Recently, local reporter Erica Bryant wrote about a “reading crisis” in Rochester, expressing outrage and alarm over the apparent lack of reading skills among Rochester residents. Bryant proposed creating a “gigantic youth literacy initiative” as a gift in honor of Frederick Douglass’ 200th birthday coming up in 2018.
Speaking as the Director of the Rochester Public Library and Monroe County Library System, and as a member of Mayor Lovely Warren’s Senior Management Team, I will argue that our reading crisis will be solved not by a huge “initiative” or another “blue ribbon panel” but by small, community based actions such as those put in place by the City and by community members over the last few years which demonstrate and promote a culture of reading.
It will be solved by average citizens modeling reading behavior to children and low-literate adults.
It will be solved by creating more and more opportunities to get books into people’s hands and homes, and by helping those who are learning to master the act of reading discover the beauty and power of the written word.
The City of Rochester and the Rochester Public Library have implemented many small-scale reading programs and projects in the last few years. Some of those include the library’s popular Raising a Reader program which focuses on reading as a family activity. Partnering with ABC Headstart classrooms and daycares, Raising a Reader provides new books to participating families every week over the course of several months. Staff works with the parents to help them understand the importance of reading with their children every day, and that the act of reading together as a family can be very intimate and special, both for the child and the parent.
Raising a Reader has been successful in introducing young children to reading for pleasure, but it has also opened doors for parents who are ready and eager to improve their reading skills. As reading becomes important to the parent, it also becomes important to the child.
Recently, Raising a Reader families reported that their children more frequently asked to look at and read books at home, that they had more books in their homes, and that the average length of time the children and parents read together increased by more than 50% since last year.
Mayor Warren and her staff understand the importance of having books in the home, and have rolled out several programs and projects that help get books into the hands of community members, especially children.
Storytime with Style has distributed more than 2,000 books through twelve barbershops and beauty salons in the City. These books are placed on special shelves for people – adults and children – to read while waiting for a haircut, and then take home when they’re finished. The stylists, by having the books in their salons, demonstrate the value and importance of reading to children and adults alike. They make reading part of the community culture.
Mayor Warren has also created an online community which encourages reading in the home. Rochester Families Read is a Facebook group where information about reading and education is shared with more than 300 group members. Reading recommendations, information about educational events and activities, and inspirational messages about reading are frequently shared in this group, which is open to anyone.
Distribution of books to children, teens, and adults has become an important part of the library’s outreach efforts. You will often find one of the library’s Books By Bike stations at area farmers markets and community events, giving books away. Our riders regularly report they are constantly flagged down on their way between stops by people who are anxious to get a book.
In addition, you will find shelves of free books in many locations throughout the City, maintained by community volunteers and by library staff. Since 2015, the library distributed more than 2 million free books through nearly 200 locations in the City, including WIC sites, Family Court waiting rooms, corner stores, and laundromats.
The most frequently requested books? The Bible and cookbooks.
Through a partnership with Monroe County, the library has placed Americorps volunteers in DHS offices to engage families in literacy activities while they wait, and to introduce them to the library system. Families can apply for library cards in DHS offices, and are welcomed to their local library once they receive their library card in the mail.
Other community led efforts to distribute books can be found in the dozens of Little Free Libraries located throughout the City. Some were built and distributed by City staff, but many were provided through a grassroots, citizen-led group called The Snowball Effect, which raised over $9,000 and distributed 20 pre-built little libraries several years ago. These libraries are maintained by their “stewards,” usually a homeowner or community member. They operate on the “take a book, leave a book” principle and are free to access. By installing a Little Free Library in your neighborhood, you’re telling the world that you are a Reader and that reading matters.
Perhaps the most impactful method of book distribution is the Books and Bears program begun by the Mayor’s Office of Constituent Services and the Rochester Police Department. With supplies collected entirely through private donations, this program provides RPD officers with teddy bears and a books to give to children who are caught up in a traumatic experience. The bear and the book provide a small amount of comfort in a difficult situation, creating an experience for the child that equates books with something good.
Many community partners like Literacy Volunteers of Rochester provide programs for low-literate adults throughout the region. Adult literacy is critical to solving big issues such as unemployment, poverty, and crime. Bob Mahar, Director of Literacy Volunteers, recently shared these statistics:
- 43% of adults with the lowest literacy skills live in poverty
- 50% of the chronically unemployed are functionally illiterate
- 76% of adults on public assistance are low literate or unable to read more than simple text
- Public assistance recipients with the lowest literacy skills stay on assistance the longest
- Parents who can’t read are likely to have children who can’t read well
- 75% of prisoners fall into the lowest two levels of literacy
- 85% of juvenile offenders have reading problems
Clearly, low literacy affects ones ability to learn, work, and prosper, underscoring the critical need to address literacy first. Literacy Volunteers is always looking for volunteers to help deliver their services. Give them a call at 473-3030!
The number of children, teens, and adults who use our libraries every day are one indicator that we are making some progress in solving the “reading crisis” Bryant wrote about, but it is not enough.
Every person in our City who can read should embrace that skill and share it with others.
- Model reading behavior by carrying a book with you and pulling it out while you wait in line.
- If you’re a digital reader, comment to those around you that you just can’t wait to find out what happens next as you open your e-reading app on your phone.
- Make a habit of talking about what you’re reading.
- Add a line to your email signature about what you’re currently reading.
- If you tweet, use #Recommendsday and #RocReads to recommend a book to your followers every Wednesday.
- Become a Literacy Volunteer and teach someone to read.
- Use your local libraries and encourage everyone you know to use them!
Solving this crisis is up to us. Read early. Read often. Read everywhere.