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The Chesapeake Poetry Festival

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by Jean Carideo, manager of Russell Memorial Library, Chesapeake, VA; and Phyllis Schirle, special programs coordinator for the Chesapeake Public Library System

Originally appeared in Virginia Libraries (Vol. 54, No. 3-4), a quarterly journal published by the Virginia Library Association.

For the last sixteen years, Russell Memorial Library has been the home of the Chesapeake Poetry Festival. The first festival, held in 1993, was the result of a casual conversation between Norfolk attorney C. Edward “Eddie” Russell Jr. and Chesapeake Public Library Director Margaret “Peggy” Stillman. The idea began when Russell was taking a class in poetry at Virginia Commonwealth University taught by his longtime friend and Poet Laureate of Portsmouth Dave Smith. Russell asked Stillman if she thought holding a poetry workshop in a public library might be interesting and if Dave Smith could help. Not one to miss an opportunity (or a beat), Stillman enthusiastically agreed. With Russell and Smith helping, she began planning what would become an annual event. The Chesapeake Poetry Festival was introduced to the community as a celebration of the richness of Virginia’s regionally, nationally, and internationally known poets, presented through poetry readings and workshops.

The Chesapeake Poetry Festival was a first: never before in a public library in Virginia had there been such a gathering of poets to celebrate each other’s accomplishments as writers and to enjoy the sharing of ideas, feelings, and the power of poetry with the community at large. Due to Smith’s network of friends and colleagues and his strength as a nationally known writer, twenty poets traveled to Russell Memorial Library for an intense weekend of public workshops, readings, and receptions. George Garrett, Ellen Voight, Larry Levis, and Charles Wright were among those who came to hear, speak, and learn from each other. A diverse audience from all over Virginia responded well to this comfortable and open setting. Participants spent hours after the readings in small, informal group discussions and lively exchanges.

The second year of the festival brought together thirteen Virginia poets to participate in workshops and poetry readings (an ice storm prevented eight others from attending). The format was designed to confirm the value of poetry as it relates to humankind and to encourage a dialogue between the poets and the community. Workshop topics ranged from exploration of the black writer in the South, with the opportunity to debate the perception of progress made, to poets exploring their own work and critiquing the work of participants. Once again the event was a huge success, drawing in people from all over the region.

Twenty-three Virginia poets gathered for the Chesapeake Public Library Poetry Festival in 1995. The festival was attracting quite a following. Over 600 patrons attended this third festival, which continued the celebration of poetry and poets with Virginia connections. Poetry readings were held on Friday afternoon and evening; two workshops were offered Saturday morning; and readings continued throughout Saturday afternoon and evening. All of the poetry readings were well-attended. The poets were available for individual discussions throughout the two days and spent a great deal of time talking with the patrons and each other.

The two workshops offered were both standing room only. “Writing at Home: The Personal Writing Experience,” chaired by Betty Adcock and Elizabeth Seidel Morgan, offered suggestions and exercises for participants to sustain year-round writing activities outside structured environments. “Publishing in Literary Magazines” was a panel discussion led by Dave Smith (The Southern Review); Margaret Gibson and Mary Flinn (New Virginia Review); Judy Longley (Iris); and Henry Hart (Verse). While encouraging aspiring writers not to give up, they offered a candid look at what editors like and don’t like.

An interesting side note about the 1995 festival: The staff received a call in 2002 from an up-and-coming young poet named Jon Pineda. He had recently won his first national poetry prize, the Crab Orchard Award, and he wanted to see how he could contribute to the Chesapeake Poetry Festival. He had attended the festival in 1995, right at the time he was applying for the MFA program at VCU. He told the staff he couldn’t believe his good fortune in getting to meet the very poets he had been studying the past year at — where else — the library. He has since become an integral part of the event, conducting teen workshops and editing the teen poetry journal.

Unfortunately, the Chesapeake Poetry Festival, with so many stellar poets gathered for two days, was becoming more and more difficult to arrange. Funding was limited and the poets received only the bare minimum for travel and lodging. They participated out of a love for poetry and a strong friendship with Dave Smith. Most of the poets were also college professors; the varied class schedules for the schools were preventing many of them from making a commitment to continue. The festival took a hiatus in 1996, bypassing the gathering until 1997, in order to hold a planning session and make a change in the format.

In Poetry 180: A Poem a Day for American High Schools, Billy Collins, America’s Poet Laureate in 2003, suggests to young people the notion that poetry can be a part of everyday life as well as a subject to be studied in the classroom, “because all too often high school is the place where poetry goes to die.” With this in mind, the planning committee made the decision in 1997 to host two featured poets each year in order to include appearances at two Chesapeake high schools along with public readings. The event included poetry workshops at the library with local poets and an open mike night for the public as the finale. This format not only allowed us to gain a stronger focus for our publicity and highlight the creative talents of two poets, but also enabled us to take nationally known poets and poetry into Chesapeake’s public high schools. The high school appearances (each year for the last thirteen years) continue to be among the most rewarding and illuminating experiences of the entire festival.

By focusing on two featured poets, it became possible for us, with the support of the Chesapeake Public Library Foundation, the Friends of the Chesapeake Public Library, the Chesapeake Fine Arts Commission, and the Writers in Virginia program, to offer honorariums and travel expenses and to host a reception before the public readings. This financial support also made possible the purchase of fifty copies of each visiting poet’s books for students and teachers to study before the school visits and keep as mementos of the event.

How We Do It

In the interest of full disclosure, putting on a poetry festival of this scale, with limited staff and space, is not easy. The planning and execution of each year’s festival is done by four staff members who are also juggling their daily responsibilities in the library. Planning starts soon after the end of each festival: poets are considered, selected, and invited; schools are chosen; grants are written; and the publicity and logistics of the receptions and events are discussed. The continued success of this event is directly attributed to the fact that these employees are the same seasoned folks who have worked together for years. They approach each and every year the same way — with the attitude that this will be the best poetry festival the Chesapeake Public Library has ever presented.

As the saying goes, “There is no constant but change,” so the festival expanded again in 2005. We added a poetry writing workshop for teens; a teen-only open mike night; and Café Russell, an evening of poetry for middle school students and their families (winner of the 2006 Virginia Public Library Director’s Award for Best Children’s Program). FONT, a literary journal dedicated to featuring poetry by high school students currently residing in Chesapeake, debuted in 2007. The brainchild of award-winning local poet Jon Pineda, FONT was recognized by the Virginian-Pilot as contributing to the richness of our cultural community in 2007. For 2009, we are considering the phenomenon of Poetry Slams and the possibility of holding events throughout the system, rather than hosting everything at one location.

