While it might look quiet on the outside, if you enter the Lawson McGhee Library, take a sharp left and walk down a flight of stairs, it’s likely on any given day that you’ll encounter a sudden burst of joyous energy. It’s a trek that children and parents from all around the county take on a regular basis and it leads to the largest children’s literature collection at any area public library.
Cheerfully steered by Erin Nguyen, Children’s Services Manager for Knox County Public Library, the room is just the tip of the iceberg for county-wide programming for children. As of 2018, there were over 400,000 children’s books available for check out across the county. In that year, over 20,000 children attended one or more of the over 500 programs offered.
The library is encouraging “Every Child Ready to Read,” a national program recognizing that so many children arrive at school significantly less prepared than their peers. In Knox County, only 40% of third-graders are reading on grade level. The program emphasizes supporting parents by helping them understand the literacy and pre-literacy skills their children need and helping them deliver those skills to their children.
Concurrently with this effort, the libraries have joined Mayor Jacobs in the Read Around the World initiative, with the goal of having children in Knox County read 500,000 hours during 2020, the rough equivalent of the time it would take to travel around the world 20 times. Handy passports are constructed and are broken into the continents. Reading about each of the continents is a bonus, and adults are encouraged to join in. The amount of reading breaks down to about 20 minutes a day for a total of about 10 hours a month for children across the county.
Libraries across the county offer about 65 story-times per week. At Lawson McGhee, there are currently four different options based on age and they are offered from morning to evening. Wednesday morning is a particularly popular time for toddlers, and the Tuesday evening program at the downtown branch is the only evening program offered across the county. A number of parents pair the Wednesday morning story time with the Wednesday Market Square Farmer’s Market. Lawson McGhee also offers a craft activity, “Make It and Take It,” on Saturday mornings, which pairs well with the Saturday Market Square Farmer’s Market when it is in season. There’s one this Saturday with an African theme.
Planning is well underway for the Children’s Festival of Reading, coming up quickly on May 16. In addition to helping staff the reading room at Lawson McGhee, Nguyen is also charged with setting a schedule for outside presenters and musicians for the annual summer festival.
The hope is to get even more children connected to their public library and to reading as a part of their daily life. Mary Pom Claiborne, Director of Marketing, Development and Communications, said that a major initiative is to get a public library card into the hands of all children in Knox County, an effort they are coordinating with the schools. She said they are about halfway to that target.
In addition to the books, there are other resources available. During my visit there were children being read to by parents, and children having a tea party, playing with stuffed animals, and more. The library also has a growing collection of digital books, Playaway Launchpads, available for checkout that are similar to iPads with apps and books loaded. Books with built-in audio files and Tumblebooks, which are animated picture books, are also available through the library’s extensive database collection.
It all adds up to a great resource for children and a fun spot to take the children or grandchildren when visiting downtown.