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Libraries are hot

America's librarians hear the talk about how the Internet may spell doom for their institutions, and they are trying to shush that right up.

The American Library Association issued a report this week (at www.ala.org/2007state) that suggests the rumors of libraries' demise are greatly exaggerated. The association's annual study said the number of visits to public libraries increased 61 percent between 1994 and 2004, to nearly 2 billion. (One imagines some bored young employee counting at an entrance, going: "1,989,768,454 ... 1,989,768,455 ... 1,989,768,4 -- aw, frig, I'll just tell them almost 2 billion.")

"Far from hurting American libraries, the Internet has actually helped to spur more people to use their local libraries because it has increased our hunger for knowledge and information," said Loriene Roy, the association's president-elect. From 1994-2004, library circulation rose 28 percent, driven primarily by a 44 percent growth in borrowing of children's materials. The report noted 99 percent of libraries provide free computer access to the Internet, which three of 10 households lack.

Some of this is original

The positive word for library-backers comes on the heels of some negativity you may have already read about, because it turned into a Katie Couric controversy. She read an on-camera essay bemoaning the fate of libraries, which too closely resembled a recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece on the same topic. Someone from Couric's staff (a producer was fired over this) should have gone to the library to check out Thomas Mallon's book: "Stolen Words: Forays into the Origins and Ravages of Plagiarism."

In any case, here's some of the original WSJ piece written by Jeffrey Zaslow, who we duly credit for saving us some our own time and thoughts:

"For parents and grandparents, it's hard to accept that young people today often feel little connection to the local library. We recall the libraries of our childhoods as magical places ... Suburban kids, especially, often use libraries more for DVDs, story hours and computers, because their parents buy them books."

Zaslow quoted various people saying that students arrive at college unfamiliar with card catalogues and unable to navigate the library, and that while store sales of young people's books constitute a good thing, they deny children the tradition of roaming the library in search of "serendipitous discovery."

Does reading the Cliffs Notes count?

The National Endowment for the Arts scolded America in 2004 for "a national crisis," after finding that fewer than half of adults were reading literature. Young adults were worst of all, with a 28 percent decline from 1982 to 2002 in their willingness, uncompelled, to read a novel, short story, poem or play in the past 12 months.

The study found women reading more literature than men (yep, them bodice-ripping Harlequin novels qualify), but their rate was also declining. Evidently, everyone was too busy writing to do much reading. The number of people doing creative writing increased by 30 percent between 1982 and 2002, to 14 million. But if no one's going to be reading them, what's the point?


From the AP

The NEA followed up by backing "The Big Read," a national program encouraging communities to participate collectively in reading a single book. The effort started with 10 communities reading one of four books: "To Kill a Mockingbird," "Farenheit 451," "The Great Gatsby" and "Their Eyes Were Watching God."

The program is to expand to 100 locations this year, adding eight more books as options: "Bless Me Ultima," "My Antonia," "The Maltese Falcon," "A Farewell to Arms," "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter," "The Grapes of Wrath," "The Joy Luck Club" and "The Age of Innocence."

She's a model librarian, perhaps

Allegheny County has had its own "One Book, One Community" program since 2003, starting with Harper Lee's "Mockingbird," At this point, we're all supposed to be reading the 2007 choice, Jeannette Walls' "Glass Castle." Hurry up so you're not left out of the water-cooler conversation about what it's like to grow up homeless.

The first such community reading program, "If All of Seattle Read the Same Book," was spearheaded by librarian Nancy Pearl of that city in 1998. She later became the model for the bespectacled, plain-Jane, "librarian action figure," a real 5-inch toy with "amazing push-button shushing action" (available at www.accoutrements.com). She took some criticism worldwide for the doll, however, from librarians who complained she was helping promote stern, outmoded stereotypes of the profession.

Pearl confided to the Los Angeles Times that she only finishes about one of every 10 books she starts. "Life's too short not to enjoy whatever you're reading," she explained. Her rule for readers is to give a book at least 50 pages before giving up, unless you're older than 50. In that case, the magic number is your age subtracted from 100.


Correction/Clarification: (Published April 20, 2007) The proper title of Zora Neale Hurston's book recommended as community reading by the National Endowment for the Arts is "Their Eyes Were Watching God." The title was incorrect in this Morning File column as originally published April 19, 2007.

Gary Rotstein can be reached at grotstein@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1255.


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