IMLS-Funded Reading Nation Waterfall Project To Bring Curated Little Free Libraries To Native American Children

Could librarian-curated Little Free Libraries be the next great outreach tool to help improve youth reading scores and strengthen community connections to libraries? University of North Carolina (UNC)–Greensboro Library and Information Science Associate Professor Anthony Chow thinks so.

small bookshelf with children's books under green bulletin board wall sign readingCould librarian-curated Little Free Libraries be the next great outreach tool to help improve youth reading scores and strengthen community connections to libraries? University of North Carolina (UNC)–Greensboro Library and Information Science Associate Professor Anthony Chow thinks so. He plans to use the book exchange outposts to give away 70,000 books over the next three years to Native American children and families in North Carolina, Montana, and New Mexico. The project, called the Reading Nation Waterfall, is funded by a $1.4 million dollar grant that the Institute of Museum and Library Services awarded to UNC Greensboro and five Native American tribes—the Crow Tribe of Montana, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, Northern Cheyenne, and Kewa Pueblo.

Not just any books will flow through the Reading Nation Waterfall. Librarians will use their expertise to carefully select quality titles that are culturally relevant and reflect the communities’ interests.

“We don’t want it to operate like a traditional Little Free Library where there’s no curation. Rather, we want to utilize the same concept but now curate it directly by librarians themselves,” said Chow. “The library curation is going to be all done by members of [each location’s] tribal community and it will be governed by an advisory board of their community. We want to make sure it's books they want to read, not books we're trying to push on them. Research is clear on that—that’s the foundation of building a love of reading.”

“It's a natural fit [for libraries], especially with the main objective being literacy in younger children,” said Adam Lambert, library manager at Qualla Boundary Public Library, located on the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians tribal lands in the western mountains of North Carolina. The project will also provide an opportunity to create culturally relevant events and bring aboard Native American authors to write original works that mirror the community. “The part that most excites me is having the assistance to develop programming that is relating to our culture and the needs of the community, because a lot of the times the summer reading programs don't really hit our children, and as literacy seems to decline in Native Americans...it seems it's an important thing to make stronger,” said Lambert.

Lagging test scores were the catalyst for the Reading Nation Waterfall. “When I was the evaluator for the state library of Montana, when we looked at the assessment there was a very significant gap in the Native American children’s 4th grade reading scores.” said Chow. “That began my interest in trying to understand why.”

As part of a year-long study in the Blackfeet Nation, Chow and his researchers gave away 1,000 books through three Little Free Libraries and conducted interviews, surveys, and focus groups. Chow says the community feedback revealed a cultural disconnect and other barriers. “The general conclusion is that a fair majority, in particular of children below the poverty line, really didn't have access to books in any direction. Not at home. They're not going to the public library. Their school library is not very well funded. It’s basically a book desert.”

Soon those book deserts will be infused with thoughtfully selected books. They will circulate through a total of 15 Little Free Libraries donated by the Little Free Library organization, which is a partner in the Reading Nation Waterfall along with Head Start. Most of the 70,000 new and gently used books to be given away are geared toward preschool and elementary school children. A quarter of the books will target adults. “They're going to get the books, hopefully learn to love reading or become more engaged with reading,” said Chow. “We can give them five or 10 books, they can go to the library and get as many as they want. Building that connection to almost an inexhaustible resource for books is what we're after,” Chow said.

Located in strategic areas like Head Start programs and elementary schools, the Little Free Libraries will also address the issue of convenience. “The idea is to go straight to the children, so by putting it at Head Start it's not about the parents having to do anything; it's right there. And the same thing with the elementary school...we’re trying to give them a helping hand,” said Chow. If it is successful, Chow says the program could be expanded to include middle and high schools. “If we go to where the people are, and this larger-scale study is successful, then it can be generalized to any community.”

Books will start going out later this fall. With COVID-19 now a factor, extra precautions will be taken with the Little Free Libraries. Chow says all books will be wrapped in plastic and that any returned books will be gathered separately and quarantined for four days. Despite the circumstances, Chow is taking things in stride. “With everyone being home, free reading material is a really good thing.”


Kelli Brooks is a freelance writer living in California’s Bay Area.

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