A Charged Atmosphere

From the beginning, our goal was to bring poetry into the realm of public recognition and to encourage anyone who was interested in writing poetry. As most literary festivals are held at universities or schools, people who may be reluctant to go to a poetry event at a college have an entirely different feeling about an event at a public library. Comments from participants over the years have proven this to be true. The informal setting allows both the poets and the audience to simply experience the joy of reading, of hearing their works as pure expressions of the art of poetry. The public has the opportunity to interact with those who have made poetry their life’s work; the poets are able to share their poems without the competitiveness of the academic environment.

One comment heard year after year concerns the caliber of the festival’s featured poets. Since the initial festival in 1993, Chesapeake Public Library has hosted four Pulitzer Prize winners — Henry S. Taylor, Charles Wright, Claudia Emerson, and Natasha Trethewey — and forty-two nationally known and published professionals, many of whom are chairs of major university English departments. This coming together of poets creates a charged atmosphere, which adds to the wonder of the event. By focusing only on poetry, both the audience and the authors can immerse themselves in something too often ignored or simplified in the everyday world. By holding this event in the public library, the opportunity is available to all who love poetry and language. Again a quote from Billy Collins: “I am convinced that for every nonreader of poetry, there is a poem waiting to reconnect them to poetry.” Another comment, usually from folks who’ve been talked into coming to the Chesapeake Poetry Festival by their friends or spouses, concerns the sense of being “shook up” when they hear a poem that resonates in some personal way. People in the audience sit up or tear up or speak up when a poem moves them, and it happens at every reading.

The Chesapeake Poetry Festival has connected hundreds of people, from poets to students to patrons to staff, and sparked an interest in poetry and creative writing for people of all ages. Not an undertaking for the fainthearted, the festival is worth every bit of the effort put into it by the staff. We truly believe that: poetry and literature are about daily life; writing about living life should be a normal, everyday experience; and recognizing that the meaning of language belongs to the listener promotes a better understanding of oneself and others. Our goal is to continue to increase public awareness of the value of poetry, and encourage our community to make it a part of daily life. We look forward to many more successful years of presenting the Chesapeake Poetry Festival.

The 17th Annual Chesapeake Poetry Festival will be held at Russell Memorial Library, 2808 Taylor Road, in the Western Branch section of Chesapeake from March 18 - 21, 2009.  All events begin at 7:00 PM, and there’s something for everyone. Visit The Chesapeake Public Library System website for more information.

Chesapeake Poetry Festival Poet List, 1993–2008

Adcock, Betty
Baldwin, Beth
Burris, Sidney
Cairns, Scott
Chitwood, Michael
Dillard, Richard
Donovan, Greg
Drake, Jeannette
Emerson, Claudia
Fenza, David
Garrett, George
Gibson, Margaret
Glasser, Jane Ellen
Hart, Henry
Huddle, David
Hummer, T. R.
Johnson, Mark
Kennedy, Sarah
Kutchins, Laurie
Larson, Jeanne
Levis, Larry
Longley, Judy
Moeckle, Thorpe
Morgan, Elizabeth S.
Nystrom, Debra
Orr, Gregory
Paul, Jay
Raisor, Phillip
Rankin, Paula
Seibles, Tim
Simpson, Grace
Smith, Dave
Smith, R. T.
Smith, Ron
Soniat, Katherine
Stuart, Dabney
Sylvester, Janet
Taylor, Henry
Tham, Hillary
Trethewey, Eric
Trethewey, Natasha
Voight, Ellen B.
Warn, Emily
Wojahn, David
Wright, Charles


Our Youngest Patrons

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Early Childhood Literacy at Potomac Library

by Sarah Wright, a youth services librarian at Potomac Library in Prince William County, VA
Originally appeared in Virginia Libraries (Vol. 54, No. 3-4), a quarterly journal published by the Virginia Library Association.

The youth services staff of Potomac Library in Prince William County, Virginia, does programming for children in our community in order to encourage use of the library as well as develop literacy and a lifelong love of reading in our patrons. We have performers, storytellers, science enrichment programs, crafts, and story hours. One popular story program at Potomac Library is entitled “Book Babies.” This program is designed for parents and caregivers and their children ages six to twenty-four months. Together we learn about books, sing songs, act out finger plays, and play with puppets and toys. The program encourages important early childhood skills that lead to increased literacy in school-aged children.

Researchers of early literacy like those at the International Reading Association and National Association for Young Children recognize that literacy skills begin at birth. Each time parents communicate with their babies, the children experience language, and these experiences in early childhood encourage future reading skills. From birth, infants are able to distinguish all the sounds in human languages even though their speech may be limited to gurgling noises. Through communication with parents, their perceptions become limited to the native language they will grow to speak, read, and write. Early, or emergent, literacy is defined as what children know about reading before they actually read. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) of the National Institutes of Health has established six early literacy skills that help children develop the necessary skills to read. The NICHD has named these skills as print motivation, phonological awareness, vocabulary, narrative skills, print awareness, and letter knowledge.

Book Babies began at Potomac Library in response to the increase in promotion of early childhood literacy by the Library of Virginia and professional literature. Additionally, the patrons of Potomac Library were bringing children under the age of two to regularly scheduled toddler and family story times. The former Children’s Department supervisor, Kimberly Knight, saw a program at Pasadena Public Library in California in which they passed a variety of board books out to families with babies. This program gave the children an opportunity to hold and enjoy board books, but did not involve interaction between families. Each child got a variety of books to play with and read. When developing the Book Babies program at Potomac in 2005, it was decided to use one set of books with multiple copies and encourage interaction among the activity’s  participants.

The Book Babies program at Potomac Library is a lap-sitting program. A youth services staff member leads a group of ten parents or caregivers and ten children. Each adult is given a bag with five board books, a song list, and an animal puppet. When we read stories together, the adult holds his or her child and reads along with the youth services staff. The materials used for this program, which include books, toys, animal puppets, and musical CDs, were provided by the Friends of the Potomac Library, and they are not a part of the circulating collection of the library. During the program, we also sing songs together with movement activities, and the children have a free period where they can play with provided toys. This play period allows children to explore interactive toys that encourage cognitive development while parents get time to converse about the lives of their children and shared experiences. The adults benefit from this social time, which can build community relationships for our library and the children that we serve. This free play period also provides a time for youth services staff to distribute fliers and booklists, describe upcoming family programs at the library, and share new concepts we have learned through literacy workshops. The program usually lasts half an hour.

