Speaking of library services…

Last week I spoke to the Chatham Rotary about the library; here’s the text of my remarks:

Thanks so much to you all for inviting me here today.   There’s an old hymn, “I Love to Tell the Story” that maybe some of you know,  and that’s something I think about every time I am asked to speak about the library—I love to tell the story of the Pittsylvania County libraries.

It might not surprise you that librarians are storytellers—in fact that might be your first memory of librarians.  My first memory is being taken to story time at the public library in my home town in Ohio.  This was decidedly low-tech—a room, a bunch of kids, a nice lady, and a book.  No PowerPoint.  No video.   Just a lady and a book—and us.  But that lady held the magic.  She infected us with that magic, and for me, that just started me down the road to a love of reading, of literature, of words, of the life of the mind.

Now that “library lady” had help with me, and that was in the form of my parents.  I always say that my mom was the greatest reader I have ever met—and folks, meeting readers is an everyday thing in my line of work!  Books surrounded my brother and me while we grew up, and to this day when we see each other, we talk about what we are reading.

So that’s my reading story, and it’s not that extraordinary for someone who grew up in the 50s in a nice middle class home where education was valued.  A library lady who told stories, and a supportive home that encouraged reading.  And of course a top-notch school system.  Fast forward to 2011 Pittsylvania County.  For some people, the story isn’t all that different, I would suppose.  We see those folks every day, too—they get their child a library card while still a baby.  They check out piles of books.  They bring their kids to our classes.  They identify the experience of a library very much as I might have in the 50s.  And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that story—supporting that one is a slam-dunk for me.

But there are other library user stories, too.  The old commercial—orange juice: it isn’t just for breakfast any more—comes to mind.  The library isn’t just books any more.  Of course, it never was—there was always media [though it might have been filmstrips instead of DVDs!], and puppet shows, and research– and though books are our “brand” so to speak in many people’s minds, it is really all about education—connecting people with the information they need to make their life better, richer, more liveable, if you will.  The library delivers equal opportunity in education, public education for all ages.  Some of that education is self-directed, using the books and electronic resources we have.  Some of it is acquired thorugh out classes, whether that be computer classes for adults, or knitting and quilting classes taught by our staff, or our preschool classes that I’ll talk about in a bit.  And some of that education comes through instructive and enlightening experiences we provide–for example, the discussions we had with Claudia Emerson and Mary Sue Terry as part of the Virginia Women in History initiative, or the appearance of guitarist Peter Fletcher, or the Books for Babies program we have funded in partnership with the Womack Foundation to put a baby’s board book and information for parents into the hands of those having babies at Danville Regional Medical Center.  Free public education at the library is not simply about the book as a physical object.  So what if that book might be one that you download to a device that you can carry in your pocket?  As they say at Staples, Yeah, we’ve got that.  Not only do we have it, but we’ll help you make the device work, too.  We have print books, ebooks, audiobooks, and whatever the next flavor of the month is, we’ll have that, too.

For some people in our community, the library is, in their own words, a lifeline.  .  .There’s the man who came to me a couple of months ago.  His job had been in construction and as you know, those jobs dried up with the downturn.  He had done some short-term things, but had the opportunity for a well-paying job.  He wanted me to work with him on his resume.  I taught him how to create a winning resume, a cover letter, and how to prepare for the interview.  He called me three weeks ago to say he landed the job—full-time with benefits.  He couldn’t be happier—and he says he owes it to the help he got at his library.

Or the group of senior adults who came to us week after week for several years to take our computer classes, to learn how to use their computers, digital cameras, iPhones and iPods.  They drove up from Danville in a group, and it was clear it was partly about the computer classes, and partly about the socializing in a comfortable, fun, collaborative atmosphere.

Then there are the children–and this is where I can get very passionate about what we do. We have preschool classes that teach creative expression, social skills, listening comprehension, and the foundations of reading through letter and number recognition and vocabulary building.   One of the newest things we are doing, and something that is near and dear to my heart, is called Mother Goose on the Loose, which is preschool education for babies, the ones that sit on their mom’s laps.  I’m passionate about the importance of preschool education because studies have shown that children who come from areas of economic deprivation who have access to that education are ahead of the other children in measurable ways by the age of five.  That’s not so surprising, but when those children are followed through high school, huge differences open up.  The young people in one study who did not have preschool education had three times more arrests; earned only 2/3s of what the others ones did.  The ones who had preschool education were more likely, as twenty-somethings, to have a savings account and to own a car.  What’s going on here? In preschool classes like the ones we teach, there is structure and routine.  The children have circle time.  They talk about the calendar, they talk about the weather, they learn how to paint or make something.  Someone reads to them and shows them that the story flows from left to right.  They interact with each other and learn to share.  These studies of preschool education demonstrate that these children end up having the “soft skills”, the interpersonal skills, that help them get a job and keep it.  Job training later in life may not work if children do not acquire these soft skills at a young age.  What we do at the library is help teach those skills, and that’s crucial for that child’s life.

