Access to books and time to read are essential for kids who want to explore, learn, and build their literacy skills. That’s why the Multnomah County Library (MCL) established a Lending Library at Earl Boyles Elementary in Southeast Portland — to provide a free resource for young readers and their families that removes barriers to books and reading.
Considered a demonstration site, the Lending Library began three years ago with a grant from The Library Foundation and 2,500 hundred books. MCL moved forward with the initiative after learning about Early Works, an initiative launched by Children’s Institute with key partners including the David Douglas School District, Mt. Hood Community College Head Start, and Multnomah Early Childhood Program. MCL recognized an opportunity to serve the community with a unique public school partnership, impact early literacy in a high-needs community, and bring books directly to students and families.
Increasing the number of books in the home is associated with improved literacy rates, and reaching 26 books or more in a household correlates with higher academic achievement in later years. Evaluations of the Earl Boyles community beginning in 2011 indicated a lack of books in the homes of kindergarteners. Today, the number of kindergarteners’ homes with more than 26 books has increased from 47 percent in 2011 to 74 percent in 2014.
While the Lending Library now offers books for students of all ages and includes some parent resources, the collection focuses on books for children ages 0-5 and is meant to get more adults reading with young learners. This activity — adults reading with children every day — increases language and literacy development, particularly during the crucial years of brain development prior to kindergarten.
“This kind of effort is more than providing access to books, it’s about what can happen with access,” says Katie O’Dell, the youth services director at Multnomah County Library. “Improving knowledge about school, culture, and health, building literacy and creativity, establishing relationships with trusted teachers… these are all results of immersing kids with lots of quality books.”
MCL chose the first supply of books carefully and worked to represent the families served by Early Works and Earl Boyles. With diverse, multicultural themes, the books portray a range of cultures, languages, and stories to strengthen the connection between the school, library, and community.
Ranked as one of the top libraries in the U.S., MCL has a strong track record of supporting efforts to stimulate reading and embraces the five principles of early literacy: read, talk, sing, play, and write. These provided the framework for a family breakfast series last year hosted by Children’s Institute that explored ways for parents and families to build literacy using each of the principles.
Parents and families, in fact, are essential to the success of the Lending Library. A handful of parents from the Parents United Group at Earl Boyles maintain the library and help coordinate activities with AmeriCorps volunteers and Schools Uniting Neighborhoods (SUN) staff. Last year, they scheduled weekly story times in both English and Spanish.
Renea Arnold, Every Child initiative supervisor at MCL, says the Lending Library has increased parent involvement in the school. “Placed right in the lobby of the school, it serves as a living room, a welcoming family space. Parents can come and support their child’s learning right at school.”
Students and families can take books home whenever they wish; no library card is needed and there is no due date. The collection is well-used and continues to grow, thanks to ongoing support from the Library Foundation and MCL’s supply of books that exit the library system.
“Kids are always taking books home,” says Youn Sun Han, the SUN coordinator for the school. “They often bring them back and take new ones. But if we see the supply dwindling we get more.”
O’Dell says reading will come to kids if they are surrounded by great materials. “We can always get more books, and we’re committed to providing a plethora of high-quality choices.”
But what makes the Lending Library special is the network of supporters working to establish a culture of literacy at the school, one that depends on deep collaboration and collective efforts to address learning gaps in the early years for a high-needs community such as Earl Boyles.
“We’re along for the ride,” says O’Dell. “We like to reinvent how MCL reaches our audiences, and this is a great example of how to surround people with books and help open doors for people to explore and learn.”