Book Babies seeks to teach parents how to incorporate early literacy skills in play while having fun with reading board books. Phonological awareness, for example, is the ability to hear and play with the smaller sounds in words using activities that play with rhymes, words, sounds, and syllables. Phonemes are the smallest units constituting spoken language; English consists of about forty-one phonemes or sounds. Phonemes combine to form syllables and words. Most words consist of a blend of phonemes, such as the word go, which has two phonemes. In this word, two sounds are represented; the sound /g/ is represented by the letter g, and the sound /o/ is represented by the letter o. When reading to young children, parents can incorporate the recognition of phonemes. For example, parents often ask their babies, “What noise does the lion make?” The child will respond with a roar. This is one way to play with letters and the sounds that they make. Teaching children to manipulate the sounds in language helps them learn to read. We often make animal noises in Book Babies when we play with puppets or sing “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” which employs lots of letters and animal sounds.

Print motivation can be defined as having an interest in and an enjoyment of books. All children in Book Babies sit on their parents’ laps, which creates a pleasant experience around reading. They learn that the library is a place where they can have time with books and fun with our staff. Young children respond to changes in the tone of voice and the rhythm of language when they are read to by adults. In Book Babies, children are engaged when parents ask questions and talk about the pictures in board books. Our Book Babies storytime is meaningful in the development of print motivation because children bond with their parents or caregivers in a comfortable environment.

Board books are exceptional for increasing the skills of vocabulary (knowing the names of things) and narrative skills (the ability to describe things and tell stories). The books used in our program all make use of an assortment of words and have brightly colored pictures. For example, when reading the book Toes, Ears, & Nose!, parents lift the flap to tell the story. Parents read, “Inside my boots I’ve got … ,” then flip a flap to reveal toes. The pictures have clothing that is brightly colored, including sunglasses decorated in vivid polka dots, neon pink, sunshine yellow, striped clothing, and flowery patterns. Books like this give the parent an opportunity to talk about different body parts using a variety of terms, thus increasing overall vocabulary. Parents may also identify diversity in the children portrayed in the book; describing pictures models narrative skills that the children will utilize once they become more versed in speech.

Print awareness is a skill imparted to children in the Book Babies program. This skill is the consciousness of print in the child’s environment. It encompasses knowing how to handle a book and understanding how the words flow on a page. Parents, caregivers, and staff in Book Babies model how to hold a book for the children, showing that they should keep the right side up, start with the first page and continue to the end, and read the left page first and then the right. This skill is paired with letter knowledge, knowing that letters are different from one another and that each letter is related to a certain sound. Letter knowledge and print awareness are practiced in Book Babies when adults run fingers under the words they are reading. According to the Committee on the Prevention of Reading Difficulties in Young Children, letter knowledge seems to be the strongest indicator of reading success.

Literacy is more than just being able to read; it represents the ability to understand written text, increased writing skills, and other creative activities. Children who will become successful readers tend to exhibit age-appropriate sensory, cognitive, and social skills in the preschool ages. Book Babies encourages cognitive development and socialization among the young children who attend. Through interaction and experiences, children become more adept with locomotion and engaging in imaginative play, which indirectly increases later literacy. Research clearly indicates that families and other community members are important in the effort to prevent children’s reading difficulties. As librarians and youth services staff, we can provide the tools for parents to ensure they are growing literacy in their children.

Photos copyright 2008 by Melanie Beus.

Book Titles Included in the Book Babies Program

Bauer, Marion Duane Toes, Ears, & Nose! A Lift-the-Flap Book
Boynton, Sandra Blue Hat, Green Hat; Moo, Baa, La La La; Barnyard Dance
Kunhardt, Dorothy Meserve Pat the Bunny
Hill, Eric Where’s Spot?
Hoban, Tana Black on White; White on Black
Katz, Karen Where is Baby’s Belly Button?
London, Jonathan Wiggle Waggle
Oxenbury, Helen Clap Hands; All Fall Down; Tickle, Tickle
Taylor, Ann Baby Dance
Watt, Fiona That’s Not My Bunny
Wells, Rosemary Read to Your Bunny; Only You
Williams, Vera B. “More, More, More,” Said the Baby
Wright, Blanche Fisher My First Real Mother Goose


Challenge at Beulah

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By Marlene Anderson
Originally appeared in the March 2009 issue of The Good Stuff, the official magazine of the North Dakota Library Association

On January 15, 2009, in a 4-3 split decision, the Beulah School Board removed the book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt from the Beulah High School Library. Midnight had never been banned from any public library collection before.

Midnight was published in 1994 and was very popular. In fact, it was on The New York Times bestseller list for 216 weeks, or a little better than four years. Set in Savannah, Georgia, Midnight tells about the real-life murder and trial of John Williams and also explores the colorful history of Savannah and the lives of some of its eccentric citizens. The book won the Southern Book Award and was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction. In 1997, Clint Eastwood directed a film based on the book, which starred John Cusack, Kevin Spacey, and Jude Law.

The action to remove the book from the Beulah High School Library began with a request filed in October 2008 by the parents of a high school student who selected the book from an accelerated reading program list. In the “Citizens Request Form for Reconsideration of Media Materials” completed by Keith and Kathy Bohn, they said the book “implants thought patterns that are absolutely against what we try to instill in our students here at Beulah High. I realize that I have not read the book in its entirety, and maybe somewhere it doesn’t condone the sinful nature we are pointing out. But what we see is a very aggressive approval of … things we as a school (and a) community don’t approve.”

When the reconsideration form was filed, in accordance with school policy, School Superintendent Robert Lech appointed a committee to review the book. Kathy Cline, Beulah High’s librarian, chaired the committee. Other committee members included the high school principal, an English teacher, a lay person from the community, and a student. Committee members read the book and unanimously agreed that Midnight should remain on the library shelves. Superintendent Lech notified the Bohn’s of the committee’s decision in a letter dated November 24, 2008.

One of the things the committee looked at in making its decision was the American Library Association’s Freedom to Read statement, which says: “Parents and teachers have a responsibility to prepare the young to meet the diversity of experiences in life to which they will be exposed, as they have a responsibility to help them learn to think critically for themselves.” This statement was jointly issued in May 1953 by the Westchester Conference of the American Library Association and the Association of American Publishers. It has been endorsed by groups including the Children’s Book Council, National Coalition Against Censorship, and the National Council of Teachers of English.

When the Bohn’s received word of the decision, they filed an appeal of the committee’s decision and made a presentation to the school board, which resulted in the board’s decision on January 15, 2009, to remove the book from the high school library. None of the board members had read the book that they decided to ban.

