Library Life

Don’t let all those books fool you. Though reading is our raison d’être at the Kansas City Public Library, we also impart life skills to people in the community, especially children and teens. And one of those skills we enjoy imparting the most: eating right.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, representatives from one of the Library’s closest local partners, Harvesters Community Food Network, visited the Southeast Branch to show a group of teens that eating healthy isn’t that hard.

“We empower kids by teaching them how to cook and showing them there’s more options than fast food and the microwave,” says Taryn Glidewell, Harvesters’ nutritional education coordinator.

Harvesters’ Kids in the Kitchen program focuses on educating kids about different food groups and how to shop wisely – namely, by going to farmers’ markets.

At Southeast, Glidewell and three other Harvesters instructors talked about Kansas City’s biggest farmers’ market, the City Market, where, on a typical Saturday, 12,000 people stock up on organic, locally grown produce and other sustainable goods. As the food group of the day was grain, Harvesters passed out bags of corn, bran, rice, couscous and other grains for the teens to look at and touch.

Harvesters, with the Library's Gabi Otto (right).

Next, the teens played a game of bed-sheet ping pong to work up an appetite for the food they were about to fix: whole-grain bagels with cream cheese, fresh basil and peaches.

While the bagels toasted on an electric grill, the teens sliced up peaches, mixed chopped fresh basil with cream cheese and a little black pepper, and talked about why whole grain is better for you than the refined flour found in so many junk food products.

“I never looked twice at a bagel before,” said one of the teens.

The basil cream cheese was a definite hit, as were the farm-fresh peaches. Seconds were passed around before the hourlong program concluded, and the kids went home with happy – and healthy – tummies.

Help Out:

Want to know how you can help feed hungry families in Kansas City? The Kansas City Public Library is holding its 2010 Food for Fines Week October 18 through 24. During this time, patrons can bring in unexpired, nonperishable canned or boxed food to reduce existing overdue fines by $1 per food item. All the food goes to Harvesters. Click here to learn which food items are most needed.


-- Jason Harper

A fixture on the local literary scene, Gina Kaufmann has written for The Kansas City Star and The Pitch, spent two years on the air as co-host of KCUR’s Walt Bodine Show, and organizes regular storytelling events. Now a freelance writer working on her master’s in creative writing, she’s a regular at the Kansas City Public Library’s Plaza Branch.

Kaufmann is a lifelong Library patron. As a kid, she took drama classes at the old Plaza Branch and later researched papers there as a teenager. Once while working on a high school report on cystic fibrosis, she stumbled on her dad making photocopies of maps of Africa. He was trying to settle a dispute he was having with a friend regarding how the name of the country Zaire had changed over time.

“I ran into people in my family who had left the same home I did earlier in the day at the Library,” she remembers.

As a candidate in the University of British-Columbia’s Optional-Residency MFA

in creative non-fiction and a freelance writer, Kaufmann uses the Library not only for research but as an alternative to working and taking classes from home.

“It’s appealing to have a workplace where you aren’t tempted to redecorate your bedroom when you hit a hard spot in your writing,” she says.

Though many of her fellow laptop luggers go to coffee shops, Kaufmann prefers the Library -- there’s no pressure to buy multiple lattes in exchange for the free broadband wi-fi, and there’s a wealth of information on the shelves all around.

As a former tutor for Literacy KC, Kaufmann conducted her sessions in the Library, where she and her student felt comfortable and where helpful books were near at hand.

Lately, the Library has been helpful in her research for a project about 19th century Kansas women. One of the subjects is world explorer Osa Johnson of Chanute, KS, whose book, I Married Adventure, chronicles her trips to exotic locales with her husband, Martin, a photographer and filmmaker.

“She was his protector – he held the camera and she held the gun,” Kaufmann says.

Kaufmann knows the kind of information she’s often looking for can’t be found through simple Internet searches.

“Using Google to give yourself a basic familiarity of a subject is fine, but to do something you want to call ‘original research,’ you have to get up and go somewhere,” she says.

And for Kaufmann, more often than not, that somewhere is the Kansas City Public Library.

