The Cost of Free Books

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mealtime_b5I’m currently working with the Kentucky Humanities Prime Time Project in a school in my home town. The fabulous librarian coordinates this project which has invited 40 of the school’s Hispanic families (parents AND kids) to enjoy a light meal, some picture-book read-aloud time and participate in demonstrations of humanities-based conversations about the books once a week. Humanities conversations focus on each reader’s (parents’ and kids’) considerations of the book’s personal significance, rather than about the book itself.

It’s a terrific program with goals to “increase reading frequency, improve reading attitudes and behaviors, increase library patronage and parental engagement, increase key cognitive skills and increase vocabulary.

“PRIME TIME programs aim to create communities in which children and their families develop into self-directed, self-motivated learners…eager to absorb the world around them through literature, questioning/inquiry, and meaningful interaction with others.” (Learn more at

We meet every Wednesday evening for a couple of hours for the meal, reading and conversations ,and then send the families home with new books to read and discuss.

Book CartI arrive an hour early to help set up, and greet the families as they arrive. Sometimes that doesn’t take a full hour which gives me a chance to wander around the beautifully arranged and well-stocked library to discover books I haven’t read yet. Last week I noted four book carts, jammed with books that were set aside behind the librarian’s checkout desk. I asked her about those and she told me they were collected for return to the library services department for disposal.

Wait. WHAT?!

The librarian then said, matter of factly, “They are all over 10 years old and had never been checked out.”

I blurted, “Well couldn’t we send these home with the Prime Time families?!”

“Not allowed.”

Whoa. Then, I stopped, and upon reflection I realized that my distress was connected with my experience of working in Africa. Those communities were often recipients of shipping crates full of used books and surplus new books donated by individuals or from publishers that couldn’t sell them.

The librarian understood my initial distress and gently said something like, “Why would we want to give them books that no other children wanted to read?”

Indeed. The books that those African and these Hispanic families need to become readers and change the nature of conversation in the home have to be books they self-select.

My first impulse was one of not wishing to waste what seemed to be valuable assets for promoting literacy. But then I realized that books aren’t valuable assets until they are proactively chosen.

What all families and kids need is not just the books we have, but books they find compelling, those they can connect with and reflect upon around the dining table at home.

Unchosen books are absolutely valuable, but that’s unrealized potential until some little girl or father snatch them up and say to themselves, “Ooo, this could be good!”

Rejected books are just a pile of used paper. Their value is established by the life experiences and current, totally personal goals of those who select them, or don’t.

Free is no replacement for self-selection.


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