The school board decision generated a lot of buzz in the Beulah community and galvanized students and others to take further action. In response, the school board held a special meeting on Monday, January 19, 2009, to revisit the issue. Board president Phil Eastgate said, “We as a board may have failed. I may have failed by not encouraging the board to seek counsel and didn’t research other options. I should have said let’s slow down and maybe read the book, too.” In the end, the board reversed its decision and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is back on the shelves at the Beulah High School Library.

John Berendt, the book’s author, followed the controversy and also wrote letters to the editor that ran in several North Dakota newspapers. He said he planned to send signed copies of Midnight to the three Beulah High School girls who defended their right to read the book at the special board meeting. Berendt also said, “The (Beulah High School) librarian is a hero, in my book. She said all the right things.”

Could You Handle a Challenge at Your Library?

There are many resources and tools available from the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom. Don’t be surprised by a challenge. It can happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime. Be prepared.


New York Library Association Lobby Day

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Library Advocates Rally to Restore Funding

This story originally appeared on the New York Library Association website.

The New York Library Association held their annual Library Lobby Day, which brought over 1,000 librarians, trustees and library patrons to Albany to ask the Legislature to restore the Governor’s proposed $18 million or 18 percent cut in Library Aid.

The event started with a Legislative Breakfast Reception for legislators and library leaders.  At the Breakfast Reception, 87 legislators had their photos taken for the very popular READ posters, which legislators can send to the libraries in their districts to promote the Statewide Summer Reading program.

Library advocates then met with legislators and their staffs in their offices, where they delivered the message that library funding should be a priority for restoration. “During tough economic times, you should not cut funding for public services that are in the greatest demand or can do the most good, and libraries helping people find jobs, start new careers or access public assistance programs fit into that category,” said Michael J. Borges, NYLA Executive Director.

The day culminated with a Library Rally at which State Senator Suzi Oppenheimer, Chair of the Senate Education Committee, Assemblymember Amy Paulin, Chair of the Assembly Libraries and Education Technology Committee, and long-time library champion Senator Hugh Farley all spoke in favor of restoring Library Aid. Other special guests addressing the attendees were children’s author Charles R. Smith, Jr., State Librarian Bernie Margolis, and Queens Public Library Director Tom Galante.

Sen. Suzi Oppenheimer, Chair of the Senate Education Committee, commented that she has rarely seen a group at the Capitol like the nearly one-thousand library supporters in the room. Sen. Oppenheimer shared some much-needed positive news, announcing that the Senate Majority supports library funding restoration.

"I can tell you that the Senate Democratic Conference met last night and we are going to restore the $18 million cuts back into the budget," Sen. Oppenheimer told an enthusiastic crowd. "There is probably not a single line item in the budget more important to me than libraries."

Sen. Oppenheimer also announced a Senate Library Subcommittee whose members represent different parts of the state: Sen. Darrel Aubertine from the North Country, Sen. Neil Breslin from the Capital Region, Sen. Brian Foley from Long Island, Sen. Daniel Squadron from New York City and Sen. Oppenheimer from the Westchester-Hudson Valley region.

"I am so proud of all of you for keeping up the fight. Libraries have been shortchanged for so many years already and now would be a terrible time to reduce library funding with the economy turning people back to their libraries," said Oppenheimer. 

Assembly member Amy Paulin, Chair of the Assembly Libraries and Education Technology Committee said, "We have been talking for years about the need for increased advocacy, your advocacy today surpasses our highest expectations. Your loud voices mean so much in helping us restore the funding for our libraries around the state.  The last few years have represented dramatic change for libraries, creating more access to more people, while still maintaining that hometown feeling. This is why we need to keep library doors opened, not closed."

Paulin also expressed support from the Assembly Majority.  "There has been great support in the Assembly for full restoration for your services," said Paulin.  "Together we will work to ensure libraries get what you need to ensure the important services you provide."

Senator Hugh Farley, a Senate Republican, said, “There are thirty votes in my conference to restore the $18 million. Libraries are non-partisan, it doesn’t matter if you are a Democrat or Republican but you have to support libraries.”

The proposed 2009-10 Executive Budget reduces library aid by $18 million or 18% to $80.5 million, a level not seen since 1993. These cuts are on top of the two cuts already imposed on libraries in 2008, reducing Library Aid from $102 million in 2007 to $98.5 million at the end of 2008.

The proposed cuts will also result in a corresponding loss of $2 million in federal funds for library services in New York, reducing federal aid from $9 million to $7 million by 2011. Library Aid had already been reduced twice in 2008, dropping from $102 million in 2007 to $98.5 million at the end of 2008. Borges stressed that “libraries are willing to do their fair share to address the state’s fiscal deficit and have already twice contributed to state budget reductions but we believe these proposed cuts are both draconian and disproportionate.”

“To an unemployed person without internet access at home, the library has become an essential public service, a critical resource on the road to economic recovery, and that’s why the Legislature needs to find a way to restore the proposed cuts,” concluded Mr. Borges.

About NYLA: The New York Library Association — America’s first state library association &emdash; was founded in 1890 to lead in the development, promotion and improvement of library and information services and the profession of librarianship to enhance learning, quality of life, and equal opportunity for all New Yorkers.


Library Community Mourns Passing of Judith Krug

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Judith Fingeret Krug, 69, the long-time director of the American Library Association’s (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) and executive director of the Freedom to Read Foundation, who fought censorship on behalf of the nation’s libraries, died April 11 after a lengthy illness.

Krug, who often said, “Censorship dies in the light of day,” was the director of OIF and executive director of the Freedom to Read Foundation for more than 40 years.  She was admired and respected for her efforts to guarantee the rights of individuals to express ideas and read the ideas of others without governmental interference.

Through her unwavering support of writers, teachers, librarians and, above all, students, she has advised countless numbers of librarians and trustees in dealing with challenges to library material.  She has been involved in multiple First Amendment cases that have gone all the way to the United States Supreme Court.  In addition, she was the founder of ALA’s Banned Books Week, an annual week-long event that celebrates the freedom to choose and the freedom to express one’s opinion.

“For more than four decades Judith Krug inspired librarians and educated government officials and others about everyone’s inviolable right to read. Her leadership in defense of the First Amendment was always principled and unwavering. Judith’s courage, intelligence, humor and passion will be much missed - but her spirit will inspire us always,” said Jim Rettig, ALA president, and Keith Michael Fiels, ALA executive director.