Explore the Library


Gina Kaufmann’s Ultimate Non-Fiction Reading List:


-- Jason Harper

Everyday life can be loud – especially for young mothers raising kids in urban Kansas City. But on a recent Tuesday afternoon, a side room in the Lucile H. Bluford Branch of the Kansas City Public Library was a haven of quiet industry as a handful of women studied for the next phase in their lives.

The Even Start Family Literacy Program, a federally developed program managed by local literacy powerhouse the Upper Room, combines adult literacy instruction with teaching life skills to parents and children, separately and together. Its core principle: parents are the first teachers.

Five days a week, the Bluford Branch is home to the adult literacy portion of the program. In the large conference room, tutors prepare students for the high-school-equivalency GED exams – a must-pass for those without high school diplomas who want to rise in the workforce.  Meanwhile, their children, aged six months to 8 years, receive free child care and education, also provided by the Upper Room. Currently, nine mothers and 12 children are participating in the Family Literacy Program

“They love the Bluford Library – it’s an ideal classroom for them,” says Upper Room Program Director Betty Muhammad, who oversees the Family Literacy Program.

“The Library is such an important part of what we do. It’s our ultimate resource for everything,” affirms Helen Jones, child care director for the program. “Some of our kids have never been in a library before. It just wasn’t in their environment.”

Creating an environment of literacy for whole families is a big part of what the Upper Room does through programs such as Even Start. And ever since this local organization began 12 years ago, the Kansas City Public Library has provided essential support.

Betty and Jerry
The Upper Room's Betty Muhammad and Jerry McEvoy

Headquartered on the third and fourth floors of St. Louis Catholic Church on Swope Parkway (hence the name), the Upper Room’s influence extends to all corners of the city. Its Summer Academic Camp unites 2,700 kids from low-income homes with hundreds of professional teachers and student tutors to improve math and reading skills. Classes in music, art, dance, swimming, gymnastics, and martial arts are also offered. The Library’s Books to Go service provides books for the kids, and a two-week training session for the camp’s tutors takes place in June in the Plaza Branch’s Truman Forum.

Upper Room Executive Director Jerry McEvoy says that students in the eight-week summer program gain a full academic year of reading progress.  “Parents know their kids are reading better. That’s why they keep sending them,” he says.

During the rest of the year, the Upper Room provides after-school tutoring and a hot meal every school day of the academic year to 500 students. And then there’s the Even Start Family Literacy Program.

Every morning, Monday through Friday, a bus picks up the enrolled mothers and their children and takes them to the Swope Ridge Geriatric Center for breakfast and lessons in parenting and parent-child interaction.

The parents are then taken to the Bluford Branch for the adult literacy portion – the GED tutoring – while the kids receive their own rounds of early childhood education. (All of the children in this year’s Even Start completed the Library’s Summer Reading program.)

“For single mothers who don’t have a high-school education, we provide the key elements that discourage women from moving forward: transportation and child care,” McEvoy says.

Even Start Family Literacy students with instructors Juli Whitney (seated, left) and Mary Davis (seated, right).

Alicia, an adult literacy student whose seven-year-old son is also in Even Start, plans to become a nurse after completing her GED. She’s tried other adult literacy programs, but they didn’t work out. “This program is more hands-on,” she says. “They help you with things you struggle with. For me, that’s fractions.”

This past August, all five of the students who began the Upper Room’s Even Start program in January passed their GED tests. They were rewarded with Gates Bar-B-Q at a reception at the Bluford Branch.

One of the graduates is enrolled at Penn Valley Community College, another is pursuing nursing school, and two others are tutoring students of their own.

It’s a cycle of literacy that uplifts the whole community.

-- Jason Harper

From sowing community gardens to starting grassroots organizations, Wick Thomas has fought for more causes than you can shake a picket sign at. When he's not planning a rally or hitting the political-science textbooks for school at UMKC, Thomas is championing libraries as beacons of free speech.

Lithe, bedecked with body piercings and sporting a different hair color every week, Thomas cuts a dashing, unconventional figure among the stacks in Central Youth Services, where he works as a Library associate.

When we spoke with the 23-year-old from Drexel, Missouri, his hair was sandy brown with blond highlights, teased on top and buzzed on the sides. His first gig at the Kansas City Public Library made use of his chameleonic appearance: wearing a costume and giving tours of the January 2008 exhibit Once Upon a Time: Exploring the World of Fairy Tales at the Central Library.

