Sept. 8, 2006 – St. Thomas has a lot to celebrate on this International Literacy Day 2006.
Yesterday shovels flashed in the sun as they turned over the first ground for the new St. Thomas Public Library on the knoll beside Plaza Extra. This momentous occasion has been long in coming and was greeted by the distinguished crowd with tremendous joy. Almost twenty-five years and the efforts and wishes of many, many people brought us to this point. Some worked quietly and patiently, some loudly expressed frustration and disbelief, many rose to make their voices heard and their influence felt. All efforts played an important part – finally the building will begin – hopefully to be a place that provides St. Thomians with the kind of library services we need in this 21st century – resources that will give everyone an equal opportunity to fully experience and benefit from the information age.
We should also celebrate some other activities that are happening behind the scenes.
· There is a dynamic new librarian at Enid M. Baa Public Library who has initiated a myriad of programs and activities especially for young people. There were classes all summer long, a game club has begun, there are after-school activities, the library is sponsoring the Civics Club that will send students to Washington D.C. in the spring and an immigration project in the public schools and new furniture, new books, DVD's, CD's and periodicals are arriving.
· The Friends of the St. Thomas Public Libraries sponsored the 5th annual Summer Reading Program and over 100 students were awarded gift certificates to Dockside Bookshop for reading an impressive number of books over the summer.
· Fourteen Day Care Center classes are now included in the Friend's Day Care Literacy program. Volunteers read to the children with a special selection of books and loan the books to the centers for the teachers to use.
· In addition to the increased number of books being distributed by Enid M. Baa Public Library, the Friends' used book redistribution project is now spreading over 200 books a week all over the island to public gathering places and children's programs. There are a lot of readers on the island and an incredible collection of books making the rounds.
· In spite of the new TVs in the hospital rooms at Schneider Regional, the book cart is still a welcome sight for patients and staff to enjoy the magazines and used books the volunteers make available.
· A new Family Connections program is being developed to provide resources for Early Childhood educators. The Community Foundation is initiating a special program for families at risk. The VI Institute of Teaching and Learning is sponsoring classes and giving free books for parents to read and do activities with their children.
· Senators have become active supporters of literacy projects and voted a special allocation to the public library budget and followed through by increasing the annual budget for the libraries for the next fiscal year.
· The government, recognizing the severe shortage of certified librarians in the Virgin Islands, has provided funding for persons to obtain master's degrees in Library Science on line from the University of Pittsburgh.
· The Department of Education is finally purchasing new textbooks and allocating more monies for the public school libraries.
· Various local businesses, foundations, organizations and private funds have contributed to upgrading public school libraries and donating books.
· Dockside Bookshop is reporting an increase in the number of books purchased over the past few years. People are reading more.
While we celebrate, we cannot yet rest on our laurels. We still have the lowest overall reading scores in the United States. We still have too few parents who read to their children on a regular basis. We still have too many adults who cannot read at all or have minimal reading skills. We still have too many young people dropping out of school. We still find the majority of incarcerated persons lacking reading and math skills. We still have many under-employed persons who do not have high school diplomas. We still have many well-educated people who do not read on a regular basis.
We need more book clubs – more discussion groups – it is too easy to lay back and let the serious issues of the world and our community pass us by or make due with minimal efforts and skills. We need to support and participate in providing the community with more issue and globally oriented information – not just personal opinions. We all need to improve our 21st century computer literacy skills (e mail and chat rooms alone do not constitute productive computer skills). We will need satellite libraries around St. Thomas because almost immediately the new library in Tutu is not going to be adequate. We need a serious educational program in the prisons and technical education available for all students. We need an army of volunteers to read to and with children and help them learn to love books and benefit from their reading skills.
Literacy is the most vital skill that one can nurture in this modern world because it makes possible all the other fulfillments of life.
Editor's note: Carol Lotz is a member of the Friends of the Library and a community activist.
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