Krug  was the recipient of many awards,  including the Joseph P. Lippincott Award, the Irita Van Doren Award, the Harry Kalven Freedom of Expression Award and, most recently, the William J. Brennan, Jr. award, from the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of  Free Expression.  Krug also received an honorary doctorate, Doctor of Humane Letters, from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign in 2005. In July, the Freedom to Read Foundation planned to give her an award for her years of vision and leadership.  In addition, she served as a senator and vice president of the Phi Beta Kappa society.

Earlier this year, she received the William J. Brennan Jr. Award for her “remarkable commitment to the marriage of open books and open minds.” 

Krug was only the fifth person to receive the award since 1993. The award recognizes a person or group that demonstrates a commitment to the principles of free expression followed by the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

“Often in the face of great personal criticism, Krug has never wavered in her defense of First Amendment freedoms, whether testifying before Congress, leading legal challenges to unconstitutional laws or intervening hundreds of times to support and advise librarians in their efforts to keep particular books,” according to the center.

Born Judith Fingeret in Pittsburgh in 1940, she began her library career as a reference librarian at Chicago’s John Crerar Library in 1962. Later, she was hired as a cataloguer at Northwestern University’s dental school library, working there from 1963-65. She joined the ALA as a research analyst from 1965-67 and assumed the post of OIF director in 1967,  also taking over the duties of executive director of the Freedom to Read Foundation.

Krug was a member of the ALA, as well as Phi Beta Kappa, serving as an associate on the Chicago area’s executive committee and as president from 1991-94. She was also a member of the American Bar Association’s committee on public understanding. In addition, she was on the board of directors of the Chicago chapter of the American Jewish Commission, on the council of Literary Magazines and Presses and the chair of the Media Coalition.

She is survived by her husband Herbert, her children Steven (Denise) of Northbrook and Michelle (David) Litchman of Glencoe and five grandchildren: Jessica, Sydney, Hannah, Rachel and Jason.  She is also survived by her brothers, Jay (Ilene) Fingeret and Dr. Arnold (Denise) Fingeret of Pittsburgh, Pa., and her sister and brother-in-law, Shirley and Dr. Howard Katzman of Miami, Fla. She was preceded in death by her sister Susan (Steve) Pavsner of Bethesda Md.



New York library student honored by Maybelline New York andPeople Magazine for her work with the city’s incarcerated youth

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By Lindsy Serrano

Educator and library student Jessica Fenster-Sparber was one of the ten honorees at the 2008 Maybelline New York Beauty of Education dinner, held at the historic New York Public Library in Manhattan.  Ms. Fenster-Sparber is a library coordinator  who works with the city’s incarcerated youth as well as the executive director of Literacy for Incarcerated Teens, the only nonprofit organization that raises money to fun the building of libraries and literacy programs in New York City’s juvenile detention centers.  

The Maybelline New York Beauty of Education award was given to ten educators from across the country that were selected through a nomination process and with the help of the publications People, People en Español, and Essence magazine.  The recipients were honored at a dinner hosted by Maybelline ambassador Tomiko Fraser and received at $10,000 grant to support their causes. Information about their causes were featured in People magazine.  

Literacy for Incarcerated Teens is an all-volunteer, community-based organization making a difference in the lives of some of NYC’s most vulnerable young people.  Ms. Fenster-Sparber joined LIT in 2003 and currently serves as the executive director.  LIT is committed to a world in which all children are literate.  Our mission is to ensure that all of New York City’s detained youth have access to library materials and library services of the highest quality.  We are currently working with Passages Academy, NYCDOE’s school program for incarcerated and detained youth, and its partner NYC’s Department of Juvenile Justice, on an ambitious project to create model libraries inside our city’s juvenile detention centers.  

For more information please visit


Library Grows A Lush Imagination

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Ray Bradbury and his Green Town Roots

By Ellyn Ruhlmann, Freelance Writer

Where was Ray Bradbury when the stock market came crashing down in 1929? Others, jobless by the millions, ate in soup kitchens and slept in cardboard jungles, and where was he? Ray Bradbury was on Mars.

Sheltered between the pages of Edgar Rice Burrough’s Mars tales, nine-year-old Ray wasn’t worried about his dad holding a job, or where his next meal would come from. He was worried about Ras Thavas transplanting his brain into the body of a giant ape. Other days he might travel to Oz to cavort with the likes of Button-Bright, and Ojo the Munchkin boy. All characters he pulled from library shelves in hometown Waukegan, Illinois.

"My idea of living was every Monday to run down Washington Street directly to the library … the Carnegie Library built by Andrew Carnegie at the turn of the century," Bradbury said in a 2006 interview. "I loved opening the library door and looking in and listening to all my friends in there. All the books talked to me, they all whispered. The stacks were dark and mysterious and wonderful."

It was at the library that Bradbury learned about magic and creatures fantastic, about mystery and the art of suspense.  It’s where he forged an intimate connection with Poe and other literary masters whose work would profoundly influence his own. Many of these early library memories still echo throughout Bradbury’s stories, most notably his masterwork, Something Wicked This Way Comes. Nose down at one of the long tables at the Carnegie Library, caught in some wild caper, Bradbury was growing into one of the greatest science fiction and fantasy writers of our time.

Outside, the world was still crumbling with the aftershocks of Black Tuesday, but Bradbury wasn’t feeling them. He was always someplace else.

Poet of the Pulps

Bradbury grew up the third son of a middle-class family in Waukegan, a place named, he said, “with neither love nor grace”—later immortalized as Green Town in his novels. Canopied by trees and dotted with dandelions, this nostalgic old neighborhood lay hitched together by brick-paved streets, trains and a trolley, yet divided by a deep, woody ravine. In short, the ideal setting to indulge his craving for make-believe.

Ray and older brother Skip would make frequent trips not only to the library, but also the cinema, magic shows and, when lucky enough, a lakefront carnival. He recalls the pivotal night he encountered “Mr. Electrico,” a carnival magician who could survive super-charges of electricity. Sitting front-row, Ray felt the unexpected tap of the magician’s sword and the boom of his command: “Live forever!” After that, Ray started writing every day without fail.

His early outpouring showed a swirl of cultural influences, from Buck Rodgers to Jules Verne, King Kong to Hawthorne. (“A conglomerate heap of trash, that’s what I am,” Bradbury quipped. “But it burns with a high flame.”) They were stories that eluded labeling. Not traditional science fiction or fantasy, these tales formed more of a hybrid genre, one tinged with poetic imagery and prose.  Bradbury’s classic library education had marbleized with all the graphic appeal of pop culture to create his unique style—a style that would lead Time magazine to dub him “Poet of the Pulps.”

