‘Street Librarian’ aims to bring more books to Baltimore kids


BALTIMORE — Araba Maze noticed neighborhood kids crowding around her as she read children’s books to her niece on her front porch. As she was finishing the narration, one of the children asked, “When are you going to start again?”

Later, she did daily story readings with neighborhood children and eventually became a librarian.

But she noticed things looked different at work: “After being a librarian, I realized I wasn’t reaching those same kids in my neighborhood inside the library.”

Maze took to the streets, becoming a “radical street librarian” and the creator of the Storybook Maze Project, an organization that strives to provide children’s books through community shelves, free book kiosks and vending machines. books in Baltimore neighborhoods classified as “book deserts.” Maze is one of many people and organizations trying to bring more equity to Baltimore in the form of diverse and relevant books for children and students in need of a read.

The Unite for Literacy group coined the term “book desert” to describe a geographic area where printed books and other reading materials are hard to come by. They are usually located in areas of high poverty and income inequality. The lack of books in a child’s reading development can negatively affect their vocabulary and ability to recognize words.

The city of Baltimore has many book deserts, according to a world map of book deserts by Unite For Literacy. The map shows the estimated percentage of homes with more than 100 pounds in areas across the city — and for the vast majority of east and west Baltimore, that figure is in the single digits. It also shows higher numbers in some North Baltimore neighborhoods — for example, an estimated 79% of homes meet those criteria in Roland Park.

“We have areas in our communities where there is a lack of resources for children to become lifelong readers,” said Mike McGuffee, CEO of Unite for Literacy.

A host of smaller free libraries, bookstores, and the Enoch Pratt Free Library system are working in tandem to fill this gap.

“The map was trying to make the problem visible so community organizations would say, ‘I want to focus on this’ and look at the map and you can pretty much guess where to do the equity work,” McGuffee said.

The map shows a significant difference in access to books for those living in the “Black Butterfly” neighborhoods to the west and east of the city and the “White L” communities that run through the center and lower part of the city. the city. It is estimated that those in the “butterfly” have less access to books at home, while those in the “L” have more.

National Education Progress Assessment data shows that in 2019, about half of eighth graders in Baltimore public schools scored below baseline in reading. However, McGuffee suggested that part of the reason reading scores are low is that nominal score improvement has been prioritized over building regular reading habits.

“Sometimes I think we get a little bit wrong about where we’re headed: grade-level proficiency, everybody’s reading level, that sort of thing,” McGuffee said. “What we really need to talk about is ‘What do we want for our children?’ And we want them to be lifelong readers.

There are resources to do this in Baltimore, but each has its own constraints, from content to accessibility.

One way to increase access to free books is through the Enoch Pratt Free Library system, which was founded in 1882 and has since grown into a network of 22 branches across the city.

Meghan McCorkell, marketing and communications manager for the Pratt System, said the library system has been one of the most trusted institutions in the city since its inception, with services that meet the needs of the community.

“I always laugh and say if there’s a community problem, even if it’s way out of the confines of a library, people always say, ‘Well, the Pratt can solve it,'” McCorkell said. . “We actually had people in the pandemic who said they knew it was a real problem when the Pratt Library closed…because they trusted us so much that if we made the decision to close, then they knew (COVID-19) must be a real problem.

In addition to offering books at checkout, the Pratt system has bookmobiles and a mobile job center that travel to neighborhoods to serve those who may not have the time or resources to visit. their nearest library.

Maze believes her efforts to provide free books to children complement Pratt’s efforts.

“The library can’t do it all, so (Storybook Maze) is here to support them in that,” Maze said.

Kate Khatib, a worker who owns a bookstore called Red Emma’s, said opening and maintaining bookstores in general is difficult due to a lack of resources for small business development in the city of Baltimore. It’s especially a problem in east and west Baltimore, she said.

“It’s especially difficult, I think, to try to open a business outside of the immediate geographic center of town because there are even (less) resources – even less support,” Khatib said.

It can be difficult for a bookstore to succeed in low-income communities, she said.

“If you’re opening a bookstore, supporting a bookstore in an economically marginalized area, if your clientele is made up of people who don’t have a lot of money, you’re struggling to figure out how to meet the needs of your community while earning enough money,” Khatib said.

Red Emma’s and other bookstores, such as Urban Reads Bookstore, achieve this by having a food and coffee component to keep doors open and provide a community space for discussions and author events.

“There are bookstores that exist to sell books and then there are bookstores that exist to create community,” Khatib said.

Khatib hopes to see all Baltimore bookstores working together to help kids find the books they want to read.

“I would like to see and invite my fellow booksellers to think about how we can work together to solve this problem,” Khatib said. “Between all of us…it’s our job to put these resources to use in the community.”

The Little Free Library is a non-profit organization widely known for its mini-libraries on a post. What makes them great for getting books into people’s hands is that anyone can get a book from any number of these libraries for free, hence the title.

Maze is admittedly a big fan of the Little Free Library initiative, but acknowledged that there are challenges in setting up a library in a community, including cost and content. For example, the cheapest Little Free Library kit starts at $169.95.

“It depends on the community to fund its initial construction, have a property it can stay on and keep it filled,” Maze said. “That’s why sometimes you tend to see them in more affluent areas, because those people can afford to build one, they own the property.”

This can be seen on the free small library world map. Although there are small free libraries throughout Baltimore, there is a greater concentration in Midtown and North Baltimore and less in East and West Baltimore.

Storybook Maze contacted an organization to help provide a steady supply of relevant children’s books to a small free library. In addition, anyone with children’s books can donate them to a small free library.

Additionally, The Book Thing of Baltimore distributes free books once a month on weekends and also accepts book donations.

One of the ways Maze plans to bring children’s books to as many kids as possible is by using vending machines to hand out free books instead of snacks. She plans to place these vending machines in high-traffic areas, including laundromats, general markets, hospitals, and more.

Maze hopes that by reaching out to community leaders and organizations, she can eventually plan and set up more free pop-up book stands like the one she initially created with Tendea Family, an organization that works to support Baltimore’s black communities. With each ephemera stand, she uses her knowledge as a librarian to organize books to meet the needs of the community.

One thing Maze, McGuffee, and Khatib agree on is that the books kids should get reflect their experiences and identities, and that kids deserve to see themselves in all types of media.

“It really engages (kids) more when they can see themselves in books or in the media they consume,” Maze said.

Khatib said that when she grew up as a brunette girl in Kentucky along the Bible Belt, she experienced a desert of information and representation because the reading material was mostly white and Christian-centric. .

“I was constantly searching and searching, trying to find, ‘Is there anyone in any books who looks like me, has a similar experience to mine?'” Khatib said. “When we decided to launch Red Emma’s, it wasn’t just me…there were other people who had similar experiences.”

McGuffee believes that if children from all walks of life are properly represented in children’s books, more will become lifelong readers and develop the skills that come with it.

“Kids need to see themselves in books, and they need to see other kids who look like them are avid readers,” McGuffee said. “They need to see authors who look like them, represent them, all that.”

Maze’s typical workday involves reaching out to local businesses looking for a permanent location for its vending machines and doing more outreach with pop-up book stands at community events. She believes it is worthwhile work.

“While I was reading on the porch one day, I opened the page and the little girl prevented me from turning the page. She was just looking at an image of herself: This book also had a living little black girl, and she was just transfixed,” Maze said. “It really confirmed for me that I’m doing important work.”

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