First Things First: First-Class Service for 1st Graders
On eight school-day mornings every September, school buses pull into the Selma–Dallas County (Ala.) Public Library every hour starting at 9 a.m., unloading 40–50 bubbling 1st graders. They line up excitedly outside the door and then head in for one of the library’s best programs for kids. “Welcome to Your Library” has been welcoming 1st-graders for eight years in an effort to bring reading into the homes of more than 700 boys and girls who have just started school.
The youngsters head up the steps to the Children’s Department, bright with primary colors—and enlivened with a hamster, an aquarium, stuffed animals, and animal posters. Preparation for the arrival of each 1st-grade class during National Library Card Sign-Up Month in September began weeks ago. Librarians worked with the class rolls, and each child’s first library card was readied for the big day.
Kids settle down and the big moment comes as the teacher calls out each name and every 1st grader receives a library card, a packet with information for parents about the library, GED information, community health tips, and information about special services available to the family.
The “combo” library card contains a “big card” and a “little card”—a keychain card that has been pre-tied onto a bright piece of lanyard string. Kids then sit in circles of six, with a big bowl of pony beads placed in the middle of the group. The brand-new library card–holders get to pick as many pony beads as they want to string on the necklaces.
When each one-hour session is over, 40 kids are wearing beautiful necklaces of assorted colors and are ready to head back to school to show off their new necklaces and cards. Before they leave the library, they get to see where their books are located and are enthusiastically encouraged to come back with family and friends.
“The more you read the more you know, the more you know the more you grow!” chant the boys and girls as they head down the steps.
Welcome to Your Library is one of the campaigns that reach the homes and families in the Black Belt region, part of a 16-county area in central Alabama. It is a coordinated effort between the library and the Selma City and Dallas County school systems. The result is an annual September blitz, timed to coincide with National Library Card Sign-up Month, that blankets Dallas County in library cards for 1st graders over the eight days it takes to ensure that each child gets to experience an hour-long celebration of their burgeoning literacy.
Thanks to an amazing busing schedule, the cycle moves like clockwork as the children in each class arrive, make their necklaces, hear about the library, get energized to “come back soon!”—and then line up to leave as the bus pulls in with another 40 kids.
Dallas County, where the library is located, faces challenges common to the region, including poor education, lack of jobs, teen pregnancies, high infant mortality, and other social issues. The library prioritizes developing programs, building resources, and cultivating partnerships that will reach these at-risk families.
While other children’s programs at our library cast a wider net, Welcome to Your Library specifically targets every 1st grader in the county, providing the transportation that brings each and every one of them to the library for a welcome visit and their first library card.
BECKY COTHRAN-NICHOLS is the director and children’s coordinator of the Selma–Dallas County (Ala.) Public Library.