He published his stories in his own zine, Futuria Fantasia, before pulp magazines like Weird Tales began picking up his work. Over the years, Bradbury gained a steady following and in 1947 came out with his first anthology, Dark Carnival, the same year his short story, “Homecoming,” was selected for the O. Henry Prize Stories. Bradbury had made the transition from what many considered lowbrow pulps to high-paying slicks. Mainstream critics had their eye on him, and were ready for the explosive bestsellers that followed.

Rocketing Fame

“A thing that begins when you’re three and six and 10 and 12 winds up in your fictions when you’re in your 30s,” Bradbury observed.

Decades after he caught his first flare of inspiration from Burroughs’ Mars novels, Bradbury composed The Martian Chronicles—his first tour de force. Again drawing from library classics of his youth, the author credited Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio for helping give structure to this book he calls “a half-cousin to a novel.” Ylla and her kind with their yellow coin eyes—living just a planet away—took our imaginations on a rocket ride. The Martian Chronicles, as Bradbury later found out, even sparked the ambitions of real-life space travelers: the boys who would grow up to be Apollo astronauts.

A year later came The Illustrated Man, another loosely-knit collection of stories that wooed over the anti-fantasy literati. By this time, 1951, Bradbury and his burgeoning family were living in Los Angeles, and despite this newfound notoriety, he still couldn’t afford his own office. So he improvised. Leaving his clamorous offspring behind, Bradbury would often sojourn to the UCLA library and ramble about, pulling inspiration from one tome or another. One day, he heard the clack of typewriter keys from below. Peering down into the basement, he found a whole roomful of typewriters, available to rent for 10 cents a half-hour.

“I got a bag of dimes, I moved into the typing room of the library, and I spent $9.80,” said Bradbury in an interview. “And I wrote Fahrenheit 451. So you see, what a place for Fahrenheit 451 to be written, in a library! … Where it wasn’t being burned.” More than fifty years later, Fahrenheit 451 has sold more than five million copies and is still widely circulated—required reading in many English courses. Often compared to classics like Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four, the novel’s messages about totalitarianism and the superficiality of mass culture still resonate today.

For years, Bradbury shrank from the science fiction label because he believed science fiction is the art of the possible, and he wrote of the impossible; he wrote fantasy. But in the end, this author, who learned how to terrorize from Poe and Shelley, whose work evinced chills on Alfred Hitchcock shows and among pulp fans everywhere, might best be remembered for Fahrenheit 451 because it’s the only true science fiction book in his corpus. And as such, perhaps the most terrifying.

“I have to write these books and help change the future,” Bradbury said. Yet, in practicing this art of the possible, Bradbury may have himself introduced new possibilities. For a book written back when TV was still a newfangled invention, Fahrenheit 451 demonstrates an almost eerie prescience. In Montag’s world, technology eclipses humanity, shutting people off from each other with virtual reality, big-screen TVs and “seashell radios”—our iPods of today. A half-century later, much of Bradbury’s foreboding has come to fruition.

Other Explorations

The year Fahrenheit 451 hit the shelves, 1953, media from radio to film began to till the rich fields of Bradbury’s work. It Came From Outer Space appeared on the big screen that year, followed by other Hollywood adaptations, including The Illustrated Man and eventually, Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury’s short stories also emerged on 1950’s TV shows like Tales of Tomorrow, Suspense, Jane Wyman’s Fireside Theatre and others. In 1980, Rock Hudson would star in a TV miniseries of The Martian Chronicles, and the author himself would later host his own TV series, The Ray Bradbury Show.

While show biz made hay with Ray, his talents overspilled into architecture as well. In 1962, he was asked to serve as consultant for the New York World’s Fair, and to write and choreograph The American Journey, an elaborate educational display at the U.S. Pavilion. Bradbury also devised prototypes for “small town” shopping malls all across the country, including the innovative Glendale Galleria in Los Angeles and Horton Plaza in San Diego. And in 1976, the mammoth behind the Mouse, Walt Disney company, tapped Ray to help design and script the interiors of Spaceship Earth, EPCOT’s geodesic focal point.

Bradbury had always loved pop culture, and pop culture learned to love Ray Bradbury.

Hometown Reflections

… From the age of twenty-four to thirty-six hardly a day passed when I didn’t stroll myself across a recollection of my grandparents’ northern Illinois grass, hoping to come across some old half-burnt firecracker, a rusted toy, or a fragment of letter written to myself in some young year hoping to contact the older person I became to remind him of his past, his life, his people, his joys, and his drenching sorrows. —Ray Bradbury, introduction to Dandelion Wine

By the mid-fifties, Bradbury was back living in Los Angeles after spending a half-year abroad to write the screenplay for the film adaptation of Moby Dick. Director John Houston sent a limo for him opening night, and he got a close squint at the Hollywood lights. Ray Bradbury was big time now. His books topped the bestseller lists. His name was  a household name. Yet Bradbury felt increasing pangs for home, for his humble Green Town. He mulled wistfully over boyhood haunts, the spooky sprints through the ravine, trips to the coal docks, the green glow of bankers’ lamps at the Carnegie library. And he wrote about them. This period marks a kind of homecoming in Bradbury’s writing, the shift to autobiographical fantasy.

In 1957, he published Dandelion Wine, a poignant portrayal of one golden summer in Green Town, a year before the Great Depression. Crafted in a series of vignettes, the book offers readers a glug of Grandpa Spaulding’s best vintage, conjuring images of boyhood pleasures, of wet, green lawns and new tennis shoes and lime vanilla ice. But Dandelion Wine is also a novel of loss. It’s about your best chum moving away, and taking the last ride on a familiar trolley before city buses roar in. In Waukegan, the last trolley ran in 1947, and like 12-year-old Douglas at the end of summer, Bradbury fans feel the loss of this simpler era.

Summer cools to autumn, the author’s favorite time of year, in Something Wicked This Way Comes, his next Green Town novel. Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show has just moved into Green Town, casting its pall over the once happy haunts of Bradbury’s youth. As the carnival’s mysterious carousel turns, either aging or age-reversing its riders, terrors mount. Suspense finally culminates at Ray’s old source of refuge, the Carnegie Library. Here, 13-year-olds Will and Jim seek protection “somewhere in the recumbent solitudes” from the tattooed menace of Mr. Dark. But the boys, who started out as green as their town, quickly learn that the library—as Bradbury says—is a place of discovery.

