Local librarian encourages reading through fun and innovative ways

Karen Greene is a librarian at the Pima County Main Library in downtown Tucson. (Photo by Brittan Bates/Arizona Sonora News Service)

“X, O, C, H, I, Q, U, E, T, Z, A, L … Xochiquetzal,” said Nicola, the uncertain contestant.

“I truly can’t believe it, but you’re right!” announced librarian Lupita Chavez.

The room full of appalled bar patrons started to clap, cheer and clink their beer glasses together as they came to terms with the young lady spelling such an abstract word this far into the game.

“These events are different — I mean, a spelling bee in a bar?” Tap & Bottle co-owner Rebecca Stafford said. “I love it. It brings people who are avid spellers out, but also a lot of my patrons who are hanging out and think, ‘Why not?’”

This is just one of the fun ideas Pima County librarian Karen Greene has brought to the Tucson community to encourage reading among children and adults, which has been on the decline for the past 30 years.

in 1984, 8 percent of 13-year-olds and 9 percent of 17-year-olds said they “hardly ever” read for pleasure, according to Common Sense Media. In 2014, that number almost tripled to 22 percent and 27 percent, respectively.

In Arizona, only 13 percent of kindergarteners meet benchmark early literacy skills and 530,000 adults read no better than an average fifth-grader Literacy Connects said.

So, is less free reading as youngsters making people less intelligent in their adult years?

Adult Spelling Bee winner, Nicola looks uncertain as she attempts to spell “xochiquetzal,” on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017. This was just one of the seemingly impossible words the contestants spelled. (Photo by Brittan Bates/Arizona Sonora News Service

While Green is concerned over this thought, she believes all it takes is getting the right books into the hands of these children and teenagers.

Greene pushes the public to read by sitting out on Tucson’s sidewalks, happily lugging 250 pounds worth of free books on one of the public library’s three book bikes, or chaperoning Tap & Bottle and Exo Roast’s monthly Analog Hour, where you can come to escape technology and read a book.

“Tucson is the kind of city where you can just do stuff,” Greene said. “You can have a wacky idea and people will say, ‘hey let’s try it!”

Greene isn’t shy to admit she stole all her ideas from other cities. Analog Hour and the Adult Spelling Bee came from Portland, but she first saw the book bike being done by a guy in Chicago.

Tucson’s book bikes just had its five-year anniversary, and Greene couldn’t be more thrilled with the public’s reception.

Greene decided to become a librarian in her 20s after visiting one to find a favorite childhood book. The librarian knew exactly what book she was describing and Greene thought it was the coolest thing ever.

She has been with the Pima County public library for about 13 years. She was a school librarian for 12 years and luckily made the switch before budget cuts ended the program.

“They (districts such as TUSD) are doing such a disservice by not having a school librarian,” she said. “Nobody is teaching them how to do research, how to make sure their sources are reliable, how to skim and scam, how to use the index, how to not plagiarize!”

Adult Spelling Bee contestants line up for the friendly competition Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017. (Photo by Brittan Bates/Arizona Sonora News Service)

Greene also agrees that a lack of an authority figure promoting reading could correlate with a current rising concern of low test scores among children.

The Nation’s Report Card’s 2015 report found the average reading score for fourth-grade students was not significantly better than 2013, and eighth-grade students scored two points lower in 2015. However, both grades’ scores were higher in 2015 than from the earliest assessment scores in 1992.

In Arizona, AzMERIT’s 2015-2016 report showed reading proficiency scores idled at 40 percent of third-grade students passing.

While exploring children’s behavior toward reading, Scholastic and YouGov found in its fall 2016 survey that 58 percent of children ages 6-17 either loved or liked to read a lot, which is 2 percent less than 2010. The research was conducted on 2,718 parents and children.

The findings showed 51 percent of children get their best book ideas from teachers and school librarians, but 82 percent turn to their parents for encouragement to read at all.

““The research confirms that kids, especially infrequent readers, need increased access to books, as well as more help than parents often realize, in order to find books they like,” said Dick Robinson, CEO and Chairman, Scholastic. “Fortunately, the Kids & Family Reading Report also provides parents with the sources most often turned to by families seeking advice on children’s books their kids will love to read.””

Karen Greene with her book bike at the Pima County Main Library on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017. She takes the bike out once a month, but other volunteers take the other two bikes out as well. (Photo by Brittan Bates/Arizona Sonora News Service)


Brittan Bates is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at brittanbates@email.arizona.edu.

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