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Youths Drawn to Libraries in Dog Days of Summer

Even with access to Kindles and iPads, public libraries are still in demand, and readers, particularly young ones, still abound. In fact, libraries appear to be playing an important role in providing out-of-classroom reading-program opportunities for youths this summer, and just not for a cool place to beat the heat, or for free Web surfing.

According to a recent study by the American Library Association, libraries across the country are seeing increased traffic and greater demand for access to materials (digital and print), tech services and training, as well as youth programs both in the summer and school year. Yet many libraries are facing considerable cuts, due to reductions in state and municipal funding. The study found that many libraries reduced hours, cut their staff, or closed altogether, and last fall, a poll of U.S. mayors found city cuts to library funding were only second to cuts to parks and gardens.

Still, public libraries are filling in the holes for youth programs and reading, said Audra Caplan, president of the ALA's Public Library Association, given other reductions in youth summer programming opportunities or the need for a free resource for parents who can't afford fee-based program options.

Partnerships with libraries and local schools and community organizations are also on the rise. Increasing numbers of schools are providing incentives for students in the fall who attend library reading programs, Caplan said, and libraries are developing programs that will attract 21st-century learners, by incorporating social media and digital technology into more traditional summer reading programs. To fill in some of the staff cutbacks, teens are being asked to serve as reading mentors to younger kids in a number of programs, she said.

Libraries have increasingly been looked to as a resource when research has shown that summer reading can help reduce the achievement gap. A three-year study conducted by the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Dominican University from 2006 to 2009 found that students who participated in library reading programs were more likely to return to school in the fall with improved reading skills, confidence in reading skills, and eagerness to learn.

But it's not just tied to access to books or reading lists. Harvard professor James Kim found it took more than giving low-income students books over the summer to help them retain and build their reading skills. Students who were instructed to practice oral reading and comprehension skills over the summer actually improved their reading, whereas students who were given, and silently read books alone, did not.

While the ALA study found that almost 70 percent of libraries are already offering e-books and more than 90 percent are providing technology training, according to another report, the role of libraries may continue to evolve in the coming years, particularly as they strive to meet the demands of newer readers who demand the latest in technology offerings and as a "toll-free bridge over the digital divide."

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