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Reading revival at local high schools

In this library, you can’t hear a pin drop. Don’t even try. During their lunch break, Nevada Union High School students crowd around library tables, chatting over sack lunches and algebra books.

Computers click and purr, and the conversation registers at a gentle roar.

But if the noise level at the facility on Ridge Road in Grass Valley is not typical for a book depository, neither are the circulation statistics. Between the 2005-06 and 2008-09 school years, the number of items checked out has more than tripled – and that amid declining enrollment.



It’s a testament to the peril and promise of school library funding, where staff cuts in 2004 left one librarian volleying between two high schools and low check-out rates that matched. Today, staffers are keen to prevent that from happening again, but with the high school district’s shrinking budget, it’s unclear what the next chapter holds.

What is clear, however, is that demand for the library is rising.




Nevada Union Librarian Jill Sonnenberg and fellow staffer Annie O’Dea Hestbeck took a risk when they did away with late fees a few years ago.

Even a few cents can be a psychological barrier to reading, and fees seemed to stifle their efforts to foster a dynamic, literary climate, Sonnenberg said.

Now, the library draws 500 to 800 visitors a day. It has a thriving Web site, accessed from NU’s main site, where students post video book reviews; even the principal and superintendent contribute.

Student art plasters the walls – including a herd of tempera dinosaurs – and students competed to coin a slogan for an official NU library T-shirt.

“The librarians are extremely nice,” said Carly Pruett, a sophomore. “They’ll be dancing and making jokes.”

During a recent, drizzly lunch period, a group of colorfully dressed, articulate freshmen who profess admiration for Kurt Vonnegut novels sat cross-legged between the bookcases in the 300-range of the Dewey Decimal System.

They come here at breaks and after school. Their row of choice is the 800s – populated with Proust, Dostoevsky and Poe – but on this day, another large group had already claimed the spot.

Much to the disappointment of freshman Sophie Carr, who had been reading Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot.”

“People don’t gravitate toward the cafeteria; they gravitate here,” said Sophie’s friend, freshman Margot Mantle.

Why?

“There aren’t any books there,” Margot said.

Sonnenberg’s attempts to “develop a culture where reading is cool” appears to be working. She recently hand-delivered a book that had been placed on hold by the quarterback of the football team.

“The best thing is student word-of-mouth,” Sonnenberg said. “The minute they start to speak out, I know we’re getting something done.”

Better young-adult books are also a factor in the reading revival, said Bear River High School Teacher-Librarian Amy Linden. While publishers used to limit young-adult fiction to the thickness of a thumb, the success of bulky tomes such as the “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” series has made long books the norm.

Now that she’s not bouncing around the county as the sole high school librarian, Linden has time to visit classrooms and talk about hot titles in the genre.

“It’s a strategy to let kids know what’s out there,” said Linden, who oversees the facility on Magnolia Road. “If they haven’t been around a lot of book stores, they’re not sure how to choose a book for themselves.”

Reading is gaining steam. In 2005-06, the BRHS library circulated about 2,000 books, which averages two per student per year. Last school year, circulation was up to 4,800.

These are the good times, with enough staff to maintain literacy programs.

But worries follow close behind, especially since Bear River’s library houses a joint collection along with the struggling Nevada County library.

About 40 percent of the books in the school library are owned by the county system, and the facility is open to the public for 15 non-school hours each week.

“It really is an excellent situation when you have a joint-use facility,” Linden said, adding the county’s contributions allow students “to access reading materials that maybe the schools can’t afford.”

The satellite branch also provides materials to an underserved south county population, where the closest public library is the Placer County branch in Auburn, a 15- to 20-minute drive away.

It costs the county $14,000 a year to run the Bear River Station, and Linden attends Nevada County Board of Supervisors meetings often to plead against cuts.

The NU library hasn’t dealt with recent cuts, Sonnenberg said. But while she’s continuing “aggressive buying” to improve the library’s collection, many of the purchases are used books from local sales and Amazon.com.

She’s aware nobody’s immune when the district has to trim departments.

“You name it, and it’s a possible consideration,” said NU Principal Marty Mathiesen. “To me, there’s no one facet. We’re just looking at every angle” for possible cuts.

Linden is bracing for that reality at BRHS.

“We’ve been very fortunate,” she said. “But I don’t see that it can continue, because there are so many places in the school system in need.”

To contact Staff Writer Michelle Rindels, e-mail mrindels@theunion.com or call (530) 477-4247.


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