Library Life

Nick Holmes

Nick Holmes has one of the best summer jobs ever: getting paid to read to kids. While reading for a group of children on a recent July day, Holmes got some of the best payback imaginable.

Working on behalf of the Kansas City Public Library's Summer Reading program, Holmes was sharing a book with a group of kids at Palestine Missionary Baptist Church. As is usually the case with Summer Reading, prizes had been given out to the kids for reading a prescribed amount of hours (up to 12 total), and one of those prizes was a toy sketch pad.

Midway through Go Away Big Green Monster, a girl in the audience wrote a message on her sketch pad and held it up for Holmes to see. 

I love this book, her message read.

Young book lovers at local church activity centers aren't the only kids the Library is reaching this summer. In what is probably the biggest Summer Reading Outreach initiative in Library history, from June 13 through August 5, Holmes and his crew are taking the love of reading to 20 non-Library locations. Their goal: to enroll 2,500 kids in the Summer Reading program.

Though all employees work with the catalog at one time or another, not all are actually in the catalog. Our new Missouri Valley Special Collections director, however, is a noteworthy exception. Watch a video interview with Eli Paul...

In the summertime, the Library is more than just a place to read a book and cool off. It’s also a great place for talking gibberish. No, the heat hasn’t gotten to us quite yet – gibberish is just one of the ways theater instructor John Mulvey gets teens to think on their feet.

On a recent Friday afternoon, the orange-haired elder thespian led a group of 14 teens and preteens in a series of confidence-building improvisational comedy games. One such exercise included having off-stage students translate the gibberish issuing from the mouths of the actors on stage, creating a puppetmaster effect.

“My whole thing is, I want kids to be able to think for themselves,” says Mulvey, whose educational resumé includes the Theatre for Young America, Young Audiences and the Starlight Theatre.

For an hour and a half, under the lights in Truman Forum Auditorium, the teens engaged in the sorts of quick-witted sparring and comic improv you might see at the Westport Coffeehouse on a weekend night.

When Chad Rohr lost his vision following an ATV accident at the age of 13, he never thought one day he'd read aloud to children. But last week at the Southeast Branch of the Kansas City Public Library, that's exactly what he did.

As his faithful seeing-eye golden lab, Caddy, lay patiently on the floor at his feet, Rohr traced his fingers across the Braille lines of Dr. Seuss's The Foot Book and Judith Viorst's Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.

Seated on the meeting room floor listening to Rohr read were 83 kids from area day care centers. Southeast Children's Librarian Sandra Jones provided visual aids, holding up copies of the books to show the illustrations. (See more photos, courtesy of the Kansas City Star.) 

 "How can he see through his fingers?" one of the kids asked.

Gail Lozoff

With its sleek décor and warm, bustling atmosphere, SPIN! Neapolitan Pizza is the model blend of modern fast casual and classic family dining. Not suprisignly, the KC restaurant chain’s owner, Gail Lozoff, is herself a study in progressive entrepreneurialism informed by deeply rooted family tradition.

Lozoff was all of five years old when she got her first job – an appointment as bakery-box folder at the Cake Box in Brookside, for which she earned a penny per folded box. Taking the Dickensian edge off the job was the fact that the shop was founded by her grandfather, a Russian immigrant who had sold sugar to bootleggers during Prohibition. Lozoff’s grandfather and father grew the Cake Box into a massive local chain, with over a dozen storefronts around the KC metro, plus products on the shelves at more than 50 grocery stores.

Family business was an overriding theme last night at Central, where Lozoff joined Library Director Crosby Kemper III for a public conversation about the triumphs and trials of life as an entrepreneur.

Readers are Leaders

Promoting reading to kids in local schools is one of the most fundamental services of a children’s librarian. And in her more than three decades at the Kansas City Public Library, Sandra Jones has gotten plenty of kids to read. But she’s never met a group quite like the one she recently faced – and tamed – at Banneker Elementary.

At a few minutes after 10, the boys filed into the school library. They were clad in school uniforms and chanting “Hello, Ms. Jones,” in near-unison, sing-song voices. Soon, they were wiggling and bouncing in their seats, shooting up their hands to answer Jones’ questions almost as quickly as she could fire them off, heeding occasional calls from the school librarian to settle down.

The Readers Are Leaders Brown Bag Lunch Club was in session.

This was a special group, unlike any other Jones has worked with. For one thing, the group was boys only, a first for the veteran Southeast Branch children’s librarian. On top of that, they were among the least well-behaved boys in the entire second grade.

“I wanted to gather reluctant readers, get them together, have lunch, and get them interested in reading,” Jones says.

To pick the readers for her group, Jones asked for the help of Banneker’s Library Media Specialist, Diedre Stratton.

The H&R Block Business and Career Center was designed, in part, to help people get their own businesses up and running. Now, one local entrepreneur has crossed to the other side of the help desk, where, as a Library volunteer, she works with customers not unlike herself.

Annie Sorensen is a seasoned self-starter. While working as a software designer at Cerner for seven years, she used her free time to carve a place for herself as an independent brand partner in the world of network marketing.

She became one of the top 30 earners in her company, and in January of last year, she was able to quit her day job.

“That was a business that I built up 100 percent around my full-time job – in evenings and on weekends, in the nooks and crannies of my life,” Sorensen says.

After leaving Cerner, she picked up a real estate license. Now, she and her husband own several investment properties.

Self-education – mainly through reading – has always been Sorensen’s driving force.

“I’ve always been entrepreneurially minded, but it kind of started in college,” says the University of Iowa graduate. “I really got into personal development books, which opened my mind to things like motivation, inspiration, and goal-setting.”

Volunteer Renee VanErp shares the Joy of Reading with 10-year-old Parijat Mondal in the Plaza Kids' Corner.

