The 2-year-old children’s library in the Elizabethtown Town Hall has become a victim of its own success.
Instead of lending books, library volunteers give away the hardcovers and paperbacks, made available to the estimated 80 elementary school children in the southeast Bartholomew County community.
The strategy is an effort to increase literacy in Elizabethtown, where only 58 percent of adults have graduated from high school.
“We want to get those books in the home to stay,” said Patty Unrue, a library volunteer and retired teacher. “Hopefully, they will have someone to read to them, or they’ll eventually read the books themselves.”
While the one-room library is open only four hours a week, up to 20 children typically show up during library hours Saturday morning or Monday afternoon, volunteer Rebecca Barnett said.
Although town leaders are delighted that up to a quarter of all Elizabethtown elementary school kids come to the public library, demand for the free books is exceeding supply, Barnett said.
“We already gave away 500 this year, and the shelves are pretty bare at the point,” she said.
Community leaders such as Barnett’s husband, town council member Fred Barnett, hope that families and service clubs throughout Bartholomew County will donate new and used books that their children have outgrown.
Census figures indicate that nearly a quarter of Elizabethtown’s 400 residents live in poverty.
“In a number of ways, Elizabethtown can be considered impoverished, and many of these children experience difficult home lives,” Unrue said. “With this library, we’re trying to keep the kids away from bad influences, help improve their grades and guide them toward a better life.”
There is a strong link between developing a love of reading at an early age and academic success later in life, said Unrue, who retired as a Rockcreek Elementary School teacher.
“It’s very critical to teach that love of reading at an early age,” she said.
People in the community have bought into the library plan.
For example, the renovation of the town hall at 100 West St., where the library is located, was carried out with an all-volunteer crew of laborers.
While hundreds of books initially were donated by the Hartsville and Scipio United Methodist churches, most of the books were obtained as a result of conversations between friends, Unrue said.
More recently, a grant obtained through the Buchanan-Clements Family Foundation enabled the library to replace 15-year-old computers with new, child-safe workstations, Barnett said.
Since many of the kids in Elizabethtown don’t have computers at home, they come to the library to practice the keyboard skills they need in today’s society, said Kay Barwick, grandmother of two boys who visit the library regularly.
The library is also a place where a child can get help with schoolwork, Barwick said.
Her 11-year-old grandson, Dalton, whom she describes as an avid reader, also enjoys helping the younger kids complete their homework assignments.
But most of the kids enjoy the fact that they get to take home a book of their very own, she said.
“They are so thrilled, and you can see a vast improvement in the children coming down there now. A lot of these kids probably never thought about going to a library before we opened this one,” Barwick said.
“The library has really improved a lot,” said 9-year-old Brady Barwick. “I like Miss Rebecca (Barnett) on Saturday best because she has better treats, but I like coming on Mondays, too.”
But Barnett said she feels that, if one person deserves more credit than others for motivating children to read in Elizabethtown, it’s Unrue.
“She’s like a magnet for children,” she said. “After Miss Patty got involved the children began flocking to (the library).”
Under Unrue’s guidance, the library initiated a ‘read a book, get an ice cream’ incentive this summer. Throughout the year, she and other volunteers use crafts to help children celebrate items for holidays and special occasions.
When Elizabethtown children come to the library, they can count on having their birthdays recognized with a card, homemade cookies or other special treat.
“They just need one-on-one attention,” Unrue said about the children. “I think the key is that we’re there for them, and they know they are going to be accepted, no matter what.”
Books aren’t the only thing in short demand at the Elizabethtown library. More volunteers are being sought through the United Way of Bartholomew County’s Volunteer Action Center to provide the individual attention that children in the community need, Unrue said.
If enough help is secured for their current hours of 4 to 6 p.m. Mondays and 10 a.m. to noon Saturdays, the library will consider expanding its hours to other days of the week, Barnett said.