He worked the next two years as a technical assistant at the Ruiz Branch, where he found that his alternative appearance broke down barriers with youthful patrons.

"I think adults are intimidated by [my appearance], but kids respond to it and want to talk, and it's a good way to open them up to talking about the library," he says.

Thomas says he gravitates toward the so-called “troublemakers,” kids with a lot of energy and a little bit of mischief who are in need of focus.

"I see a limitless potential in people who haven't set their path yet that needs to be cultivated and explored," he says.

Though still a student, Thomas has already established a reputation as a veteran activist.

In 2008, The Pitch named him Best Activist in Missouri, and a recent July 4-themed feature in The Kansas City Star profiled him in a sampling of noteworthy local crusaders, including the executive director of the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri, a female African-American conservative Republican, and an immigrant rights' proponent.

He currently serves as president of the board at EQUAL (Empowering Queer Activists and Leaders), which provides education, advocacy, and support for youths interested in social justice.

Wick Thomas

In 2006, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force gave Thomas a Creating Change Award for establishing a chapter of the Gay-Straight Alliance in 2004 while he was a student at Paola High School. He's also been involved in bike activism, has volunteered for the ACLU and Greenpeace, and founded the local environmental group TWIG (Think Work Inspire Grow).

While he was at the Ruiz Branch, he helped develop green programming, including assisting with the creation of the Switzer Neighborhood Farm community garden, which the Library planted alongside various community organizations (see a photo gallery on Facebook).

"You see kids on computers all day -- it's important to get them outside and actually doing stuff with the earth," he says.

When it comes to his work at the Library, Thomas has no trouble keeping his political views in check – in fact, doing so is part of his job. If any activism comes into play as he helps patrons find materials, it’s only in upholding libraries as neutral sources of high-quality, uncensored information.

"Libraries are our last strongholds of freedom of speech," he says.

For Thomas – as for all librarians – this means helping patrons access credible, unbiased information, which can sometimes be hard to find in our search-engine-ruled age.

He has particularly strong feelings about the G-word.

“As far as information systems go, with Google, you get the most popular results, not the best. You can't explain what you're looking for to Google -- it's not a person. The information is not detailed or unbiased,” he explains.

“It’s important to talk to a human,” he adds.

And for Thomas, sometimes just being human is an exercise in First Amendment rights.

Explore the Library

Four Books that Changed Wick Thomas’ Life

-- Jason Harper

Kim Patton likes books with lots of angst. This is one reason why she’s perfectly suited for life as a teen librarian. When she talks about the sci-fi thriller Unwind by Neal Shusterman or the apocalyptic Gone by Michael Grant, she radiates enthusiasm. And as the newly crowned president of the influential Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), she knows what it takes to get teens reading.

An 18-year veteran of the Lawrence Public Library, Patton came to the Kansas City Public Library in December 2008 to give focus to the nascent teen services department.

“We’ve always worked with teenagers, but we didn’t have a clear plan that deliberately involved providing the services they want until we hired Kim,” says Crystal Faris, Director of Teen Services.

In Lawrence, Patton built the library’s teen center from the ground up – a pioneering move for any librarian at the time, as teen services is a fairly recent field.

Patton has always been a library lover. As a kid growing up in Topeka, she learned how to work the system to her advantage.

“I used to like to read racy romances, but they wouldn’t let children in the romance section without an adult, so I had a librarian hold a stack for me until my mom came to pick me up,” she remembers.

Years later, working as a Salvation Army officer in Lawrence, Patton would take her own kids to storytime at the public library. When a job as children’s desk assistant came available, a friend suggested Patton apply.

“I lived in libraries, but I never thought of working in one,” she says.

Settling in at the library, Patton noticed the lack of resources for kids past the sixth grade.

“I whined and whined about not having a young adults’ area, so I carved out a place, got some grants, got five computers, and made the Teen Center,” she says.

She joined YALSA in 2000 as a Teen Services trainer and moved up the ranks to board member. At the American Library Association’s annual conference this past June, she was inaugurated YALSA President for 2010-11.

This is no mere honorary title.

