Education Op/Ed

Dana Hart: Libraries bring life to stories, public spaces

DANA HART, ILSLEY Public Library Director

Just about everyone knows that the library offers programs; in fact, after “books,” I think that’s probably what we’re known for best. But the breadth and depth of the programs offered might surprise you, and today I’m going to talk about a relatively recent library program: Books on Sticks.

Books on Sticks places a children’s story (in the form of a book unbound, laminated, and attached to stakes) along a walking route. Children and their caretakers read the story one page at a time as they walk along.

During the early days of the pandemic, we knew children were missing the library, and we wanted to offer them an opportunity to stretch their legs and minds in a safe, socially distanced way. So our fabulous librarians Tricia and Renee reached out to the Marble Works and received permission to install Books on Sticks at Riverfront Park.

It was an instant hit! We quickly expanded the program to include a second location at Harrow Way (thank you, Harrow Way neighbors)! The books are updated every two weeks, so children and their caretakers keep coming back for new stories.

The benefits for children are numerous: They’re outside, moving their bodies, building early literacy skills in a real-life setting, while having a positive social experience with a caregiver.

But the benefits extend far beyond the children. We’ve heard from many parents, grandparents and adults that they enjoy this activity themselves. Books on Sticks has been incorporated into family routines, providing structure and security during the upheaval of COVID.

Because the activity is outside and available 24/7, caregivers are able to attend with their children at any time that works for their schedule (this is particularly nice for people who work fulltime and tend to miss out on attending other library programs, like Storytime, with their children).

Books on Sticks also benefits local daycare centers and schools; it’s been incorporated into curricula in educational facilities around Middlebury. If we zoom out further, we can see that Books on Sticks is contributing to Middlebury’s vibrancy, drawing people into the downtown area and providing a cultural experience.

In 2021, the library displayed 46 books. If about 50 people viewed each book (a conservative estimate, given that each book is up for two weeks) that means over 2,300 people participated in this activity, enjoying downtown Middlebury and its cultural offerings.

Creative placemaking happens when arts, culture and design are used to bring new attention to community assets or inject new energy and resources into a specific place. One of the big themes I took away from the Downtown Master Plan is that “The [Middlebury] community has expressed a strong desire to expand the offering of downtown events, programs and gathering places even more.”

Ilsley Public Library is well positioned to support this goal and is already strengthening our community with programs, both within and outside the library’s walls. We look forward to bringing more Books on Sticks to Middlebury this spring!

Reading in public helps us in so many ways

Throughout the seasons, I often look out my kitchen window and see neighbors wandering up Harrow Way as they read the most recent children’s book on wooden stakes. With my house on a little hill at the top of the street, I have a special perch that provides me with a view of these Books on Sticks from Ilsley Public Library. I’m a reading teacher at Mary Hogan School, which causes me to pause and take notice when a mom and small child (along with their leashed dog) take the time to study the illustrations, read aloud, maybe even laugh or have an extended conversation about the story.

Educational research supports the importance of reading aloud to our children: Children learn the rhythm, variety of words, and beauty of our language through hearing stories. Reading aloud also increases grammar, vocabulary, story sense and listening skills, and encourages a child’s imagination and curiosity. Reading aloud has a powerful impact on our children, and Books on Sticks is an engaging way to allow this to happen.

Classes at Mary Hogan School take walks to visit the stories and sometimes wander into nearby Battell Woods. When I asked a few kindergarten students what they like about the Books on Sticks, Everett said, “It’s like a surprise to see what the next story will be. My favorite was ‘The Gingerbread Man.’” Hatley told me that “The Gruffalo” was her favorite book posted so far. She said, “My family rides our bikes or walks up the street when we read the stories.” The Mary Hogan pre-K classes visit the stories several times a month, sometimes wearing their matching rainsuits and attracting other neighbors who are on walks to come join them or just say hello. Kim Forbes, a pre-K teacher, shared a story with me about one of her quieter students who completely lit up when he saw a familiar story on one of these walks. He proceeded to “read” the story to his fellow classmates, going from stick to stick and sharing his love of the book, while courageously practicing his speaking skills. That story alone makes me grateful that we have this resource in our community.

When my own children were young, I often had to “bait” them to pause their indoor play and get them outside for exercise and fresh air. This bait might have been a suggestion to go see if the frogs were out under the boardwalk at Otter View Park or a trip to get creemees on our bikes. I suspect that many families in our neighborhood use Books on Sticks as “bait” to get their children to take an after-dinner walk or to get their kids out the door on an early Sunday morning. I have seen families walking under the canopy of maple trees in fall, kicking a chunk of ice along the sidewalk in winter, and a small child licking a melting popsicle on a summer evening while his dad read aloud the story on wooden stakes.

Books on Sticks combines the outdoors with children’s literature — two of my favorite things — and I have become a life-long fan. I appreciate the neighbors who allow these stories in their yards and I appreciate our librarians who take such great care to pick a variety of beautifully illustrated books. It is a gift to our community, and if you haven’t wandered up Harrow Way recently, you should make the trip!

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