Seattle: America’s most literate city—again

It happened in 2005, it happened in 2006 and it almost happened in 2008. At the close of 2009 the title of America’s most literate city was awarded to Seattle once again. The Seattle Times reported this honor on Dec 23 when most of us were deep in holiday activity. This year, as we brace for the likely reduction in hours at many neighborhood branch libraries, we reflect on why Seattle so consistently wins this honor and how it benefits our community.

Dr. John W Miller, president of Central Connecticut State University, author of the most literate city survey, notes that top ranking cities also tend to perform highly in other quality of life measures including: most active singles scenes, safest, most walkable, and healthiest.

“Most literate cities” are  ranked by measuring 6 different factors: publications, newspapers, libraries, booksellers, internet resources and education. Each factor is examined in several ways. Library services are measured 4 different ways:

1. Number of branch libraries per 10,000 library service population
2. Volumes held in the library per capita of library service population
3. Number of circulations per capita of library service population
4. Number of library professional staff per 10,000 library service population

Please join us in keeping The Seattle Public Library strong. A strong library makes a difference in our personal lives, in our community and neighborhoods, and in our city’s well being.


The Seattle Public Library: A World Class Site — in More Ways Than One!

Thanks to a grant from the Friends, the Seattle Public Library expanded its web site earlier this year to include more information for its patrons who speak Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian, and to add information in Somali and Amharic.  To reach these new web pages, go the Library web site and see the Audiences column on the right hand side of the page.  The Library staff compared the number of Web pages that these audiences used from March 2008 – October 2008 versus March 2009 – October 2009, and were delighted to see significant increases in usage as follows:

Spanish:  2,003 to 9,761 web pages used

Chinese:  3,041 to 10,114 web pages used

Vietnamese:  1,038 to 8,168 web pages used

Russian:  1,364 to 8,632 web pages used

The Friends are able to make grants like these from donations, revenues from the FriendShop, and proceeds from the Book Sale, so we’d like to share these thanks with all of you who support the Friends and the Seattle Public Library:

Gracias a los Amigos de la Biblioteca Pública de Seattle por proporcionar los fondos para el sitio Web de la biblioteca en idioma español (Thank you to the Friends of The Seattle Public Library for providing the funds for the Library’s Spanish language Web site).

衷心感谢Friends of The Seattle Public Library为扩建图书馆中文网页提供经费。 (Thank you to the Friends of The Seattle Public Library for providing the funds for the Library’s Chinese language Web site).

 Xin cám ơn Thân Hữu của Thư Viện Công Cộng Seattle đã cung cấp ngân quỹ cho trang Web tiếng Việt của Thư Viện (Thank you to the Friends of The Seattle Public Library for providing the funds for the Library’s Vietnamese language Web site).

Благодарим Общество друзей Публичной Библиотеки Сиэтла за предоставление финансовых средств для веб-сайта Библиотеки на русском языке (Thank you to the Friends of The Seattle Public Library for providing the funds for the Library’s Russian language Web site).

Mahadsanid Saaxiibta Maktabada Dadweynaha ee Seattle bixinta kharashka lagu soo saaray horudhacan Maktabada (Thank you to the Friends of The Seattle Public Library for providing the funds for this introduction to the Library in the Somali language).

ለሲያትል የህዝብ ቤተ መጻፍት ጓደኞች ለዚህ የቤተ መጻህፍት ማስታወቂያ እርዳታ ገንዘብ ስላቀረቡ ምስጋናችንን እናቀርባለን። (Thank you to the Friends of The Seattle Public Library for providing the funds for this introduction to the Library in the Amharic language).

How the Mayoral and City Council Candidates Stack Up on Library Funding

For information on how the Seattle City Council candidates responded to our questions on Library budget issues, see the FSPL website for the 2009 edition of our newsletter.  

We didn’t receive responses from mayoral candidates Joe Mallahan and Mike McGinn in time for newsletter publication, but here’s a link to a Seattle Times article about their positions.

What the board was reading in August

Flower Hunters by Mary Gribbin and John Gribbin  Checked in at SPL


This book chronicles the adventures of 11 intrepid explorers who searched the world for extraordinary plants.  Details of their trips and the impact their findings had on science and our yards are told in a way that very much impressed one board member.


King Jesus by Robert Graves


Robert Graves uses his superb narrative powers, his painstaking scholarship, his wit and unsurpassed ability to recreate the past, to produce a magnificent portrayal of the life of Christ on earth. Long out of print, SPL does not have a copy.  (Description adapted from the publisherʼs note on Powellʼs Books which also says that it is a controversial book.)


The Mitford Years (Series) by Jan Karon  All but The Wedding Story are checked in at SPL


This is a series of novels about folks including Father Tim in a small town in the mountains of North Carolina.  It is so popular that there is a cookbook with recipes from this mythical town.  The first novel is At Home in Mitford others include A Light in the Window, A New Song, The Wedding Story, and Shepherds Abiding.  (Note that the SPL list of suggested books includes The Mitford Sisters written by Nancy Mitford.  These sisters are not like the residents of Mitford, N. C. but The Mitford Sisters is a good book.)