There’s an old Peanuts cartoon in which Lucy exclaims that everything at the library is FREE–and Linus says, “Sort of makes you wonder what they’re up to.”  But of course, it’s not all free–it’s paid for with your taxes.  We can make your tax dollar go farther than just about any other governmental agency.  In Virginia, it costs about $24 per capita to provide library service to every citizen in the Commonwealth for a year.  That’s $2 bucks a month, lots less than most of us spend eating out,  less than a burger and fries, and what do you get for that?  Access to information, all the latest books, meeting rooms you can sign up to use, access to a color copier in every building, faxing service, preschool early literacy education for your kids and grandchildren, book discussion groups, cultural events, help with the latest i-thingy someone gave you for Christmas, a friendly person to help you–do you need me to go on?

September is library card sign-up month in the United States.  In your packet, I have included a card application.  Many of you already have one, and use the library–but maybe you know someone who doesn’t.  Share with them what the library is doing.  Don’t whisper, like we were always told to do back in the 50s in the library–let your friends know that the library is about free education for everyone.  Come on in and find out what we are up to!

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Reading Roundup

One of my favorite librarians ever is Nancy Pearl.  Nancy is often noted first of all as being the model for the Librarian Action Figure

"with amazing shushing action"

[and yes, I have one!].  However, she is also the creator of the popular initiative “One Community, One Book.”  She is an extraordinarily gifted book reviewer and reader’s advisor.

I heard her on NPR’s Morning Edition one morning earlier this summer with her latest picks, and on the basis of her recommendation alone, I took on the book Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch.  This book was a real stretch for me.  I am no fan of science fiction or fantasy.  It probably helped that I was thinking  of it as a mystery, a genre which I do enjoy.

The narrator is London police constable Peter Grant.  He’s funny in a sarcastic way, and that’s always appealing to me [just ask my family].   He encounters a ghost at a crime scene, and from that point on, we are on a romp through the supernatural, into mythology and history.  Oh, and we also see Peter unravel the mystery.  If you want to read Nancy’s review, and see what else she recommended that day, just click here:  http://www.npr.org/2011/06/23/137084790/nancy-pearl-presents-10-terrific-summer-reads.

Using the library’s Overdrive ebook collection, I finally got around to reading Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. [Quick sidebar: It was fun to discover that Henrietta Lacks was originally from Clover, Virginia, one county over from us in Halifax]. Skloot’s book highlights the contribution of Ms. Lacks to medical science.  She went to Johns Hopkins University Hospital with cervical cancer, and during her treatment, cells were taken.  Those cells, named HeLa after their donor, proved to be  magnificently proficient in their ability to reproduce, unlike the cells that had been tried in the past. However, as Skloot points out, the term “donor” is not really accurate; the cells were taken with no knowledge or consent on the part of the patient.  Yet their astonishing ability to be grown, to reproduce, has given science the opportunity to study many diseases and conditions.  HeLa cells have made an enormous contribution to the advancement of human knowledge.

Lacks’s family, and Skloot’s relationship to them, is central to the book.   There’s a messiness to scientific research, and Skloot successfully shines a light on it.  Scientists all over the world have benefitted, very often financially, from Henrietta’s cells.  Meanwhile, her family has struggled to have the basic necessities of food and shelter throughout life.  They, for example, cannot afford medical care, even though much of that care would be predicated on the discoveries made using their relative’s cells.  The book finds a way to tease these contradictions out and examine them.   It’s a fascinating story, and raises many unresolved ethical questions, too.

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That’s Entertainment

Hard times are everywhere.

I think we all have seen a variation on this theme in newspapers, magazines [at least the ones that are still able to publish], as well as online media, for quite some time now—especially since 2008.  I saw an article recently that elaborated on this theme as it applies to the simple experience of going to see a movie.

The article, which appeared in the Toledo Blade,[1] focused on the high cost of attending a movie in the theater.  It chronicled the attempts of theaters to be mindful of the financial constraints of many of their patrons, while attempting to stay afloat themselves.  At the particular theater complex highlighted in the article, a father and son attended a matinee.   The tickets cost them $14.50, which was 25 cents less per ticket than it had been before the complex lowered its prices.  But the concessions they bought totaled $12.  For others interviewed in the story, the concession costs exceeded the cost of the tickets.  Concessions are the way the theaters stay in business; the article chronicles how necessary they are to the bottom line for theater owners.  

