I’ve just come back from two conferences with librarians. The first was the SLJ Summit in Hollywood, Florida. It was a small but mighty conference, with only about 250 attendees. Many of the participants were in charge of whole school districts. Their mission: to find the most powerful ways to promote literacy. Naturally, they love books. They get it that books give the most coherent and lucid explanations of complicated issues. But they are also on the cutting edge of technology. Most school librarians are also their district “techies” and are responsible for spending portions of their budget for computers, software, and digital materials. They must also keep up with the internet sites kids are accessing as well as the games they are playing. This was reflected in the panel discussions: “Creating and Managing Digital Video Content,” “Can You Hear Me Now? Exploring the Audio/Ebook Experience,” “Reference in the Digital Age, ” “Digital Books for Children: Blessing, Bane or Both?” and the panel I was invited to speak on, “Opening the Book: Matchmaking Nonfiction Books and Educational Technology in the Digital Age.” Marc Aronson, the moderator of my panel, wanted us to show how other media enhanced the power of a book. It is clear that the book is not dead, but it is also clear that the future involves lots of integration between the printed word and other technologies.
The second conference, four days later, was the Mississippi Library Commission, in Jackson Mississippi. These were public librarians (mostly in children’s services) whose whole mission in life is to get patrons into the library and to get kids into books. To do this, they put on programs: story times, read alouds, movies, craft activities, even science (hence my invitation). My job was to empower them to bring in kids using science. Instead of using high tech, public librarians rely on their own personalities and interests to “sell” kids on books. So I gave them lots of hands-on activities, which they enthusiastically threw themselves into. In fact, I’ve never seen a group have so much fun. They were an extraordinarily extroverted bunch, with no shyness about volunteering, sharing or speaking up. I stayed for story-teller Dianne de las Casas’ session. She uses her dynamic presentation to create a participating audience, which was not a stretch for this group. These women (there don’t seem to be many men in this profession) were particularly uninhibited about acting out parts of a story or singing aloud. And this was well before happy hour!
Both authors and librarians are thinking seriously about the future of the book. There is no question that other media compete for time in the busy lives of today’s kids. How do you introduce kids to unfamiliar subjects and kindle further interest in a topic? How do you get kids to apply themselves to something that requires discipline and effort as opposed to the enticing path of least resistance (video games, for example)? The answer is: revealed humanity through the single passionate voice. This is something that librarians seem to have in abundance. Each individual librarian has her own idiosyncratic way of revealing her passion to connect children and books. It is also what creates literature out of the best authors’ endeavors. Revealed humanity, whether through print or personal connection, is the subtext of all authentic communication. It is behind librarians’ recognition of our voices as authors. And it is behind their courageous and fervent fight for literacy. This is a profession that is often below the radar of public recognition. But obviously not in my book.