The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm by Juliet Nicolson Checked in at SPL


This is a lively social history of London and environs in the very hot summer of King George Vʼs coronation and labor strikes. Ms. Nicolson makes good use of papers and diaries of notable individuals including Queen Mary and Winston Churchill and also gives details of the life of the poor such as detailing the cost of a childʼs funeral.


The Redheaded Princess by Ann Rinaldi  Checked in at SPL


The author has written a number of other historical fiction novels for children, young adults and adults. This one tells the story of Queen Elizabeth starting when she was only 9 and a long way from next in line for the throne.  The story primarily concentrates on her time in exile. 


The Twilight Saga (series) by Stephenie Meyer


This series consists of four novels Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, and Breaking Dawn.  A teenage girl moves to Forks, WA and falls in love with a vampire.  The fourth book completes the story.  The series is extremely popular with all 4 books having many holds at SPL.


Wait Till Next Year by Doris Kearns Goodwin  Checked in at SPL


The author is known for her excellent American histories.  In this memoir, her focus is on childhood summers spent following the Boston Red Sox on the radio.  She tells how her love of the team facilitated a special connection to her father who was also a fan.





What the board was reading in July

Camel Bookmobile by Masha Hamilton c. 2007  checked-in at SPL

This is a wonderful description of an idealistic US librarian who goes to Kenya to start a bookmobile serving semi-nomadic groups.  There are serious issues of tradition vs the modern world and eager outsider bumping up against Kenyan bureaucracy.  Lots for a book group to discuss.

The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America by David Domke and Kevin Koe  c 2008  A few holds at SPL

The title give a good idea of the topic but does not convey how readible the book is.  From FDR to Bush II this book chronicles how polititians have used religion to appeal to voters.  This work is especially helpful as we hear from the current crop of candidates.

Quicksilver by Neil Stephenson c 2003  a few holds at SPL

Set in 17th c England, this novel involves three main characters:  a conflicted Puritan, a street urchin who became an adventurer and a spy who was rescued from a Turkish harem.  Sounds like a good one for the plane or the beach.

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln  by Doris Kearns Goodwin  c 2003 checked-in at SPL

This very readable history tells how Lincoln brought his opponants together to form the most unusual cabinet in the history of the US.  By involving men who were not his cronies, Lincoln got a team that did much to win the Civil War.

Stay Cool!

NPR Story Corps: Learning To Read

NPR Story Corps elicits the same reaction in me as an interviewee of Barbara Walters – I usually get misty. This story was no different. Here’s a bit from the website:

“Joe Buford, 63, has a high school diploma but kept a secret, even from his family: He couldn’t read.

“I could memorize things,” he says. “I call it drawing the words …. Nobody in my family really knew how bad it was with me and how hurt I was over it.”

Buford’s wife didn’t know about his reading problem until after they were married, he says.”

He goes on..

“Before Buford had children, he worried that “what was wrong with me would be passed on to my kids.” He was afraid they wouldn’t learn to read. “It just broke my heart,” he says.

He was terrified of the prospect of having to read to his young daughters. “

It never fails to amaze me how far people can get on such little education. This gentleman has gone through the education, medical, and tax systems not knowing how to read. He’s raised a family, held a job and gone through every day life with an over arching fear and shame that was finally lifted in his mid-60’s.

Definitely a testament to the “never too late” approach to self development, but also inspiring from a community perspective. Here was a volunteer who spent time with him, helped him learn, in an environment that was safe – in this case an adult literacy center in Nashville.

“I jumped up and ran through the house. It made me cry and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, it really is sinking in.'”

That is exactly how I felt (sans crying) when I first learned to read. So excited, so enthusiastic about learning – on my way to being a student of life and those around me.

To read more or listen to the program, click here

For a search on adult literacy at the SPL, click here as well as their literacy section.

There She Was Again…Another Glimpse of Nancy Pearl

From one of her biggest fans! (particularly moi, on the Friends Board) 🙂

My Day Today
Today, I had to take the car in to the mechanic and there was only one bright angle to that – I got to go into work late enough to hear Weekday on NPR – and guess who was kibitzing? Nancy Pearl, her latest happenings and a book list to boot. It was, in short, a little treat in my day.

In my best New York accent – I luv hah.

Nancy Pearl’s Adventures
She talked about her recent trip back east to do some library projects, but her excitement was around getting to be in the buildings featured in some of the stories of her childhood. How exciting is that?? How great would it be, if we could visit the house of Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, the actual Yoyodyne lab, or Ninja Turtle studio? Ok, so I just threw the Ninja’s in there for an age group I can’t identify, but it would be neat to reflect in a space that inspired the characters that inspired us as children.

Many author’s homes are open to the public. Edith Wharton’s Estate happens to be in question at the moment, but Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain – to name a few are still quite popular – not to mention the debt Canada owes L.M. Montgomery in tourism to PEI.