Library Degree

You must live feverishly in a library. Colleges are not going to do any good unless you are raised and live in a library every day of your life. —Ray Bradbury

Readers marvel that Bradbury, a wielder of complex themes and nuanced, metaphor-rich language, never made it to college. Like Hemingway and Faulkner, Ray Bradbury dedicated himself to independent study. He earned his own degree, largely in the library. And in return for this free education, Bradbury became a mighty advocate for libraries everywhere. Until health issues impeded, he made frequent visits back to Waukegan, and supported the Ray Bradbury Creative Writing Contest at the Waukegan Public Library for more than 20 years. When the city voted to demolish the old Carnegie Library building, it was Bradbury who stopped the wrecking ball. The landmark, now slated for a museum, will forever remain a chilling reminder of Dark’s demonics.

Spin Bradbury’s own carousel backward, and Dark and his carnival had their real beginnings with Dark Carnival, Bradbury’s very first published work. Since then, he produced more than 600 short stories, novels, plays and poems. Unconventional in style and subject, Bradbury’s work became enormously influential to the literary community, earning placements in four Best American Short Story collections. Writers like Studs Terkel believe the author’s finest achievement came in his “rural remembrances of things past.” Could Bradbury have found that letter he wrote, reminding him of his younger self? In the Green Town novels, all his boyhood experiences exhale with startling vividness. It’s as if he felt the tap of Mr. Electrico’s sword again, and wanted to pass along the charge.

“When people touch my books, they are alive,” Bradbury says. “So that’s the gift I give to them, and I want them to carry them back and forth to the library.”

About the Author: Ellyn Ruhlmann is a freelance writer living in Grayslake, Illinois. One of her specialties is writing about libraries and their impact on communities. Ellyn is passionate about books and literacy issues, and holds a master's degree in English Literature from the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee. Like Bradbury, she earned it largely in the library.



The Danville Public Library Spreads Literacy, Reading, and Opportunity to Ex-Offenders

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By Otis D. Alexander

Originally appeared in Virginia Libraries (Vol. 54, No. 3-4), a quarterly journal published by the Virginia Library Association.

Many ex-offenders feel that “the system” has little to offer them except a strong likelihood that they will return to prison. The high rate of recidivism among former offenders would seem to bear out this fear. However, the Danville Public Library (DPL) is doing all that it can to assist ex-offenders in reconnecting to their communities by spreading literacy, encouraging reading, and offering referrals to the many services that are available to help them. This is the primary reason that DPL has set up the Institute of Information Literacy: not just to benefit ex-offenders, but also to help the underserved community in general. It is the moral duty of the public library to ensure that all of its customers are afforded the best and most accurate information for their advancement.

On August 11, 2008, as director of the Danville Public Library and creator of the library’s Institute of Information Literacy program, I was invited by Offender Transition Coordinator Charles B. Crumpler to speak at the Danville Adult Detention Center (City Farm). The fourteen inmates I addressed will be reentering the community within the next few months. After a warm welcome by the inmates, I shared information about the various services the public libraries have to offer throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia. Many of these services are geared to the underserved, and a few are actually designed for the ex-offender.

In the commonwealth, a growing number of men and women with arrest and conviction records are reentering the employment market. To be sure, there are more than ten thousand who are released here annually. Some have been incarcerated in Virginia, while others relocate from other state institutions. These ex-offenders face numerous barriers in their search for jobs as well as other bias factors that impede their efforts to reenter the community. If they can gain employment, many of these ex-offenders will stay free from crime and not become recidivism statistics. To assist in solving some of these problems, my talk emphasized the information that one can obtain from reading, along with other related services provided by a public library.

Having previously compiled Getting It Together/Reentry for Virginia Employment: How to Get What You Want by Using the Public Library, I discussed this guide in detail with the inmates, describing the guide’s origins and how it seeks to both smooth their transition as they reenter communities in Virginia and steer them positively so that they will be successful and not continue to make similar choices to the ones they made prior to incarceration. I discussed decision-making, and how the decisions people make can lead them to poverty or plenty. I then asked them not to become victims of destiny, and to break the high recidivism rate that threatens the community.

Getting It Together is divided into three major sections. However, the meat of the publication is “Reentry and Virginia Employment.” This section provides guidance on obtaining vital documents like birth certificates; food stamps; Social Security cards; identification from the Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles; Armed Forces/Military Personnel Records; high school, university, or GED transcripts or diplomas; and professional licenses. The section also provides help in creating a résumé or curriculum vitae, along with an abundance of information concerning health and wellness, free clinics and beaches in Virginia, transitional housing, cheap transportation, free legal aid in Virginia, and faith and philosophy. The appendices are very functional, as all of the resources can be found in the Danville Public Library as well as every library in the commonwealth.

Of course, the inmates’ eyes lit up when I talked about employment available in Virginia. While I made it clear that no one was promising anything, I did highlight good interview techniques, encouraging my listeners to make sure that they are truthful, positive, and brief. Sure, they made mistakes. However, it’s important to let the employer or interviewer know how they will improve themselves. Falsification of an employment application is grounds for dismissal. A conviction does not automatically disqualify an applicant from employment.

This was my second visit to speak at the Danville Adult Detention Center. Because of these engagements and the need to assist ex-offenders in a community where the economy is not the best, I created a daylong workshop, Transition & Resources for the Underserved: Ex-Offenders, that will be held on September 22 to address some of these problems, from employment to recidivism. Speakers and programs will include the mayor of Danville, an Episcopal priest, the director of Adult and Continuing Education, staff from the Center for Volunteerism, the Basic Computer Application program at the Institute of Information Literacy (DPL), and librarians.

It sometimes appears to be difficult for our society to admit that it does not want to deal with ex-offenders. Also, it is hard for former inmates to gain decent employment, as many of the employers do not offer them a second chance. Ex-offenders lose the fundamental right to vote, and few are ever welcomed into our neighborhoods. While the public library is not an employment agency, it is committed to making sure that all community members have equal and professional resources available in a variety of media formats.

Otis D. Alexander is the director of the Danville Public Library. He studied at Harvard Graduate School of Education Leadership Institute for Academic Librarians. He can be reached at




Kenya Connections: For Two Connecticut Librarians, KenyaMeans More Than a Safari

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By Barbara Wysocki, co-director of children's services at Rocky Hill’s Cora J. Belden Library

Originally appeared in the February 2009 issue of Connecticut Libraries, a publication of the Connecticut Library Association

Can a electronic discussion list posting change your life? Audra Zimmermann thinks so. President and co-owner of the library consulting firm, The Donohue Group (DGI), Audra clearly remembers the day in May 2007 when she discovered a CLClist item about the American Friends of Kenya (AFK). The Norwich-based charity was looking for volunteers to work on library projects in that East Africa nation.

