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Community Literacy Efforts Pay Off for Small Michigan City

By Dennis Abrams

Mlive.com’s Julie Mack reports that efforts spearheaded by Kalamazoo Public Schools and other groups to turn Kalamazoo, Michigan into a “literacy community,” might just be paying off — the number of children’s books checked out from the Kalamazoo Public Library has jumped a remarkable 19% in just one year.

The design of Kalamazoo's Public Library building was inspired by Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye. The attractive institution won "Library of the Year" in 2o02 and has become a hub for community literacy efforts.

And while it’s true that libraries everywhere experience a rise in use during a struggling economy, the amount of increase is “more than we would have expected,” said Susan Warner, head of the library’s youth services, and an indicator that something else is taking place to feed the trend.

And that “something else” appears to be the recent push by Kalamazoo Public Schools and other community organizations to promote reading and literacy among young people.

That push includes mailing every mailing incoming sixth-grader eight books over the course of the summer for pure pleasure reading; and every first-grade class being taken on a field trip to a library branch for a tour and to get a library card.

In addition, organizations ranging from the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Kalamazoo to Rocket Football to local churches are all doing their part to promote reading. Eleven area churches and community centers are also hosting “Lift Up Through Literacy” classes, designed to work with parents to build literacy skills in their children.

The classes, which are organized and operated by Kalamazoo Public Schools, include sessions for parents of infants and toddlers, for parents of preschoolers, and for parents of school-age children. Each eight-week workshop includes a visit to a branch of the Kalamazoo Public Library.

“Our partnership with KPS and other youth organizations in the community has never been stronger,” said Warner. “As a result, we’re getting people in the door, including people who hadn’t come to us in the past.” The field groups for KPS first-graders, in particular, have shown “tremendous potential” for expanding the number of library patrons, she believes.

And while the Lift Up Through Literacy classes obviously involve smaller numbers, they have had a noticeable impact on library usage as well, by helping parents to get beyond the stereotypical view of a library as a place of stuffy quiet, not suitable for families to visit.

“More and more, people are coming to the library as a destination and spending time there as a family,” said Warner. “It’s promoting the library as a community learning space and play space.”

“The ultimate goal is to send the message that ‘the library is for you and coming to the library should be part of your family routine.’”

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