Library Life

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It’s a Friday night at the Plaza Branch, and magic is in the air in the library’s teen section – in more ways than one. A dozen or so young patrons gather around tables, swapping cards and invoking the names of otherworldly beings: Alien Telepath, Phyrexian Marauder, Fist of Ironwood.

The strange terminology of the card games Magic: The Gathering and Yu-Gi-Oh might be perplexing to outsiders, but Teen Associate Kathy Meier is right at home.

“Kathy, what do you think’ll happen if I go against Chris’s Sliver Deck?” asks 11-year-old patron Fielding.

“You will die,” Meier says, then laughs. (Fielding – who knew the answer without asking – smiles, and his opponent, Chris, 18, responds with an impish chuckle.)

Meier’s Card Classics gaming time begins each Friday at 5 p.m., and teens and tweens come out in force to play and trade cards.

“I come here every Friday night,” says 18-year-old Dennis. This Yu-Gi-Oh enthusiast has played in tournaments as far away as Springfield, Missouri, but the Plaza Branch is his favorite haunt.  “This is my lifestyle – it’s what I do,” he says.

Kids Cafe photo
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The Tuesday before Thanksgiving last year, the L.H. Bluford Branch had an impromptu Turkey Day feast. “It was crazy. Kids just kept coming in droves,” remembers Mary Olive Thompson, assistant branch manager and children’s librarian at Bluford. “It really felt like Thanksgiving.”

Thompson isn’t sure why a whopping 55 kids turned up to eat the rather un-Thanksgiving-y meal of chef salads that day at Bluford. She’s just glad they came – and that they keep coming.

Every Monday through Thursday at the Bluford and Southeast Branches and every Monday through Wednesday at Central, Kids Café is open for business.

A national program offered locally by Harvesters Community Food Network in partnership with agencies (including the Kansas City Public Library) that provide services to disadvantaged kids and teens after school and during the summer, Kids Café serves wholesome and free food to all kids under the age of 19.

During an average Kids Café at Bluford, 30 to 35 kids turn up to eat a healthy, Harvesters-provided meal and engage in activities such as socializing, listening to a story, watching a movie, and playing games. The program stresses the importance of nutrition and basic food preparation skills, the eradication of hunger, and, at the Library, at least, the value of literacy.

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Kansas City is a big reading town. The Library’s circulation stats from last year prove it. Our most checked-out book: Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1980 novel Housekeeping, the book featured in our NEA-sponsored, community-wide Big Read program. Find out what other books and movies were most checked-out by KC’s reading class in 2010.

Library patrons like thrilling reads and newer non-fiction, but it was a 30-year-old novel that crossed our circulation desks the most in 2010.

Thanks to our Big Read program, in which more than 1,300 people signed up to read Housekeeping (and attend book discussions, special events, and a film screening), Marilynne Robinson’s rich, carefully rendered masterpiece shot to the top, with just over 700 check-outs for the year.

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Librarians have always connected people to stories that inform and shape their lives. But for one Central Reference Associate, books aren’t the only tools of the trade. Jean DuFresne’s mastery of beadmaking has grown alongside her career at the Kansas City Public Library. And now she’s also using her craft to benefit the lives of children with serious illnesses.

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At the Kansas City Public Library's North-East Branch, Christmas is in the air - sort of. As the gateway to knowledge for Kansas City's most culturally diverse neighborhood, the North-East Branch during the holidays takes on the spirit of its patrons. And with people from different lands come different ways of celebrating (or not celebrating) the season.

Visit the North-East Branch on any day of the week, and you'll likely see people from Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Middle East checking out books for themselves or their kids, making use of the free computer access, and interacting with librarians, who, because of their skills at finding information, become guides to a new world. In turn, these people bring to Kansas City their native customs and cultures, imbuing internationalism into the landscape.

To get the widest possible view of how people in Northeast KC spend their holidays, we hunkered down for just a few hours over a couple of days at the North-East Branch, right next to an internationally themed holiday display case designed by globetrotting patron Nancy Kramer. We asked Branch Manager Claudia Visnich to introduce us to a few of her customers.

