A fantastic voyage
By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Michael Tsai
For all of its revolutionary influence in the classroom and in the home, the personal computer, frankly, stinks at storytelling.
It's certainly no match for librarian Melissa deLeon, who held court last Tuesday with about 20 third-, fourth- and fifth-graders from the Voyager Charter School, reading selections from the book version of the upcoming film "Over the Hedge."
Gathered in a cross-legged mass, shoulder to shoulder, the students stared at the vibrant illustrations and followed deLeon's rolling narrative right up to the cliffhanger. Want to know what happens? See the film, or, better yet, read the book.
The weekday event was one of a series of readings at local public libraries coordinated by Andrea Galvin of the Aloha Agency in partnership with the film studio DreamWorks, which is launching "Over the Hedge" this month.
Such partnering is nothing new at Hawai'i's public libraries, but it has taken on greater significance in recent years as libraries across the country adapt to the onslaught of the Internet, with its continuous rush of technological advancement, and battle the perception that they are somehow on the brink of obsolescence.
It's a battle worth fighting, according to Mark Herring, dean of library services at Winthrop University. In an essay on the continuing importance of libraries, Herring wrote that the "rush to Internetize all schools" (sometimes at the expense of library education) has corresponded with a steady decline in reading test scores.
Herring noted, only somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that acknowledging the value of libraries can help "save our culture (and) strike a blow for reading."
Here in Hawai'i, libraries are feeling a crunch caused not by a money shortage, but by a shortage of manpower, according to Susan Nakata, head of the state's Library Development Services Section. While budgets have remained stable for the last few years, allowing the libraries to update their collections, the graying of library employees and a shortage of library-science graduates have left Hawai'i public libraries with scores of unfilled positions.
As a result, many libraries have had to reduce their service hours, threatening them with a perception that they are slowly fading away.
However, the Band-Aid solution to the staffing shortage may actually benefit Hawai'i's libraries in the long run.
Under the direction of tech-savvy state librarian Jo Ann Schindler, the system has expanded its technological capabilities over the last few years.
"Like other libraries, on the Mainland, we're just trying to stay current," Nakata said.
In addition to a variety of searchable databases, the state library system's Web site (www .librarieshawaii.org) now offers a greatly expanded collection of full-text magazines — from kids mags to trade publications — accessible 24 hours a day with a library card. Users can also download e-books and audiobooks, eliminating the need to return hard-copy versions.
The changes have kept librarians on their toes, but they benefit patrons: The regular training and instruction librarians receive on new technology is passed along to visitors, from elementary school students to retirees.
Nakata says the expansion of self-service options on the Web is part of the natural evolution of the library.
"There is a balance," she says. "There will always be people who need to come in, and there is also a large segment of the younger population who is very comfortable working online."
That balance seems to assure that physical libraries will remain a part of the landscape for the foreseeable future. Recent recruitment efforts have been successful in filling many of the job vacancies, and efforts are being made to expand library service hours at some locations.
Nakata says the libraries also hope to staff each location with specialists in children's library services. Only half of the libraries now have such staffing.
DeLeon, 28, is typical of the new breed of librarian. She earned a library-science degree from the University of Hawai'i and found employment quickly at the State Library.
Raised on dusty card catalogs but educated in the ways of sophisticated high-speed databases, deLeon works along the dividing line of traditional library services and new technology.
One of six full- and part-time staffers in the library's children's section, deLeon shares story readings and library training with students from around the island. Some area schools, like Voyager, visit once a month.
Exposing children to the wonders of stacked shelves and powerful kid-friendly databases at a young age has become an important component of the system's efforts to build lifelong relationships with its users.
"What we do is encourage a love and enjoyment of reading," says children's librarian and section head Maile Davis. "When you enjoy something, you'll want to do it on your own and keep it up.
"Physical books are still popular," she says. "Picture books are great to share."
The library also provides regular users a unique sort of meeting ground.
"There is social interaction," Davis says. "Children meet their friends, and parents see each other, too. It can be the first social interaction for some little kids."
Special programs like the "Over the Hedge" promotion provide added incentive. This month, when a child checks out three books, he or she gets a free movie pencil and a chance to win a private screening of the film for themselves and 50 friends.
While some may sniff at the commercial tie-ins, Davis says excitement over film releases often stimulate children to read more.
The recent "Curious George" release resulted in a major run on "Curious George" books. The same happened with "Lemony Snicket," "The Chronicles of Narnia" and, of course, "Harry Potter."
The libraries also offer regular events in conjunction with the popular Nene Award program. Last week, for example, a talk was featured with Nene winner Kate DiCamillo, author of "Because of Winn-Dixie."
Public libraries are also gearing up for a series of events related to their annual Children's Summer Reading Program, which this year bears the theme "Paws, Claws, Scales and Tales." (See box).
Nakata said she also hopes to see expanded services and information for retirees.
"More is expected of us now, and libraries around the country are doing a lot of different things to stay current," Nakata says. "And we're doing some of those things here.
"We're not too bad," she says, with a laugh. "Our heart's in the right place."
Reach Michael Tsai at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: Librarian Melissa deLeon was incorrectly identified in photo captions in an earlier version of this story.