Reflections on Reading: How to Create an Inviting Library--and Eager Readers

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By Lynn Silbernagel

From the Fall 2010 Caller
The reading of all good books is indeed like a conversation with the noblest men of past centuries who were the authors of them, nay a carefully studied conversation, in which they reveal to us none but the best of their thoughts.” —René Descartes
“I cannot live without books.” —Thomas Jefferson
“My library was dukedom large enough.” —William Shakespeare
Together these quotes speak to some of the values I find in reading: it is a way to connect with and understand other people, past and present; it is something I, too, cannot imagine living without; and ultimately, it is a solitary intellectual experience.
The last point seems at odds with life in Catlin Gabel’s middle school library, where we are surrounded with the energies of nearly 200 people, oversee a collection of 10,000 items, and work with 6th through 8th graders to foster reading. This hardly makes reading seem a solitary endeavor. Yet one of the main goals I bring to the school is to help students become strong independent readers—to really get them engaged with reading as an enjoyable practice and to encourage them to grapple in their own ways with the ideas presented.
In order to encourage students to become readers, a number of strategies have been proven helpful. Overall, my aim is to make reading, and the library in general, inviting, accessible, convenient, non-judgmental, and non-restrictive. Here are some specific things I do to foster this type of environment.
* The library has comfortable spaces for both groups and individuals to read and explore library materials.
* I purchase a variety of materials in a broad range of genres, and change displays of material frequently.
* I rely on students and teachers to recommend and review books. (Nothing encourages students to read more than a recommendation from a peer!) This often results in our generating waitlists of people who want the recommended titles when they come in.
* Teachers and I are committed to students making independent reading choices each month. For example, 7th grade students spin the “Genre Wheel” then choose any book they’d like from that genre.
* We do not limit the number of items students may check out, how long they may have them, or what types of material they may check out.
* The library has invested in a number of audio titles so students who are auditory learners can read more easily.
* We also have newer types of material (graphic novels, for example) that allow reluctant readers, or those who are more oriented toward visuals, to become engaged and successful at reading.
* We recommend books when students ask for ideas, but allow them free access to the materials to explore if they prefer.
* We encourage adults in the community to model reading as a valuable, pleasurable activity.
Reading is a joy for me, as it is for so many people. I am particularly fortunate to be in a profession that allows me to share that joy with others, and help engage them in a conversation that can span generations.
Lynn Silbernagel has been Catlin Gabel’s Middle School librarian for 16 years. As a fused glass artisan, she has also taught several Catlin Gabel summer programs and Breakaway experiences.