I enjoy a movie at a theater, and particularly at our well-run theaters here in Danville and Pittsylvania County.  The atmosphere is family-friendly and they are managed well.   It’s a treat for my husband and me to go out, do a little shopping, and then head to a movie we have been anticipating.  We enjoy seeing the movie and running into people we know.

But how about those times when the dollar isn’t stretching as far as we would like?  Or the times when we can’t seem to get ourselves out of the house in time to see a film?  The library’s collection of DVDs becomes a great alternative.

One of our vendors of DVDs has pointed this out in their News and Views blog:

So what should moviegoers do when they can’t afford a night out at the Cineplex? Turn to their local library! Patrons can check out new DVD releases or sequels and prequels for flicks coming soon to theaters; then make a quick stop at the grocery store to stock up on snacks.

… a peaceful night at home watching a free DVD from the local library, eating some snacks from the grocery, and ultimately saving money seems like an OK tradeoff to me. [2]

Another great thing about the library’s collection is that we buy seasons of television shows.  When we finally started watching Mad Men, it was great to be able to see the season without commercial interruption, in sequence from beginning to end, at our own pace.

So, come and see what we have to offer in the way of DVDs.  Free rental—but sorry–you’ll have to provide the snacks.



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Tate’s Book Department

Check out the latest on Tate’s blog here:


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There and Back Again

Sometimes you have a strange coincidence in your reading life, one where books you have recently read have enough in common that parts of them can become confused in your mind.  This happened to me within the last month.  Colleagues here at the library had been pressing me to read the Scotland Street series by Alexander McCall Smith.  I had enjoyed a couple of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, and especially liked the Sunday Philosophy Club books, so it was not an aversion to his work that kept me off Scotland Street.  I just had not gotten around to these.  But in early July, I picked up the first one, 44 Scotland Street,[1] and thoroughly enjoyed it.  Smith had written this as a serialized novel for The Scotsman, Scotland’s daily paper.  Because of this, it’s in short segments, light-hearted for the most part, and very much focused on characters and the situations in which they find themselves.   A good read for the summer, and I look forward to reading Espresso Tales, starting this week, on audio.

In the meantime, I had read several good reviews of a new book by Rebecca Makkai, The Borrower[2]. The central character, Lucy, is a librarian, so let’s just say it had a certain appeal.  I decided to put myself on the hold list for the Overdrive e-book copy, and got it last week.

At first blush, the two might seem to have very little in common.   Smith’s book is set in Edinburgh, and Makkai’s begins in Hannibal, Missouri, [or a made-up place that she calls Hannibal] a great distance from Scotland in miles and in sensibilities.  Smith is an old hand at writing, with well over twenty books published, whereas this is Makkai’s first novel.  But uncanny similarities start to crop up in the plot lines, things you might not notice if you had not read these books within a couple of weeks or months of each other.  In Scotland, the main character is a young woman named Pat, who is on her “second gap year.”  In other words, she has no real idea of what she wants to do with her life.  She had been living with her parents, but when the story begins she has moved into an apartment she shares with a stranger, a young man named Bruce.  Pat gets a job with an art gallery which is run by Matthew, who is hopelessly inept and clueless about art.  In the apartment building reside a five year old boy, Bertie, and his mum Irene.  Irene believes Bertie to be extremely intelligent and superior to all children his own age.

In The Borrower, the main character is Lucy, a children’s librarian in a small library in Missouri.  She ends up in library work, not because it’s her deep desire to be a librarian, but because the job essentially falls in her lap.  Though her father, a Russian immigrant, has money and some shady business connections, and could have set her up anywhere, she chose to move from her parents’ home in Chicago to an apartment above a theater in Hannibal, with apartment mates who are all actors.  The story revolves around her relationship with a young library patron, Ian Drake, age ten, whose mother is overbearingly strict.  Ian is a voracious reader, but his mother wants Lucy to censor what he checks out of the library.  The family is fundamentalist Christian, and has enrolled Ian in a group whose purpose is to dissuade young people from choosing to be gay.

