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Grant money to help expand diversity of texts at two East Aurora libraries

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Updated: April 1, 2014 10:08AM

AURORA — The librarians at East Aurora High School and Simmons Middle School have been weeding out texts they call “when you get to the moon books” since they started working in their schools three years ago.

It’s a reference to books about space exploration that predate the 1969 manned lunar mission, but also is a metaphor for the many out-of-date — and sometimes culturally insensitive — books that Mary Spevacek and Kathryn Spindler have had to pull from their shelves lately.

But that will be changing soon.

This month Spevacek and Spindler found out they are the recipients of a $5,000 grant from the Illinois State Library.

They plan to use that money to update their libraries to better reflect the interests and demographics of East Aurora students and to purchase texts that are more current and culturally diverse for high school world literature and middle school folklore units.

According to state records, East Aurora was the only local school district to win money from a pot of $500,000 in federal dollars.

“For us this is enormous,” said Spindler, who works at Simmons. “We work very, very hard to get new books whenever we can, and it can be very challenging.”

The librarians will split the grant evenly and said they can purchase around 170 books for each of their collections with the money.

The grant will boost East High’s budget for purchasing books, magazines and online subscriptions by about 42 percent — Spevacek said she was working with $6,000 this school year before the money came through. For Spindler, the grant means an increase of more than four times her average book acquisition budget of around $600 a year.

District spokesman Matt Hanley noted that libraries also receive some money for supplies and technology through building funds and the central office.

Spevacek and Spindler said there are relatively few grants dedicated to beefing up a library’s book count, so this is a rare infusion of cash.

According to their grant proposal, the funds will help the librarians “create a cross-cultural experience that extends beyond the ‘super white’ nature of the present collections.”

“A lot of our collections, they were created at a time that it was just simply a different population,” Spindler said.

The majority of her collection at Simmons, she said, dates back to the 1970s. When she started her job, she had a book about Martin Luther King Jr.’s life that predated his assassination and her sole book on jazz musicians — which she took off the shelf — was called “Negro Music Makers.”

Classics stand the test of time, Spindler said, but her library sorely needs updated fiction. In recent years, she said, more fiction has been written that features Latino, African-American and female protagonists, as well as more real-world stories.

She needs more geography and folklore books too, Spindler said. Her library has a strong Greek and Roman myth section, but little on Native American, Aztec, Mayan or African traditions. She also wants more nonfiction texts to support the classics.

“This year the eighth-graders are reading ‘Of Mice and Men’ and we had very little that was on migrant workers, and that is a very important part of both that book and the individual history of many of our students,” Spindler said.

At East High, Spevacek found more than 200 “old white lady” books, often that featured a divorced protagonist with adult children living in an all-white world.

Books like those are not relevant or interesting to students, Spevacek said.

“Our demographics are such that we need a Hispanic fiction collection so that it will appeal to the students,” she said.

Spevacek plans to purchase more young adult books with Latino characters and plots, which can be used for independent reading as part of the high school’s new world literature collection. She also plans to buy more books that feature African, Middle Eastern and Asian stories to broaden students’ horizons.

The grant is coming at a good time, Spevacek and Spindler said. The new Common Core State Standards place emphasis on research and primary source analysis in high school and on novels and literature circles in middle school, so the new books will help students prepare to meet those standards.

Part of the reason the libraries have fallen so behind the times, Spevacek and Spindler said, is that for a long time — five years at East High and 11 years at Simmons — a certified librarian was not staffing the collections. Both women hold master’s degrees in library and information science.

“The hardest part of being a librarian is collection development,” Spindler said. “That’s where all of our training kicks in.”

Every East Aurora school has at least a teacher’s aide assigned to the library full-time, Hanley said, but all schools do not have degreed librarians.

Before Spevacek and Spindler purchase books, they plan to involve teachers and students by asking them what titles they’d like to see in the library. East High will form a teen advisory group in April to make recommendations and distribute surveys to gather student input.

The librarians also will be talking to students and teachers about the books once they arrive — to hype them up — and creating displays with students’ help to make sure the books circulate.

And of course, they’ll be making personal recommendations to students who they know will enjoy the new titles.

“We’ll end up knowing the personal reading habits of tons and tons of kids,” Spindler said. “If you come in and say you want something romantic and sad but no one has diseases, I can say ‘OK I can do that.’”

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