From her post atop the 5,400-member organization, Patton represents the interests of teen librarians everywhere. She recently made a public response to a Time magazine article on summer reading and suggested readalikes for the hot new novel Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins.

YALSA influences how public and school libraries serve teens and also helps determine how library schools train future teen librarians.

“It’s a great avenue for leadership development and a great way to give back to an organization that’s furthered my career,” Patton says.

But on the home front, Patton remains closely involved with her Central Library teens. And she knows all the techniques to keep them reading.

“To some teens, reading is cool,” Patton says. “To others, it’s the farthest thing from cool you can get.”

There are lots of things vying for teens’ attention. Playing video games, for example, is the most popular activity among adolescent boys – and by providing access to gaming, libraries can get teens in the door who wouldn’t otherwise come.

But distractions or not, Patton says, if you can get teens excited about a book, they’ll make time.

Her three rules for getting kids hooked: (1) Give them enough of a teaser to get into a book, but leave them hanging. (2) Develop activities and programming around the book. And (3) once you have them hooked, be ready with other titles.

And perhaps most of all, be you.

“Teens have no patience for poses,” she says. “You can’t try to talk like them, you can’t try to dress like them. They see through that. They expect us to be ourselves.”

For someone as genuinely invested in teens as Patton, that’s not a hard task at all.

Explore the Library: Kim Patton’s Top Five Teen Reads of the Moment

On a hot Saturday last month, 50 people gathered at the Westport Branch to learn about another August day 147 years ago, when soldiers ordered 20,000 Missouri civilians from their homes. It was a period in local history as regrettable as it is compelling. In the Union Army's reprisal for guerrilla raids against places like Lawrence, Kansas, lives were lost and houses burned.

General Order No. 11 and Westport's place in the center of the border skirmishes of summer 1863 are the epicenter of local Civil War history. And talking about these events just once a year isn't enough for DIY scholars like Doreen Mundy.

Mundy and 13 of her friends occupied the back row of the Westport Historical Society’s lecture on Order No. 11. Until two years ago, most of the people in Mundy’s group didn’t know each other. They’re members of the American History group Mundy set up on the social networking site, which helps people connect online around shared interests and then “meetup” in person. Seventy-five people belong to Mundy’s group, which typically meets twice a month. They’ve conducted 55 meetups since 2008.

For a club devoted to grassroots scholarship, that’s practically a history minor. But it began with a slightly different focus than the lofty goal of higher learning. Mundy, who played Eliza Wornall in a 2008 re-enactment of the Battle of Westport, was looking for new friends.

“I decided to start the group because I had a desire to visit local historic sites and attend lectures, but my family was less than enthusiastic about it, and I didn't really have any friends that were as excited about history as I was,” she tells KC Unbound.

“I needed like-minded people to hang out with,” she adds.

As the audience in the lecture hall showed, there are plenty of people interested in Kansas City’s past. The story behind General Order No. 11 is particularly compelling.

The speaker, Park University professor Timothy Westcott, outlined the events that led up to Brigadier General Thomas Ewing’s decision to drive out most of the civilian population of the lands around Kansas City. Though Missouri was a Union state, its western counties were home to many Southern sympathizers who were providing aid to the pro-Confederate guerrillas, known as “bushwhackers.”

On August 21, 1863, buschwhacker William Quantrill led 450 raiders to Lawrence, killing 180 men and boys and burning much of the town to the ground. Three days later, General Ewing issued his order, which, Westcott argued, sent the region into even greater chaos.

One was the famous General Order No. 11 (1863), which George Caleb Bingham painted in 1868 to thwart Ewing’s campaign for governorship of Ohio.

The lecture ended with a comparison of two paintings.

General Order No. 11 (1863) by George Caleb Bingham

The other painting was the less well-known Back Home, April 1865 by Tom Lea III, which shows a solemn Missouri family returning to their leveled homestead in the so-called Burnt District (the lands pillaged by Union soldiers enforcing Order No. 11). Lea’s painting hangs in the Pleasant Hill, Mo., post office.

Afterward, as people began heading over to the Harris Kearney House for refreshments, Mundy and her friends talked about their next outing: a trip to historic Rocheport, Mo., the very next Saturday.

Because there’s always time for history.

