approach. They ask pointed questions to assess a child’s particular interests and offer examples of genres to connect with reticent young readers. “Too hard? Too Easy? Just Right?” A good librarian establishes reading patterns and preferences, introduces new ideas and subject matter, generates suggested reading lists, and, with time together, may discover the root cause of a child’s reluctance to read. Ideally, the end result is a success for the whole family; parents and children are brought together through books.
Our library serves a stressed and needy community. Every day, before opening, a long line of patrons waits to gain entrance. Mr. Roswell Encina, the library’s Director of Communications, acknowledges that roughly 30 percent of Baltimore’s population is without a computer or Internet access. This means that the library is the starting place for information access, conducting a job search, or for the simple pleasure of recreational reading.
The community’s utilization of the library is remarkable. “Since the recession,” Mrs. Levi observes, “they have been coming in droves!” A borrowed book or a bit of computer time is still the cheapest form of entertainment, as well as a springboard for opportunity. When asked what the most important genre is that children can read today in preparation for an uncertain future, Mrs. Levi recommends Fantasy. In essence, this genre follows the same educational model as the library as a whole. It opens a million doors, stimulates a playful imagination, and lets the reader explore an uncharted world of ideas. For Mrs. Levi and her dedicated staff, children’s fantasy, or the “Harry Potter effect” is the achievement of that noble goal, an organizational strategy that the Enoch Pratt library implements daily with measurable success.