The ICfL’s My First Books program is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year! This outreach program establishes home libraries for children who have limited access to books of their own. Research shows that the availability of reading material in the home, whether owned or borrowed from the library, is directly associated with children’s achievement in reading comprehension. (National Center for Education Statistics, 2001)
Since 1997, the program has served almost 50,000 children ages birth to 6 years. Approximately 450,000 books have been distributed by staff at 87 different libraries throughout Idaho. Annual evaluations show that, as a result of participating in the program, parents are reading more to their children, they are establishing reading routines in the home, they are doing more early literacy/ early learning activities at home and while out and about, and they are more likely to use their local libraries.
Photo: Bilingual storytime at Casa de Colores, Caldwell. Pictured: Fiona May, Caldwell Public Library, Casa de Colores staff, and adorable children.
Participating libraries partner with child care centers, preschools, Head Start sites, and kindergarten classrooms that serve “underserved” children; that is, those who are unlikely to have books in the home, those who have challenges getting to the library, children with families whose first language is not English, children living on tribal reservations, children of teen parents, or those with developmental delays. Each month the library visits their partner(s) to present a storytime, then each child receives a book to take home and keep. They also receive a “Bookworm Newsletter,” a two-page handout for their parents/caregivers with information about early literacy and activities to do at home. All information is provided in English and Spanish.
“Not only do children strengthen early literacy skills through this program, the monthly storytimes help children develop critical social-emotional and regulatory skills,” said youth services consultant Staci Shaw. “Shy children end up leading songs, children who have difficulty sitting in a storytime circle sometimes become the best listeners, and many children who have sensory or trust issues end up the most excited when the librarian walks into the room.”
The program not only puts books in the homes of children who do not have them, it benefits the library in many ways. “The program helps the Library! at Collister fulfill its mission of assisting the community and promoting early literacy among at-risk populations,” said Erin Kennedy. “The outreach is crucial in expanding the reach of the library and serving those who may not be able to visit the branch in person on a regular basis. It heightens awareness of the services the library offers to our community and allows us to make connections with those who most need our assistance.”
Library staff become the heroes of their communities, getting hugs in grocery stores, restaurants, and even on vacation. They are referred to as the “Library Lady,” the “Library Guy,” and often just “The Library.” Children who receive books at their childcare center or in their classroom tend to encourage their parents to visit the library, and many families sign up for library cards or renew their accounts.
The relationships the staff are able to establish with these kids is invaluable. “I love this program so much because it allows me to go into the schools and get to know the kids on a more personal level,” said Emily Hansen (St. Anthony). “They get so excited when they see me coming, and that makes me so happy. It benefits us also by letting people know there is a public library. We get a lot of people come in that say they didn’t even know there was a library in town!”
For the current year, libraries are challenged to deliver the program within the restrictions dictated by the pandemic. Many schools/centers are not allowing outside visitors to enter their facilities. Therefore, library staff are finding creative ways to meet the goals of the program, which don’t simply get books in the hands of children but strive to establish personal relationships with library staff and model early literacy practices for the teachers. Many libraries will be delivering live streaming through Zoom and Google Meet, and some will need to record their storytimes for on-demand viewing. One library staff person will be going to a private home day care and doing storytimes on the front lawn so the children can watch from the window—our librarians are very dedicated, and extremely passionate!
To learn more about the program, to see what resources are offered to library staff and community partners, or to see what safety measures have been put in place for the pandemic, see https://libraries.idaho.gov/rtm/my-first-books/.