Explore the Library:

If you’d like to join the American History Meetup, create a free account and connect with the group here.

-- Jason Harper

It’s the first week of the 2010 school year in Kansas City, Missouri, a time of energy and excitement. And for many parents, it’s a time for cutting back – those no. 2 pencils and spiral notebooks add up. Thanks to the KC Public Library’s Ruiz Branch, nearly 200 Westside families got a break from the school-supply squeeze.

On Thursday, August 12, the Irene H. Ruiz Branch hosted the Ninth Annual Back to School Pep Rally. Described as “a Celebration of Learning,” the event was organized by the library in partnership with the Westside Community Action Network Center and the Tony Aguirre Community Center .

Three hundred backpacks full of supplies were given to 175 families with students in Westside schools. The supplies were donated by a large group of individuals and companies, including neighborhood people, local businesses, and federal agencies.

“It couldn’t be what it is without a lot of people,” says Ruiz Branch manager Julie Robinson, who has helped with the event for the past seven years.

Crispin Rea, a brand-new at-large school board member for KCMO, attended the event. Rea lives in the Northeast, but his family’s roots are on the Westside. “There’s a deeply rooted sense of community. It’s very tightly knit here,” he says of the Westside.

The Back to School Pep Rally is nothing short of a neighborhood tradition.

“A lot of these kids come from households without a history of school careers. We want to send them off with the proper tools for learning,” says Lynda Callon, executive director CAN Center.

Twenty-one library volunteers organized the supplies in advance, and 50 volunteers helped things run smoothly at the event itself – no small task considering 1,800 were in attendance. There were also workers from Drug-Free Sport , VolunTeams and Heart to Heart .

Helma Hawkins of Children's and Youth Services recommends reads.

It’s about more than just handing out three-ring binders, though. With attractions including several big air castles billowing in the street, carnival games, a juggler on stilts, a souped-up KCPD show car, and 30 vendor tables set up by groups ranging from Literacy KC to the local Woodturners Club (who made wooden tops for the kids), this was one massive block party.

And in the middle of it all: the library.

Vicki Hernandez, a fourth-generation resident of the Westside, says that people in the neighborhood rely on the Ruiz Branch for services such as free computer use and health insurance information. She says they also enjoy family events like the library’s Fall Festival and the back-to-school extravaganza.

“It’s the heart of the community, really,” she says.

And that’s especially true at the start of a new school year.

-- Jason Harper

Have you met Jesse James? Charlie Parker? How about Amelia Earhart? Last year, these and other local legends barnstormed the Library for Meet the Past with Crosby Kemper. Now you can watch all of KCPT's televised episodes and relive more than a century of KC history without leaving your homestead.

From April through October of last year, a series of top-notch re-enactors conjured the personas of some of the most memorable people in American history, all with ties to the Kansas City area: Harry S. Truman, "Boss" Tom Pendergast, Walt Disney, Thomas Hart Benton and others.

Fielding questions from Library Director Crosby Kemper III, as well as the audience in attendance (usually 450 or more), these denizens of the past brought flesh, blood and a fresh outlook to the stories held in the tomes on the Library’s shelves.

Now you can revisit those conversations in our online media center. Visit our complete episode guide, get the info, and follow the links to the videos on BlipTV.

Here’s a trailer for the episode that featured Kerry Altenbernd as the intense, passionate, and awesomely bearded John Brown.

About the series: Meet the Past began to take shape in 2007, when local historian Bill Worley approached the Library about portraying legendary political boss Tom Pendergast in a live setting. Public Affairs Director Henry Fortunato suggested having Kemper interview Worley before an audience, and in October of that year, Crosby and “Boss Tom” squared off before a crowd of 250 people, and Meet the Past was born. KCPT filmed an encore performance two months later, and the program was a hit, receiving a regional Emmy nomination.

More than 4,000 people attended the 2009 series, and many more caught it on TV. Each installment came with its own recommended reading list, too.

In 2010, Meet the Past came back for another installment, bringing actor Judd Bankert as President Woodrow Wilson to talk about the Fed, the League of Nations and World War I on the grounds of Kansas City’s Liberty Memorial Museum.

Stay tuned for more Meet the Past updates from the Kansas City Public Library.

-- Jason Harper