Ian eventually runs away from home and spends the night in the library.  The next day, when Lucy comes into work early and discovers him, he convinces her to take him to his grandmother’s house–even though she knows he has no grandmother.  What ensues is nothing other than a wild ride–a long and involved road trip, first to Chicago where she encounters her parents; then to Pittsburgh, where they visit with her aunt and uncle in their ferret-filled home; and on to New England, where they eventually end up within sight of Canada.  At key points, Lucy takes it upon herself to assure Ian that he is all right the way he is [which she, and every adult he meets, assumes is gay].  Ian, for his part, seems rather uninterested in the topic.  He’s having the time of his life, an adventure that could be rivaled only by those he has read about in his beloved books.

In the end, the one sure thing Lucy takes away from the experience is an unshakable belief that reading is good, and that books can save you.  Or as one reviewer puts it, “Every conflicted word Lucy utters in Makkai’s probing novel reminds us that literature matters because it helps us discover ourselves while exploring the worlds of others.”[3]

Though Makkai’s book asks more serious questions of the reader than does Smith’s, both are great reads and make you look forward to the author’s next outing.  If you don’t read them back-to-back, you’ll do a better job than I did of keeping these interesting twenty-something young women and the gifted little boys sorted out in your mind.

[1] Smith, Alexander McCall.  44 Scotland Street.  New York:  Anchor Books, 2005.

[2] Makkai, Rebecca.  The Borrower. New York: Viking, 2011.

[3] http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/books/chi-books-review-borrower-makkai,0,3584363.story

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Tate’s Book Department

Here’s a link to Tate’s latest post on YA books:


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Looking for a job?

I was talking to a friend this week about how you can get a little depressed if you live in this area of Virginia.  Jobs are in short supply, and this region seems to keep winning the cup for highest unemployment in the Commonwealth.[1] That’s really not a prize we want to take home.

My job is all about connecting people with the information they need, and in the field of job searching and workplace skills, we like to think we can really help.  Obviously, we have a considerable selection of books in our collections that help a job searcher navigate everything from the cover letter to the resume to the interview and the thank-you note.  We even have books providing advice for those who have degrees in the humanities [yes, English majors CAN get hired], as well as for those who have been fired and are trying to start over.

I’d like to highlight an online resource we have, too.  It’s called Learning Express.  Often we recommend this to students because it provides a considerable number of practice tests for everything from the GED to the GRE.  But it has begun to beef up its resources for job seekers, and I think it truly has something to offer.

The section of this online resource called job search and workplace skills offers sections on business writing; job search, resume, and interviewing skills, and additional help for those who are not native English speakers.  Under each of these categories are several resources–e-books as well as practice tests–that will help a job seeker prepare.  It even includes a book on public speaking.

I just worked with one job seeker on his resume using the tips we found in “Goof-Proof Resumes and Cover Letters” and by the end of our time together, his resume was significantly improved.

Give this resource a try.  You can find it by going to our webpage, www.pcplib.org.  Click on the “Research” tab at the top of the page, and then on “Homework Help” near the bottom.  Call us if you need help setting up a login and password.

Meanwhile, my friend with the new resume has an interview on Thursday.  Maybe he can help us NOT win the cup for highest unemployment in this next quarter.

[1] http://www.bls.gov/ro3/valaus.htm

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Blogging YA books

My colleague Tate from our staff is authoring a blog on young adult books and other things of interest. Take a look here:


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My Summer Reading

There’s just something about summer. Maybe it’s the fact that, unlike many of you I would guess, I’m not much for getting outside when the weather is hot. I’d rather stay inside in the cool and shady house with a nice big novel and a glass of tea.
Now this is not to say that I don’t like reading in the other seasons. In fact, there is nothing better than sitting in my beach chair at Huntington Beach State Park, South Carolina, watching the waves break and making my way through an interesting novel. Winter by the fire with a book and a cup of cocoa–check that, too. Even spring reading has its charms.
But I just want to give a quick thumbs-up to the two books I am reading now and recommend them to your attention. Note that I say “reading”–I have not finished either.
The first is Seven Days in the Art World by Sarah Thornton, a book released in 2009 and published by W.W. Norton. I have written about a book having to do with the art world last summer [Provenance]. Perhaps summer brings out the art lover in me. At any rate, this is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the art subculture. Thornton attends an art auction at Christie’s, a “crit” in art school, and the Art Fair in Basel, as well as visiting the offices of Artforum magazine. Behind all this is an intelligent writer who is investigating the commercialism of art, the transformation of art into commodity. It’s not a long book–under 300 pages, and the characters you meet along the way will keep you engaged.
The second is currently on the New York Times bestseller list. It’s Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder. I had read Patchett’s Bel Canto, a work that haunted me for days after I read it, so it was with eagerness that I waited for State of Wonder. It does not disappoint.
In brief, the book follows the journey of Dr. Marina Singh, who works for a pharmaceutical company, to the Amazon to track down her former teacher, Dr. Annick Swenson. Swenson is working on a new drug and does not want to be found; in fact, Marina’s colleague Anders Eckman preceded her to Brazil and died in the process of trying to convince Dr. Swenson to return. The atmosphere of the novel is nearly as oppressive as the heat of the Amazon; Patchett’s powers of description are considerable. The characters are layered and rich. Though I am only about halfway through this book, I can tell you that you will not be bored by it–it grabs you in its web and pulls you along.
So there you have it–two quick recommendations for summer reading. Take one up, preferably indoors and with a cold glass of sweet tea.

