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Thursday, February 26, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Library literacy programs have positive influence, study finds

By Linda Shaw
Seattle Times staff reporter

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Librarians have long believed they provide more to their youngest patrons than a good time and an engaging story. Now they have more data to prove it.

A study of two dozen library literacy efforts released yesterday at the Public Library Association's conference in Seattle concluded that such programs motivate parents to spend more time reading to babies and preschoolers and helping them learn about letters, words and books.

The study was one of two reports released yesterday at the conference, which is expected to draw more than 8,000 librarians and others.

Both reports set out to document the value of libraries to society at a time when many library budgets across the nation are shrinking.

The second report, sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, started with good news: Free access to the Internet is now available in 95 percent of libraries nationwide, compared with 28 percent in 1996.

If you go


The Public Library Association's annual conference continues through Saturday at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center, 800 Convention Place, downtown Seattle.

A $25 "Exhibits Plus" badge, available at the Third Floor South registration desk, provides the following access:

• Exhibits floor with 800 presenters, including major book publishers and vendors of the latest in library technology.

• Saturday's 11:45 a.m. closing session, featuring author/storyteller Sherman Alexie.

For more information, call 206-219-4708.

That's in part thanks to the Gates Foundation, which has spent $250 million over the past seven years to install more than 14,000 computers in almost 11,000 libraries across the country.

The goal was to provide Internet access to many who wouldn't otherwise have it, and the report concludes that it worked.

Among its findings: More than 27 percent of youths from families with annual incomes under $20,000 use computers at the library, compared with 11 percent of those whose parents make more than $75,000.

Bill Gates Sr., co-chairman of the foundation, spoke at the conference yesterday and outlined the foundation's next steps to support libraries.

The foundation wants to ensure that libraries continue to provide free access to computers and the Internet, he said, and last month awarded matching grants totaling $5.8 million to 18 states to keep libraries open, improve technology and support librarian training.

The literacy study, conducted by the Public Library Association and the Association for Library Service to Children, started in 2000 as a pilot project in 14 library systems across the nation, including those in King and Pierce counties. Both groups are divisions of the American Library Association, the largest library association in the world.

Librarians taught parents strategies to boost their children's literacy, including talking to babies about objects in their surroundings, encouraging toddlers to name objects in book illustrations, asking them questions about books to get them to say more than one word, and playing word games to build vocabulary.

In King County, the effort included a program for teenage mothers at a local shopping mall, with free books, finger puppets and food for participating parents.

Librarians interviewed parents before the literacy sessions, and then again several weeks later.

They found that parents continued to use the strategies they'd learned and were reading more to their children than they had in the past.

Parents of children under age 2 had the biggest increase in reading time: The percent who read to their children daily rose from 36 percent to 61 percent.

The sponsors of the study hope it will lead more libraries to talk more to parents about pre-reading skills, said Gretchen Wronka of the Hennepin County Library in Minnesota, president-elect of the Association for Library Service to Children and a member of the task force that coordinated the study.

Public libraries, she said, have had little data to validate the difference they make in children's lives, she said, and this study will help change that.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com


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