Nancy went on to talk about The Betsy-Tacy series, Maud Hart Lovelace (e.g., Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown, Betsy’s Wedding, Emily of Deep Valley) – and all the places she got to see and I have to confess, for a second I thought I was right there with her. Every time I hear her speak, her love for what she does beams through the radio – I hope to meet her one day.

Her recommendation to A Guidebook of Mankato Places aside (because it reminded me of a fact I try to hide: that I know all the trivia about all the episodes for Little House on the Prairie) I was pleased that this time, I had some inkling of many of the suggestions on her booklist – specifically A Soldier’s Heart by Gary Paulsen.

The Point of This Post
Nancy and the Weekday Host were discussing how the end of the cold war brought an end to great thrillers and spy novels as the clear enemy went away, moral gray areas with respect to espionage started to bring about most mysteries. The concept that resonated with me so profoundly, and one I would want to get an interesting dinner party together to talk about (Nancy of course would be invited, along with Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain, Terri Gross and other interesting people) was her questioning why The Soldier’s Heart didn’t perform as well in the market place as Reading Lolita In Tehran. They both deal with the same topic. Soldier’s was written by a civilian who teaches literature at West Point. The author talks about teaching literature to men and women who are going off to war in Iraq. It’s about the conjunction between literature and life and Lolita has a similar theme, a teacher teaching literature to a group of determined students in spite of oppression.

This is why I love Nancy Pearl and she makes the cut every time to the question “If you could invite 10 people to dinner, dead or alive, who would they be?”

Soldier’s highlights the historical influence West Point had on the Civil War as it was the only war where classmates from the same graduating class found themselves on opposite sides, and how divided the institution became as a result. I would add to Nancy’s observation my thoughts on Lolita from a lecture I attended by the author some years ago – which was standing-ovation-fantastic.

Lecture Overview on Azar Nafisi
Azar Nafisi came to Seattle in 2006 to promote her book. I was moved by her speaking and wondered how many people were truly able to empathize with her message given that no one in the audience has ever lost the right to read. Her main theme was intellectual freedom.

Reading Lolita in Tehran is, in part, a memoir focused around Nafisi’s experience in the mid-1990’s of leading a small group of Iranian women in reading and discussing classic works of English and American literature – works which were forbidden and considered decadent by the government.

Her theme addressed the importance (and loss) of imagination in the development of nations. She mentioned that without imagination, you will be deprived of other aspects of your life. This statement reminded me of Ben Franklin’s claim that he would rather lose all rights but the freedom of speech, through which he would win all the others back. Azar riffed on imagination as a theme citing phrases like: “imaginative knowledge”, “Curiosity is insubordination in the most innocent form” and referring to Tolstoy’s definition: imagination is looking at the world through “washed eyes.”

She learned at an early age that reading was a transportive act, giving her the ability to go anywhere. This freeing of the mind in times of oppression presented a place of freedom and connection with others. If one reads a lot, one carries the world with them. Twain, Flaubert, Dostoyesfsky, etc.

She went on to extrapolate her theme more broadly….looking at nations. “Home” (and one’s own nation) is a place to question and re-question. That one (implying “nations”) should question themselves or else they develop a smugness of someone comfortable and unchallenged. Every nation has something to be ashamed of. Every nation has the right to change and grow. That right should be a god given right.

Harriet Beecher Stowe did not have the right to read her own lectures when she was touring in the UK, her husband had to read them. – bc it was “the UKs culture at the time.” In the east, the death scene in Swan Lake is removed and Desdemona’s suicide is removed from Othello so it “doesn’t depress the people” yet they stone a woman to death “bc it is their culture.” Resignation to others’ plight is dangerous business.

People understand the importance of individual rights and individual integrity. If they quote literature it’s bc they tried to preserve the best humanity had to offer in a time when humanity was lacking. When people were deprived of everything and they were on the way to the gas chambers, they quoted Flaubert. The mind is the last frontier and cannot be conquered. Even when the oppressors have taken everything away, you have the choice of what attitude you adopt. It is a constant “no” to the banality of the totalitarian regime.

People see activism as separate from the experience of the mind. In the west, what threatens us is our sleeping consciousness. In order to have the ability to empathize, we need to produce works of imagination. She was critical for a moment, and it was most powerful when she went on to state that

“American values used to mean something real and concrete. Huck Finn ponders the question: should I give Jim up? He had been taught that to harbor a slave meant that you would go to hell. But he thought about Jim in the morning and Jim in the evening and Jim was his friend. Huck made a decision to help Jim – he was “going to hell.” American values meant the ability to make a tough decision by way of self analysis. Now….we sleep. Imagination (innovation, alertness) is the key to development (into maturity) and we risk losing it.”

Definately something to consider in response to Nancy’s question on book sales with respect to Soldier’s v Lolita. Maybe a little heavy for most dinner parties, but over your next cup of coffee perhaps.

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