Construction snarled traffic across midtown on a recent, steamy May afternoon in KC. But inside the Plaza Branch of the Kansas City Public Library, a moment of quiet was being shared over a book.

Joy of Reading tutor Renee VanErp and her student, Parijat Mondal, bent over a science book spread out on a table in the Kids' Corner. Though his voice was soft, Parijat blazed through paragraphs on astronomy and physics, stopping only when he found an unfamiliar word.

The pauses were rare, considering that English is the boy's third language.

"Parijat speaks Bengali and Hindi, and he's learning Spanish at Carver Elementary," VanErp says. "I was fortunate to be matched with a young man who loves learning."

VanErp approached the Library two and a half years ago about volunteering. Like many in the Library's fleet of volunteers, VanErp came in looking to help, and she was put to work.

Coming from all walks of life and bringing a bevy of reasons for wanting to pitch in, volunteers are a welcome aid in helping staff run the Library system.

"Volunteers are here to make the librarians' lives easier," says Katie Taylor, volunteer coordinator for the Library.

By taking on a wide variety of responsibilities, volunteers make it easier for librarians to do what they do best: provide professional, personalized service to Library patrons.

On a bright spring day last week at the Central Library, 18 fifth graders from Trailwoods Elementary pressed their palms to the glass and peered out the fourth-floor windows. To the north, the Renaissance Revival brownstone towers of the 120-year-old New York Life Building loomed majestically.

It was the first installment of the Library's High Five History: Inside and Out tour series, and the little-known view of Kansas City's earliest skyscraper was only one of quite a few oooh-inducing sights.

Other wonders: the view overlooking 10th and Main from the Rooftop Terrace, the Stanley H. Durwood Film Vault's 35-ton bank vault door, and the elegant Missouri Valley Room, where Special Collections Librarian Jeremy Drouin gave a talk on researching primary sources (a theme throughout the tour).

It was in Special Collections, too, that Library Director Crosby Kemper III treated the students to an impromptu visit with local author, professor, and former Kansas City Chiefs player Pellom McDaniels, who had brought his son to research a book project

Jackson County Juvenile Center has its share of discipline issues. But none of them occurred while Nick Holmes visited once a week last summer to read books to the young men incarcerated there.

"I gave all of them my respect, and I got it back," Holmes says.

Orlando (not his real name), a towering, 17-year-old "alpha dog," was especially a fan of the reading and discussion sessions.

"Orlando had never had a library card, had never checked out a book in his life," Holmes says. "I helped him check out his first library book in his name."

In the summer of 2010 while working part-time for the Kansas City Public Library, Holmes also visited four other locations as part of a grant-funded outreach effort developed by children’s, teen, and outreach services librarians for the Summer Reading program.

In all, Holmes signed up more than 500 kids – it's what Building a Community of Readers is all about.

Putting books in people's hands is a fundamental part of what the Library does.But with the launch of an unprecedented and ambitious campaign, the Library is becoming even more focused on making KC a city that reads.

A Happier Community

The Kansas City Public Library encouraged patrons to get creative in celebration of National Library Week (April 10-16), and a lot of readers heard the call. Check out a gallery of crafty book spine poems sent in by members of the community, and get ideas for making your own.

There aren't many household items that you can stack into a pile and make poetry out of. Coat hanger hymns? Mop bucket sonnets? Not so much. Books, on the other hand, lend themselves well to verse – after all, they do have words printed on their spines. Watch a video on how you can make your own Book Spine Poem for National Library Week.

Kids' art is fit for more than the refrigerator. We're reminded of this every year at the Kansas City Public Library during the annual Children's Bookmark Contest.

It's a time when crayons and colored pencils burst forth like the first shoots of spring, and all the branches end up furnished with batches of fresh, colorful, and 100-percent-kid-designed bookmarks.

In its fourth year of leading up to Children's Book Week (May 2-8), the contest ran from February 21 through March 18, 2011. The winners will be announced at the Friday Night Family Fun event on May 6 at the Plaza Branch, where all of this year's 119 entries will be displayed on the big screen in Truman Forum.

In February, bookmark design forms were distributed to all Library locations, where kids in two different age groups (grades K-3 and 4-6) were asked to make their own designs based on the theme "One World, Many Stories," which is the theme for the 2011 Summer Reading program.

Once the entries were collected, Director of Children's Services Helma Hawkins turned to her trusty panel of judges: Kansas City-based professional children's book authors and illustrators Laura Huliska-Beith, Jenny Whitehead, and Shane Evans, to choose the winners from each branch and age group.

Liberty Symphony

The first time Carol Wallace heard "Canon in D" was when she was working in the arts and music collection of the Old Main Library on McGee Street, managing the record collection.

With enough time, effort, and research you really can change history. Just ask Alvin Sykes. Over the past several years, Sykes has built a reputation as a champion of the forgotten victims of racial violence, helping to bring about the re-opening of two Civil Rights cold cases. As Brad Stephens of KCTV5 reports, Sykes did most of that work within the walls of the Kansas City Public Library.

In 1955, a young African-American boy named Emmitt Till was murdered in Mississippi for whistling at a white woman. His killing fanned the flames of the Civil Rights movement. But Till's murderers were never brought to justice -- that is, until Sykes began digging.

Using the Library's research resources, Sykes discovered an obscure legal opinion that allowed the FBI to reopen the case. Sykes' efforts led to the signing by George W. Bush of the 2007 Till Bill, which allows for the re-opening investigation of unsolved Civil Rights murder cases.

More recently, Sykes has turned his citizen-sleuthing skills to the 1965 murder of Jimmy Lee Jackson, which Sykes says was the inspiration of the Selma-to-Montgomery March. That case, too, has been re-opened.

"The Library is a great equalizer," Sykes tells Stephens.