As this year’s Public Library Association (PLA) conference draws near—the first since I retired from my role as executive director of the Cuyahoga County Public Library (CCPL) last August, I find myself happily immersed in a new role: grandmother. Baby Matthew arrived in December, and he is fortunate to have a home library filled with beautiful picture books and a family that can’t wait to bring him to his first baby storytime at his local branch of the New York Public Library, and to get him his first library card.
Today, the art of being “read to” is making huge advances, thanks to the surging popularity of digital audio. But being read to is not the same as an audiobook. Don’t get me wrong—I love audiobooks and often make them a format of choice, especially if the reader is wonderful, or I am headed on a road trip. But as I learned from an early age, the experience of actually getting close to someone and listening to their voice as you are immersed in a story together is magical, especially for a young child. And, as numerous studies have shown, it is important to the developing brains of children.
Books as Connections
My own early literacy development came courtesy of my older sister, Myrna. My parents led busy lives, so reading aloud to me was often left to her. When my incessant requests for her to “read to me!” grew tiresome, she eventually thought it easier to just teach me to read on my own. But to this day, I’ve always loved the experience of being read to.
When I first met my husband, Matt, he read poetry to me, along with some occasional prose. I wish I could convince him to still read aloud to me, especially because I want him to read Kevin Barry’s Night Boat to Tangier to me in his lovely Irish accent!
As my own children graduated from picture books to chapter books and classics, I kept reading out loud to them. There was something so satisfying about sitting close with them and sharing Louis Sacher, Lois Lowry, and M.E. Kerr. And I continued to read aloud to them throughout their school years, including books like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and John Grisham’s The Painted House.
During my years as a young adult librarian, I often advised parents that during the years when you might struggle to talk to your adolescent child, you might try sharing a book, and talking about fictional teens and perhaps discuss the hard issues without being so confrontational. If reading aloud to your children as they grow up becomes artificial or awkward, I would still recommend reading the books your kids are reading, whether those books are required reading at school, or picked up by choice. It makes for great conversation.
Even though they are now adults, I still make books a key connection point with my daughters. I gave new mom Meg a copy of Heidi Murkoff and Sharon Mazel’s What to Expect in the First Year and Dr. Robert Needlman’s updated Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care. Both are practical bibles of early parenting that include great advice—including on reading and language development.
I also made sure Meg had a classic Mother Goose nursery rhyme collection shelved alongside the popular board books gifted to Matthew. During my tenure at Cuyahoga County Public Library (CCPL), we worked hard to put a beautiful new baby kit in the hands of as many first-time mothers as we could reach. Many library systems today have something similar to CCPL’s kit, which includes nursery rhymes, Read to Your Bunny by Rosemary Wells, and information drawn from the ALA’s Every Child Ready to Read program.
For decades, librarians have helped create language development activities for parents and caregivers of babies, toddlers and preschoolers. The Every Child Ready to Read program was introduced in 2004, for example, and there are many, many other projects in libraries across the nation, including the program I created with Sandra Feinberg and the Middle Country Public Library (NY) Family Place Library that dates back to the 1990s. And the evidence is clear: libraries can play a crucial role in a child’s development, and can be the great equalizer in education, ensuring that every child gets the essential building blocks for learning before they enter school.
Will my grandson grow up to enjoy a lifetime of reading? Well, when your grandmother is a former librarian, you can be confident that reading and language development will be a top priority!
But I must admit, I’m already anxious about the iPad entertainment I observe in the pediatrician’s waiting room and the distracted parents on their mobile devices. I have yet to see a parent whip out a board book from a diaper bag and entertain the baby with words and pictures. And leaves me to wonder: if not local librarians, who in the community models good language habits and shares that message with new parents, grandparents, and other adults in a baby or toddler’s life?
Making a Difference
Every two years, the PLA conference brings together the best talent from within our profession and thought leaders from outside the library world to inspire and enrich our community engagement and programming. As a library director, I often encouraged members of my Board of Trustees to travel with me to PLA and attend conference workshops. I wanted my Trustees to hear about public library innovation from across the country and to meet librarians and directors with the same challenges and aspirations that we had back in Cuyahoga County. I also encouraged members of the CCPL staff to submit program ideas.
During my career I benefited immensely from my deep involvement with PLA. I still recall my conference as PLA president, in Portland, Oregon, with Nicholas Kristof as the opening speaker. He moved the assembly with his stories from Half the Sky, inspiring public libraries to “think globally and act locally.” Puzzle master Will Shortz closed the conference with wit—and games. In between there was top-notch professional content and a special appearance by Natalie Merchant performing songs from Leave Your Sleep, courtesy of Baker and Taylor.
But in this year, my first year of retirement, I find myself especially thankful to PLA and my colleagues in the library community. Because of my fellow librarians, I know I learned how the simple acts of talking, singing, reading, and with kids are such essential activities for encouraging literacy skills. It's been more than 20 years since Clara Nalli Bohrer, director of the West Bloomfield Township (Michigan) Library, first invited me to be part of an early literacy initiative she was leading. And, in my new role—grandmother—it's been fun to see how the story time finger-plays and rhymes that were imprinted on my brain all those years ago are now playing such an important part in my personal life, and in the life of my grandson.
PW columnist Sari Feldman is the former executive director of the Cuyahoga County Public Library in Cleveland and a past president of both the Public Library Association (2009–2010) and the American Library Association (2015–2016).