Archive for Thursday, July 15, 2004

Reading: a lost art?

National study shows reading declines to all-time lows, but local librarians say their reading rooms are busy

July 15, 2004

Carol Conklin scans the bookshelves of the Shawnee Library, looking for a book her son might enjoy, her arms already loaded with some books for herself.

"This summer I've read more than I have in a while," Conklin said. "I usually try to read at least three good books a year."

Conklin hopes that she is providing a good example for her children Sarah, 16, and Adam, 13.

"You have to show them you do it in order for them to do it," Conklin said.

Conklin and her family are just one example of why area experts say that the metro does not follow national reading trends, which show that fewer people are reading in their free time. The National Endowment for the Arts July 8 released the results of a survey of literary reading in America, which reported that fewer than half of Americans now read literature.

The U.S. Census Bureau conducted the survey in 2002, asking 17,000 adults if, in the last year, they had read any novels, short stories, poetry or plays in their leisure time that were not required for work or school.

Responses showed that only 46.7 percent of the population was reading literature, down from 56.9 percent in 1982 and 54 percent in 1992. Only 56.6 percent had read any book at all, including nonfiction, 4.3 percent fewer than in 1992.

But readership actually seems to be up in many local libraries.

In the Bonner Springs and Basehor city libraries, librarians say they know their patrons need more room and each is attempting expansion. Both libraries have seen a steady increase in the number of cardholders over the past few years and have successful reading programs.

Carla Kaiser, director of the Basehor library, wondered if the numbers came back so low because they did not reflect the newest trend in reading: literature on the go.

"I guess I would be curious to see whether they counted audio tapes and CDs as reading," Kaiser said. "We do find an increase in that as people are busy."

Kim Martin, director of the Bonner Springs City Library, agreed that though she hasn't noticed fewer people reading books, reading other things should count, too.

"I think it's sad that it's down, but I can kind of understand that in our society people don't have the time and have other options," Martin said. "I think a lot of people read stuff, whether it's the newspaper or literature online, but (the surveyors) don't count it. Reading is important no matter what form you read in."

The success of the libraries' summer reading programs at both the child and adult levels is just one indication that the percentage of readers should not continue to decrease.

"We've noticed a difference in how much the schools are focusing on reading, and I think it's affecting our numbers in summer reading programs," Martin said. "I bet in the future those numbers will change."

Librarians in affluent Johnson County questioned the national trends.

"That is a pretty significant drop," said Roxanne Belcher, branch manager for the Shawnee Library, speaking of the declines in reading cited previously. "But I'm not sure that applies as much to Johnson County, because there is a pretty high socio-economic status here and a pretty high education level."

Belcher said the Shawnee Library keeps busy with readers at all age levels, often using the NoveList program to help patrons find books they might want to read in their free time. Statistics show that it is much the same throughout the Johnson County Library system.

Estimates for the population of residents in the Johnson County Library district are at 376,900, and library records show that 302,095 of those residents are library cardholders. In order to be counted as a library cardholder, patrons must use the library at least once every three years.

Belcher said the library's number tracking shows positive results for adult circulation, an indication that reading is still important despite the many other obligations today.

"There's competition to reading, for sure," Belcher said. "But we're seeing that (adult circulation) is at least steady and increasing a little bit."

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