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In shifting economic times, many men are finding themselves working a job they thought they’d never do: staying home with young children. For these fathers, planning activities for kids and socializing with other men in their situation can be hard. For the Kansas City At-Home Dads group, the Kansas City Public Library is a home away from home. 

For the better part of the past two years, a diverse, rotating group of fathers and kids from all over the metro have been spending one morning each month in the Children’s Library at the Kansas City Public Library’s Central Library.

On a recent Friday morning, 10 or so of these KC Dads (as the group’s online shorthand goes) and their pre-school-aged kids stormed the Library for a session that included a visit from Santa, story time, crafts, music, and a movie – all of it tailored by Central Children’s Librarian Clare Hollander.

“As a children’s librarian, I’m these kids’ first teacher after their parents,” Hollander says.

For the KC Dads’ pre-kindergarten-aged kids, Hollander designs programs geared toward goals such as building vocabulary, improving narrative skills, and instilling a love for books and reading.

She also understands the unique character of this special group.

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The Trailblazers book group has called the Trails West Branch of the Kansas City Public Library home for almost ten years. They started gathering to discuss reading in April of 2001 at the behest of then-branch-staffer Jackie Brown. Brown has since joined the Facilities team at the Central Library, but she left behind a loyal group of readers who have welcomed their new facilitator, Nancy Oelke.

The eclectic band of readers are open to almost any kind of books (except for horror, they freely admit) and have definite favorites from the past years. Stand-out titles include The Cater Street Hangman by Anne Perry (“Jackie brought cucumber sandwiches and fresh-squeezed lemonade!” one clubber remembers), Portrait in Sepia by Isabelle Allende (flan!), and Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen.

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Riddle us this: How many librarians does it take to change a light bulb? At the Kansas City Public Library, it takes exactly zero. That’s because we’ve got folks like Operations Manager Jerry Houchins to keep the lights on, the buildings warm, and all the facilities clean and running smoothly.

Whether it’s trimming the trees at North-East, replacing the book drop at Sugar Creek, checking the sprinklers at the Plaza Branch, or making sure the Missouri Valley Special Collections are protected in case of a disaster, no job is too big – or too small – for Houchins and his team.

In fact, it’s hard to think of areas that aren't affected by Operations in some way. Conducting renovations, ensuring fire and building safety, promoting energy efficiency, helping with events and exhibits, managing the janitorial staff – these are just a few of this department's charges.

“Anything that’s behind the scenes at the Library, that’s us. We touch more of everything than any other department,” Houchins says.

Houchins has worked backstage at the Kansas City Public Library for the better part of 10 years, a time that’s seen ups – and downs.

In July 2009, Houchins left his post as Plant Operations Manager for what he thought would prove greener pastures, working maintenance for a property management company. Houchins eventually found he’d made a bad move.

Eric Petersen and Hank Shivers
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For many people, job searching today is a full-time, well, job. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 15 million Americans are out of work. Kansas City’s unemployment rate, while better than the national rate, is an unsettling 8.5 percent, and area job seekers face many challenges, from negotiating public transportation to navigating the online employment maze. The Central Library’s H&R Block Business & Career Center is here to help.

Business Librarian Eric Petersen is presenting Use the Library to Get That Job, a free class for anyone who’s in the market for work, on Tuesday, November 30, at 9:30 a.m. at the Kansas City Public Library’s Plaza Branch, 4801 Main St.  The class will offer practical tips on finding and landing a new job, such as using employment-listings sites effectively and crafting a strong résumé and cover letter.

“Librarians have assisted job seekers since the profession began,” Petersen says.

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A few weekends ago, I had the pleasure of attending the Second Annual Book Lovers and Book Clubs Conference. For this local event’s first year, founder and organizer Kim Riley held the gathering at a small community center and was overwhelmed with the positive response. This year, Kim looked to her local library for assistance, and the Kansas City Public Library was happy to oblige.

