Have instant messaging and blogs caused a literacy revolution?

From the perspective of Jackie Griffin, the head of Ventura County’s largest library system, the Internet has made reading feel natural to kids who may not have had the same encouragement other kids had.

“For those of us who were taught to love to read when they were little, it’s part of who we are,” Griffin said. “I’m speculating that kids who are now on Myspace.com and text messaging each other are belatedly in life getting that kind of feeling about text without even thinking about it.”

Despite a grim report on the state of literacy in the United States, in conversations with the Reporter Griffin and her colleagues painted an optimistic portrait of readership in Ventura County.

Although Americans between the ages of 15 and 24 spend nearly two hours a day watching television, they only spend an average of seven minutes of their leisure time reading each day, according to a National Endowment For the Arts (NEA) report titled To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence. With the exception of 9-year-olds, the report said reading scores are declining among youth and adults in America. The lack of interest in reading, the NEA said when it published the report Nov. 19, has had consequences at the social, civic and economic levels.

Griffin sees the study in a different light.

“I think that anybody who works closely with kids would tell you that the idea they’re reading less is silly,” Griffin said. “Almost every piece of information that’s coming to them is text-based. I think kids are reading more on a routine basis and purely for fun in a way that article doesn’t address.”

Librarians should accept Web sites like Myspace and Facebook.com for the same reasons they tell kids reading comic books is okay, Griffin said.

“Once you’ve made that connection [to reading], then you’re hooked for life,” She said.

In fact, Griffin has reason to be optimistic about reading’s popularity in Ventura County, even in its most traditional forms. The Ventura County Library serves 439,444 Ventura County residents (Oxnard, Santa Paula and Thousand Oaks each have independent library systems). Alan Langville, a library spokesman, said between 50 and 60 percent of those individuals have library cards.

Meanwhile, in Ventura the number of items checked jumped 10.37 percent from 24,279 in November, 2006 to 26,796 this year. In Simi Valley, circulation leapt from 26,368 to 29,331, an 11.24 percent increase. Thanks to a new library that opened in March in Camarillo, library patrons in that city checked out more than 85 percent more items during the same time period.

Computers have attracted new people to the county’s libraries, but that doesn’t mean librarians have closed the book on traditional literacy programs. Instead of focusing on meeting test scores, West County Regional Manager and Children’s Services Coordinator Lori Karns said, libraries differ from schools in that they are focused on sparking children’s interest in reading, and encouraging parents to make reading a part of every day life.

“We try and keep touch with what’s happening in schools and try to get children in here to appreciate that we don’t test them, we don’t require a specific reading level,” Karns said. “They can check out anything they’re interested in just for the pleasure of it.”

Parents are encouraged to develop a “print rich” environment at home, Karns said. At the Port Hueneme Library, for example, quarterly classes help parents learn how to develop activities to have fun reading with their kids.

“With the increasing explosion of media, we’re finding that if the parent is not grounded with reading then the child is less likely to be,” Karns said.

Griffin cautions, meanwhile, that the media shouldn’t be seen as a threat or the “death knell for reading and civilization.” She pointed out that 19th Century Americans were incensed when libraries began stocking novels on their shelves, and that in the 1980s eyebrows were raised when some libraries started carrying video tapes. Because poor people still don’t have access to computers at home, libraries give them a chance to use technology. Meanwhile, those who go to a library to use computers then get over their apprehension about the library and feel more comfortable making return visits.

“We want to use our tax dollars as best as possible,” Griffin said. “We’re charged with trying to represent what mankind has created and we don’t always have control with what that is. The format always changes. I tend to think we’re not about format. We’re about what man kind has created.”