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October 26, 2004 > Bookleggers: Celebrating Twenty Years of the Joy of Reading

Bookleggers: Celebrating Twenty Years of the Joy of Reading

by Susana Nuñez

For the past two decades, the Alameda County Library has worked diligently to craft generations of heroes and heroines. Forget Batman and Robin, these new superheroes don't need fancy gadgets to save the day. All they need are a few books and your attention! Their mission: To instill the love of reading in every child and teach that books don't have to mean homework. The Bookleggers have been actively saving Fremont's youth from illiteracy since 1984 and have proven that they are here to stay.

What began as the Booklegger Project was first proposed by Alameda County Library Children's Librarian Elizabeth Overmyer in the fall of 1983. As the Project's first director, Overmyer wished to visit every classroom in Fremont. She worked alongside Children's Supervising Librarian Bonnie Janssen, Children's Coordinator Bruce Vogel, and the rest of the children's staff to establish the Program based in the Alameda County Library's Fremont branch. Due to a lack of staff, however, few schools were reached. Six full-time-equivalent children's staff of the combined libraries could usually visit no more than one fourth of the school district's K-8 classes. Today, there are 24-30 active volunteers each semester. Over 20,000 students in more than 900 classrooms hear Booklegger presentations every year!

The Booklegger Project has evolved into today's Booklegger Program, headed by Booklegger Director Gail Orwig. The Program was started by funds from a grant awarded to the Fremont Main Library by the Federal Library Services and Construction Act. The grant originally awarded to the Program funded the printing of a detailed training manual and the production of a training video. With these materials, Bookleggers learn storytelling skills and how to give their infamous booktalks, which are short summaries of stories that give away just enough information to entice students. Although grant funding ended in 1986, the Program continues to be funded by the Alameda Country Library.

The diversity of the Bookleggers keeps students guessing every year, since each has his or her own distinct way of entertaining classes. While some opt to use finger puppets, others choose to bring ash from Mount St. Helens! The creativity and dedication of the volunteers make each classroom visit a fun-filled time for students.

The name "Booklegger" came from a book, A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller. The story included characters called bookleggers, who smuggled books because they were in danger of becoming instinct. The Booklegger Program shares this idea of persevering books through an oral tradition.

Although the Program is always in need of more volunteers, the group manages to visit 300-350 classes each semester. They visit one third of the local elementary schools per semester, 7th graders in the fall, and 8th graders during spring. Their work has influenced other libraries and school districts to start their own programs based on the Booklegger Project. The Pleasanton Library has a Booklegger Program and the California Youth Authority in Sacramento had one as well, called Booklovers. Out-of-state libraries have recognized the effectiveness of the program too. The Multnomah County Library in Portland, Oregon runs a similar program called Books 2 U and the Beloit Public Library in Beloit, Wisconsin also has a Booklegger Program.

The Bookleggers will soon be holding a celebration of twenty years service to our community. The event is sponsored by the Booklegger Steering Committee and will include a few sample book talks and book presentations. The afternoon will also include testimonials from administrative staff, school staff, a library technician, a former student who will reminisce about a Booklegger visit to her class over 15 years ago and a few veteran Bookleggers.

This celebration is a great time to get in touch with Bookleggers and become a volunteer. Training starts February 5, 2005, so don't miss this great opportunity to promote the importance of reading alongside the Booklegger crew. Booklegger Director Gail Orwig states, "Our mission is to spread the joy of reading. We don't want books made into assignments. We want the kids to know that good books are out there."

The event will take place on November 6, 2004 from 2:00- 4:00 PM in Fukaya Rooms A & B at 2400 Stevenson Blvd, Fremont, Ca 94538. For more information, call the Children's Reference Desk at (510) 745-1421.

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