Held on Saturday, November 6, 2010, the conference brought in five popular and critically acclaimed African-American authors to meet loyal fans and readers in a casual setting. Victoria Christopher Murray, Trisha Thomas, Victor McGlothin, and Virginia DeBerry and Donna Grant gave presentations on their books, current projects, relationships with their readers, and their own favorite reading. The authors continued to connect with fans during a book signing.

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When it comes to finding quality health care information in Kansas City, many minority communities are underserved. It’s a problem that needs more than a figurative band-aid.

“There is undeniable evidence that the African-American community suffers from higher rates of many chronic illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease and sickle cell disease,” says Jeannine Glore Midgett, Director of Community Outreach for Truman Medical Centers.

She says that the lack of access to quality healthcare resources, including educational information, only makes the problem worse.

The Internet is crawling with health information, but can you trust the top few results of a Google search? And if you do manage to find actual medical information, how do you make sure you’re interpreting it correctly? Your health, after all, is on the line.

It’s no wonder that people have increasingly been turning to public libraries for health information. As a result, more and more libraries are creating specialized services to help people manage their health.

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It takes a community to raise a mural. This past October, working with Northeast neighborhood kids and parents, the Hip-Hop Academy covered two walls outside the North-East Branch of the Kansas City Public Library with graffiti goodness. Watch a video documentary of the project on our blog.

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Whether she’s teaching ESL classes to customers from Ethiopia, organizing a Cinco de Mayo fiesta, or speaking at a local school about her own Thai culture, Sukalaya Kenworthy is spreading multicultural awareness from her station at the Westport Branch.

A library associate of five years at the Kansas City Public Library, Sukalaya – “Su” for short – spent half a year as a technical assistant at Trails West before transferring to the Westport Branch as a library associate.

A native of Bangkok, Thailand, Su came to the States in 1996 to get her Master’s degree in Teaching English as a Second Language at the University of Central Missouri (then called Central Missouri State). It was there that she met her husband, Curry Kenworthy.

Why did she choose KC?

“I was working in Thailand at a government office that helped people find places to study abroad. I looked through schools [for myself], and this just felt like the part of the country where I wanted to be – in the middle,” she says.

Now, she’s in the midst of a diverse of array of activities at the Westport Branch. In addition to managing regular teen gaming and crafts activities, she facilitates the KC Metro Poets monthly meetings. This past summer, she organized summer reading programs and spearheaded the Cinco de Mayo festival at the Westport Branch, which had neighborhood kids performing traditional dances and breaking a piñata.

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The Trails West teens do not mess around. This past October 17-23, libraries around the country celebrated Teen Read Week, and at the Kansas City Public Library’s Independence branch, it was all about competing – and connecting.

Throughout the week, Teen Services Library Assistant Amanda Barnhart conducted a Battle of the Books poll, with more than 100 patrons voting on eight young adult titles. To some folks’ surprise, Harry Potter claimed the ultimate victory, defeating newer series like Twilight, The Hunger Games and Bleach.

The Hogwarts stalwart wasn’t the only story of an old favorite beating out the newcomers. In a triumph of primitive technology over digital diversions, a Connect Four tournament capped Teen Read Week at Trails.

Indeed, that 1970s Milton Bradley classic and originator of the catchphrase “Pretty sneaky, sis,” is back.

Branch manager Ritchie Momon says that he hasn’t seen as much interest in a game since the Speed card craze of a few years ago.

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Welcome to the first of our KCPL Book Group profiles. Mysterious Undertakings at the Waldo Branch gladly agreed to accommodate a drop-in visitor who took copious notes and photographs. But then again, Waldo welcomes all newcomers, and on this particular night, there was more than one newbie.

Mysterious Undertakings meets the first Monday of every month in a meeting room. The members take turns choosing the books and the selector leads the discussion. Facilitators Ann and Marty make certain the room is booked, cleaned, and set up.  Another participant brings tea, and everyone is free to bring their own tea cup. (If you use one of the Library mugs, you must wash it before you go.)

At this gathering, Phil led the discussion on the first Joe Pickett novel, Open Season. Phil knew that author C.J. Box was likely familiar to many of the attendees, and he took the time to point out that the conversation had to be focused on the book, not the author.

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