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Preschool Makes Better Grownups

As you know if you have read this blog for any time at all, I listen to lots of audiobooks on my forty minute commute to Chatham each morning. But once in a while, I take a break and listen to podcasts instead.
If you are not sure what a podcast is, here’s a definition for you: it’s an audio file similar to a radio broadcast, which can be downloaded and listened to on a computer, mp3 player, mobile phone, or other properly equipped device.
In my case, I subscribe to several of these podcasts. On Saturdays I connect my iThingy to my computer and open iTunes, where the newest of my podcasts live and wait for me. They are synched to that iThingy device, and at the same time the ones I have already heard magically disappear.
On Monday morning, I plug my device into the stereo of my wondrous Honda Civic, workhorse of Highway 57, and start listening to all this collected wisdom I acquired on Saturday.
This week, I was catching up with Planet Money, which is a segment on NPR. They interviewed James Heckman, an economist. It was riveting.
Excitement and economists–those two terms don’t go together at all. That may be, but this time was different. They were talking to him about the importance of preschool education.
Stifle that yawn.
What was interesting about this podcast to me was that the research Dr. Heckman has done on preschool education indicates that society could have a strong return on investment in it. If we put a dollar into preschool education for children with fewer advantages, society could reap over thirty times that in decreased costs in prisons, job training classes, and other programs.
Here’s the gist of the show. There have been studies done about the effectiveness of job training programs provided to young people who have not had many advantages in life, and the studies indicated that the outcomes of these programs are disappointing. Why is that? Well, it turns out that in the work world, it is not all about your job skills per se, but the “soft skills.” It’s’ the ability to get along with others, make eye contact, show up on time, smile, control your temper that really counts in the workplace. Some people get these soft skills at home, but others do not.
A study of young people who came from areas of economic deprivation in Ypsilanti, Michigan, dating back to the 1960s [the Perry Preschool Study] shows that a gap opened up between the children in a preschool program and those in the study who were not that is measurable even by the age of five. These children were followed into adulthood by the researchers; in fact they were followed for forty years. The children who went to the preschool were ahead of the ones who didn’t by the time they entered school. But the fascinating thing is that after they graduated from high school, huge differences opened up. At age 27, the control group [the ones who did not go to preschool] had nearly three times more arrests. That group earned only two-thirds of what the other group did.
It goes on–the girls who went to the preschool were fifty percent more likely to have a savings account than the others by the time they are 27. They were more likely to own a car.
The Planet Money team admitted that the Perry Preschool Study is a small study, but subsequent studies have only reinforced the results.
So what’s going on here? What’s so special about preschool? Well, at preschool, there is structure and routine. Children have playtime and circle time. They talk about the calendar. They talk about the weather. They have little chores to do. They play outside and they take a nap. They learn how to paint, and to build with blocks. They have all these little interactions where they learn to negotiate, to talk to each other, to share–these are the skills that these preschoolers get, and the control group does not, in the Perry Preschool Study. A teacher at a preschool in Brooklyn pointed out on the show that this is also the age at which kids learn empathy and problem solving, and form social bonds. There’s a small window for that. If children don’t develop these soft skills by 5 or 6, it becomes harder and harder for them to do so. Later on in life, job training doesn’t work because the students do not have these skills.
So the economist’s conclusion is that spending money on preschools is one of the smartest things we can do with our dollars as a society. There is a big return on this investment in children.
We are in the first weeks of summer reading program here at the library. Can you figure out why I mention this podcast? What preschools do is often parallel to what we do here, though we do it on a smaller scale. We teach early literacy skills in every preschool story time and in every summer reading program. Studies of these have shown how important they are to gaining and retaining reading skills. I think it would follow, if someone would do a study, that the soft skills our preschoolers learn during our sessions would also be important in the same way that they are in these studies.
If you want to hear the podcast, it’s here:


with a follow-up here:


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