Within the hour, she and Susan Yannello, DGI’s manager of retrospective conversion and cataloging services, had applied and, a few days later, they submitted resumes and letters of recommendation. “We heard back that same day,” says Audra about their warm, and immediate, welcome to join AFK’s 2008 team. “We were so excited!” Susan agrees, “I had been looking for a special project that would allow me to make a large impact in the library world.”

Although it would be more than a year until take-off time, both became immersed in planning for the trip. At meetings with library team members Diane Stackpole and Pat and McKenzie Little, they heard about AFK’s 2006 trip to Kenya. They began organizing shipments of books destined for the Starehe Girls Centre near the capital city of Nairobi. That meant barcoding 1,100 items, photocopying each title page and verso, creating customized MARC records, and then printing complete catalog card sets with spine labels. Undaunted, they sorted all 1,100 catalog card sets and made a shelflist. “We called it ‘library-in-a-box,’” laughs Audra.

The team amassed two duffel bags full of book-mending supplies, blank labels and, for good measure, they tucked in donated toys and school supplies. But they weren’t done yet. Planning one-day workshops for the 30 Kenyan library workers they’d soon meet included creating handouts on acquisitions, weeding, mending, classifying, public service and early literacy.

The AFK website notes that Kenya’s challenging conditions include a life expectancy of less than 50 years for adults; of every 1,000 live births, 123 children die before their fifth birthday. AFK education and medical teams were also preparing for the trip.

Then, in December 2007, it looked like the groups’ hard work might have to be put on hold. The Kenyan presidential election became the flashpoint for civil unrest. Riots in some areas they planned to visit made the trip a question mark for almost six months. But Audra and Susan completed their immunizations, and by June 29 their group was on its way to Kenya.

American Friends of Kenya describes these visits as work and pleasure. For the first five days, the group learned about Kenya on safari, allowing them to see the wildlife and culture of the Masai Mara reserve. Audra, a veteran traveler, enjoyed “the chance to return to Africa, but not simply as a tourist.” For Susan, “This seemed the perfect opportunity, both to travel to a new place, and to make an impact.” She adds, “All of the participants in the mission were eager to get to work at the end of the safari.”

The Thika Regional Library

Making an impact requires collaboration between the U.S. charity and eight Kenyan agencies. AFK partners with African Christian Church and Schools, which donated property in a rural community for the Thika Regional Library, completed after the team’s return. Susan and Audra worked with staff at Thika to determine the best place to set up a children’s department, discussed how to use the Dewey Decimal System and talked about the library’s role as a gathering place. Thika Regional Library is about more than books; it’s a health and education hub for the 900,000 people it serves. With other library team members, the pair also presented workshops for 37 school librarians.

The Starehe Girls’ Centre

Audra and Susan were impressed by the hard work and interest of their Kenyan counterparts and inspired by the Starehe Girls’ Centre students. This residential high school draws motivated, high-achieving, impoverished young women from all over Kenya. Continuing the task of putting together the library of this new school, the library team explained basic procedures for circulation, tech support, and reference to student volunteers.

As they finished up on a Saturday afternoon, they promised to return on Monday to catalog books previously donated to the library. The students and their advisor were eager to learn, so the library team showed them where to find the needed bibliographic information. Returning on Monday, they found 2,000 books’ worth of data listed on hand-written pages. The girls apologized because they hadn’t finished entering the mounds of information into a computer spreadsheet. “We had no idea they were listening that closely,” says Susan, “Or that it was humanly possible to do all that work so quickly.”

To expand their outreach, the library team met with staff from the National Library of Kenya. AFK is also involved with the Johnny Appleseed Project, which brings books to children in the Nairobi slums.

Before returning to U.S. soil, Audra had already signed up for the 2009 team, which is already at capacity. Preparations for next summer’s visit are well underway with the balance of Starehe’s books being cataloged and processed. A survey has been conducted with their Kenyan partners to ensure that only the books that are genuinely needed will be shipped.

AFK Executive Director Emely Silver notes that, “Audra and Susan bring an incredible amount of expertise, enthusiasm, dedication and knowledge to AFK.” Audra has joined the group’s Board of Directors and Susan is on their Advisory Committee.

Fundraising is also a goal for these committed women. At the New England Library Association’s fall conference, Susan and other DGI staff sold beautiful handcrafted beaded jewelry made by Kenyan women, raising $440.

Librarians can contact Audra or Susan by calling DGI at 860-683-1647, or visit Who knows? A conversation at the conference might change your life, too.


Can’t Afford a Prom Dress? Try the Local Library

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By School Library Journal Staff, first appeared at on 04/08/2009

Reproduced, with permission, from School Library Journal Copyright © By Reed Business Information, A Division of Reed Elsevier Inc.

With its community facing tough economic times, the Galesburg Public Library has reached out by offering free prom dresses to teens who otherwise couldn’t afford them.

As a result of a the 100 Dresses Program launched by YA Librarian Kari Smith, more than two dozen local girls from four high schools recently chose from gently used evening dresses in all shades and sizes, donated from women's clubs, college students, and other high school kids. Some even walked away with matching accessories to wear on their big night, which takes place on April 25.

The girls were assisted by "personal shoppers" composed of five girls from the library’s teen advisory board, as well as Smith and Melinda Jones-Rhoades, another young adult librarian.

“This is really great. I can’t believe you’re just giving these dresses away!” enthused Elizabeth Mustain, a local teen who selected a gown at the “boutique.”

The program has been about a year in the making because working-class Galesburg residents have felt the economic squeeze long before the current financial meltdown. In 2005, local industries Maytag and the Butler Manufacturing Company moved out, leaving lots of townspeople unemployed.

“The residents of this town have had their fair share of hard knocks,” says Smith.

While a prom boutique is a new program for the Galesburg Public Library, there’s a history of prom dress donation in Galesburg. The first Galesburg institution to give away prom dresses was the University of Illinois Extension several years ago, but the program was shut down due to funding cuts, Smith explains.

“The girls who picked out dresses seemed thrilled we were offering the service,” she adds. “It’s worth it to see the smiles on the girls’ faces.”

The program was promoted through as many outlets as possible: on the library’s Web site, with fliers at schools and the library, and in the newspaper and on the radio, says Smith, who joined the library last year and pledged to beef up its YA programming.

So far, so good. The library served between 725 to 750 teens in 2008.