Libraries help level economic playing field for kids

It’s hardly a secret that teenagers and young adults have embraced the digital information era faster than older South Sounders. But it’s a mistake to think our future generations can only manage meaningful conversations of fewer than 140 words.

According to the recent Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, young people are voraciously reading books and using libraries, contrary to popular belief. In fact, the Pew research revealed no significant difference in library use between young people 16-19 and older adults.

Teens and 20-somethings visit libraries as often as older adults, and are just as likely to take home a book. While in a library, they are more likely to use computers and to just hang out there, often to study.

They are, however, less likely to require the services of a librarian.

Timberland Regional Library is noticing similar trends in its branches spread across five South Sound counties. A summer program meant to draw young readers into its libraries is recording a nearly 18 percent increase over last year.

That’s good news for South Sound schools, too.

When students stop reading during the summer months, it slows their progress in the fall. Teachers routinely spend at least the first month of a new school year refreshing skills learned the previous year that faded during summer vacation.

Learning loss during the summer break seems to affect low-income students more dramatically. Studies show that students from higher income families on average make learning gains during the summer, probably as a result of access to enrichment camps and other educational opportunities.

Lower-income students might have less free time and opportunity to just relax with a good book without the stress of having to write a report or take an exam. That creates a disadvantage because leisure reading develops the language skills so necessary for comprehending other studies, and builds student confidence.

That’s what makes public library systems such as Timberland so important. By providing free access to books, magazines and the Internet, libraries help level the economic playing field.

Don’t fall into the trap of stereotyping young people just because they have embraced the online digital world, or because they love to communicate via Twitter, Facebook or texting. The Pew Research study found that 16-to-20-year-olds value books and librarians just as much as they do free access to computers and the Internet.

Even so, the reading scores of American teenagers lag the gains made by young people in other countries. Supporting Timberland Regional Library and encouraging young people to visit one of its branches this summer can help to close that gap.