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Susan Notes:

The good news is that some people still value libraries.

Stephen Krashen letter: Promote learning, promote libraries
"An old library stands for the kind of progress that makes sense" (Jan 30) provides compelling evidence supporting the importance of libraries.
Study after study shows that library quality is related to higher scores on reading tests.
A major reason California children do poorly on reading tests (California 4th graders were 3rd from last in the US in 2007) is that we have the worst supported school and public libraries in the country, in terms of both holdings and staffing.

California's school libraries have among the fewest books per child and the lowest ratio of librarians per student in the US. In the recent America's Most Literate Cities report, four California cities captured the bottom four places in public library quality: Los Angeles (67th), Anaheim (68th), Stockton (69th), and Santa Ana (70th).
Let's divert some of the huge sums spent on testing to funding libraries. Let's invest in promoting learning, not just measuring it.

An old library stands for the kind of progress that makes sense.

By Hector Tobar

The Vermont Square Library floats like a little yellow ark on the big green empty lawn of a park in South Los Angeles.

In a world with too many microchips, televisions and other electronic distractions, it's a place where parents can introduce children to the power of quiet thinking.

Kevin Harvey Sr., a 43-year-old ex-con and former gang member, goes there several days a week with his two daughters, ages 13 and 10. Each afternoon they spend between the stacks of young adult novels is a kind of promise that their lives won't be like his.

"I grew up here. I can remember people reading to me as a kid over on the children's side," he told me, pointing through panes of glass at a section of the library where stuffed animals perch atop each book cabinet.

In the late 1970s, when Harvey was as old as his youngest daughter is now, he saw a man die in a shooting in the playground across the street from the library. Later he joined a gang himself and "couldn't come here because this was in my rivals' territory."

South L.A. is still a place of peril for many young people. But inside the library's old reading rooms, Harvey can reclaim that long-ago sense of childhood innocence and possibility. Both his daughters, Somora Chynna and Asia, read voraciously. And the biggest threat he sees for them, truly, is the chatter of text messages on their cellphones.

At home, Harvey sets strict hours for his daughters' cellphone use. He monitors their text messages. And he's decreed the library a texting-free zone.

"I do it the traditional way," Harvey told me. "Work comes first. You gotta have rules, some sort of boundaries. It's all cause and effect."

I visited the Vermont Square branch of the Los Angeles Public Library after reading a report on media use by "teens and tweens" released this month by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

Not surprisingly, the Kaiser study found that over the last five years, American kids aged 8 to 18 have dramatically increased their use of such electronic media as smart phones, the Internet and game consoles.

Members of that age group "spend more time with media than in any other activity besides (maybe) sleeping," an average of more than 7 1/2 hours a day, seven days a week, the Kaiser investigators wrote.

Like a lot of parents, I have too much experience with this issue. My sons are exactly the same age as Harvey's daughters. Even though we come from different backgrounds and live on opposite sides of the city, he and I are engaged in a similar tug of war.

His daughters have been hounding him for an iPod Touch, but he hasn't given in yet. "I tell them, 'If your grades aren't to iPod level, there will be no Touch,'" he said.

I, on the other hand, caved into my sons' demands last summer. Almost immediately, I wished I hadn't.

I had thought of the iPod Touch primarily as a device for listening to music. Silly me.

"Papa, what's a Molotov cocktail?" my 10-year-old asked me a day or so after unwrapping his device. He'd downloaded a free app called iMobsters that allows users to simulate the career of an organized-crime boss.

In iMobsters, the same kind of activities that got Harvey shot and permanently disabled in real life are part of a game in which players undertake criminal "missions," such as stealing cars. They purchase assorted gangster weaponry, like 9-millimeter handguns, and can hire bodyguards and a "corrupt cop escort."

"You can't play this anymore," I announced, and to my surprise my son complied without protest.

Still, if you allow these high-tech toys into your home, you'll discover that the lure of their virtual worlds is so powerful, your kids may suddenly skip meals and stop reading unless you hit the off switch.

According to the Kaiser study, the time kids spend on video games -- including games played on smart phones -- has nearly tripled over the last decade.

The study also confirmed the basic argument parents like Harvey and I make every day: that kids who play the longest get the lowest grades.

It seems pretty obvious to me that Microsoft, Nintendo, Apple and other manufacturers of electronic games are harvesting our kids' minds for profits -- and often leaving barren fields in their wake. Thanks to them, we'll have fewer future American poets, shortstops and cellists.

The Kaiser study also found that black and Latino youth have the highest usage rates, about 13 hours per day on average. Blacks and Latinos happen to make up nearly all of the patrons at the Vermont Square Library.

Solmiel Pivaral goes there five days a week with her oldest daughter, Daniela, 6. They stake out a table in the high-ceilinged room of the children's section so Daniela can do her homework.

Pivaral, 34, is a college-educated Guatemalan immigrant. Her husband is a truck driver. The couple and their three children live in a South Los Angeles neighborhood alongside other working families, many of whom have to use televisions and other devices as electronic baby sitters.

At the Pivaral home, however, the television is never on for more than 30 minutes a night. "My daughter knows she has more rules than her friends," Pivaral said.

And all that mother-and-daughter study time at the library has other, unexpected benefits besides Daniela's good grades. "It's the one time I can talk to her," Pivaral told me. "She tells me things that happened at school, things that made her feel bad."

Pivaral teaches Spanish at nearby Santee Education Complex, and she's resolved to keep her daughter from the kind of unfettered media use she sees among many of her teenage students.

"They're in their own world," she said. "Their minds are somewhere else."

I wandered around the children's stacks as mother and daughter began their daily work ritual, Daniela removing papers from a folder, writing sentences from vocabulary lists.

It was a beautiful, hopeful moment in an old building that's given its community a lot of hope since it was built in 1913.

The late Jack Smith, my legendary predecessor in these pages, once wrote that the hours he'd spent reading fairy tales in this same library in the 1920s helped make him an "indestructible" romantic for the rest of his life.

I'm happy to report that the glazed yellow bricks of the Vermont Square branch are still gleaming and that its shelves are still filled with books, despite the work furloughs that have reduced the hours it's open to the public.

Today 13-year-old Somora Harvey studies there. She's read a good chunk of its collection of young adult fiction, though her dreams are more on the practical side: She wants to go to Harvard law school and become a defense attorney.

— Hector Tobar
Los Angeles Times



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