Bound for Books: Librarian Jackie Caverly reaches out to the next generation of readers

It’s a sunny, breezy Saturday afternoon — a perfect play day, but it might be the only time a young father can bring his toddler son to the library. “Let’s get some books, and we’ll sit down here and read,” the parent proposes. “No!” says the little boy in alarm. “I don’t want to read!”

Seated at the next table, a young woman laughs — very quietly, as befits a librarian. She’s Jackie Caverly, manager of the San Pedro branch of the San Antonio Public Library, where the father and son are browsing the children’s department. “We don’t say ‘Shh!’ anymore,” she says softly, watching as the boy and his father settle down with a stack of bright picture books.

The branch across from San Antonio College is one of the smallest in the public- library system, but it’s a historically significant one. Located in San Pedro Park, the nation’s second-oldest public park, the library was established in 1929 as the SAPL’s first branch.

Caverly, by contrast, became the system’s youngest branch manager two years ago at age 28. While interviewing her for the position, an administrator asked Caverly what she thought would be her greatest challenge. “My age,” she said promptly, realizing that she would be supervising staffers 20 or more years her senior. Thanks to her go-getter history of previous advancement and committee memberships, Caverly got the manager’s job anyway. Fortunately, she says, “There has never been a problem with staff (respecting her authority).”

Because San Pedro is a small branch, Caverly says, “I don’t spend much time sitting at a desk. I’ve done every job here except the custodian’s.” The petite blond manager checks out books, places interlibrary loan requests, catalogs new items and answers reference queries. “Sometimes people think I’m a circulation attendant,” she says. “A university student came in once to do a survey for a class. He asked me some questions and then asked, “Is your manager in?’ When I told him, “I’m the manager,’ he was a little embarrassed.”

A children’s librarian by background, she started her professional career at the SAPL’s Ed Cody branch in 2001, after earning her master’s degree in library science from the University of Texas at Austin. Working at the busy Cody branch — with the highest circulation in the city — was a “trial by fire,” Caverly says. Luckily, the library’s then-manager, Meta Chicka, was “the best in the system,” a skillful manager who encouraged independent thinking and served as a model for Caverly’s own management style. “I want to be a leader,” she says of her present role. “Good leaders surround themselves with smart people.”

Her staff works smoothly as Caverly takes time out to talk about the big idea that’s about to transform the small branch. San Pedro library will close this summer for renovations and reopen next year as the SAPL’s first Children’s Resource Center. Like the introduction of branch libraries more than 75 years ago, this new concept will bring new services to the community. One of only a few such facilities nationwide, the center will provide resources to encourage early literacy.

“This is so important in San Antonio,” says Caverly, citing a recent study that places the city 64th in adult literacy rates. Though the San Pedro branch will remain a neighborhood library, with a small popular adult collection, its main focus will be on getting young children ready to read. “Kids need (pre-reading) skills before they hit kindergarten,” says Caverly, who worked as a preschool librarian during graduate school. “If they don’t get them at home or in day care, they’re behind when they start school.”

The center will tap other related resources, starting with the SAPL’s own Little Read Wagon program, whose early-childhood literacy experts will train Caverly during the construction period. The Head Start program and SAC’s Early Childhood Development Center also will be partners for the ambitious project.

A Web site and plenty of on-site computers are part of the plan. “Families can’t get to reading until their other needs are met,” she says. “We want to be a clearinghouse, so parents can come to us for information on how to get services for their children. For instance, if a child has speech problems, where can he go for therapy? As librarians, we don’t have all the answers, but we know where to go to find them.”

This kind of role is “part of a bigger picture of what a library is and does,” says Caverly, who started library work as a college student in the 1990s and already has seen many changes. “There’s an argument that we don’t need brick-and-mortar libraries in the future, because everything will be on the Internet,” she says. “But access to the Internet isn’t free, and we’ll still be providing that.”

She’s also skeptical about the projected demise of the printed book, commenting, “In my lifetime, we’ve gone from magnetic tape to not being able to get parts for tape players, from (recordings on) CDs to MP3 files.” You can’t take a downloadable e-book to the beach, she points out: “There’s the glare from the sun, and sand in the keyboard.” And on a rainy day, “You want to snuggle up with a good book, not your computer.” Gesturing toward the book-filled stacks of San Pedro”s children”s department, Caverly says, “These are still here. You cannot replace books.”

Similarly, while her own branch will be reconfigured for its new role, it won’t be changed beyond recognition. The renovation will enhance accessibility for people with disabilities and add study and meeting spaces. Because San Pedro Park is an archaeological site, its namesake library can’t build any additions at the rear of the building, but that leaves space for other kinds of development. “I’d like to do something with that space behind the library,” says Caverly, suggesting an amphitheater for outdoor performances and landscaping with native Texas plants for teaching children about gardening.

She’s a plant person herself, starting with container gardening. For years, she says, “I hauled 25 pots of plants to each new apartment until I finally built a house. Now, if I’m not at work, I’m at home, reading or gardening.” She got more serious about her hobby a few years ago, when she entered the Bexar County Master Gardeners program. To become certified with the gardening program, Caverly took a 12-week course and completed 50 hours of volunteer service.

Since then, she has volunteered at the San Antonio Botanical Center, made school visits and taken part in the organization’s presentations at various events. She’s also turned to xeriscaping — landscaping with native plants that don’t need much water — “because I wanted low-maintenance plants, and because it’s such a big thing in San Antonio.”

From Minnesota originally, Caverly chose the University of Texas for graduate school because she had many relatives in Texas, “and none of them ever moved back,” she says, laughing. A graduate of he small, private St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn. — “the one with the famous choir, but no, I can’t sing” — she was an English major with a minor in linguistics. When she first sent away for gradschool information, in one university’s catalog, she noted that library science was just above linguistics; on a whim, she sent for information on both programs. When it came, she opened the library-science packet first. As she read, she says, “I was thinking, “This is it. I knew there was something else I wanted to do.'”

Not only had Caverly worked in libraries through college, she grew up with books. “I’m a reader because of my mother,” she says. Caryl Caverly, now a school nurse, read aloud to her children from classics such as Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. Later, when her two daughters were in middle school, she’d drive them to their suburban branch library on Saturday afternoons.

Caverly’s drive to excel, she says, comes from her father, Scott Caverly. “He’s a Type A personality,” she explains, remembering a family trip during which he played two 18-hole rounds of golf a day at the famous St. Andrew’s course in Scotland.

In high school, Caverly competed in individual sports such as tennis and gymnastics, “but I really pushed myself with grades.” After graduating at the top of her class, she found she had to push even harder at St. Olaf, “which was much more difficult, since everybody had been best in their class.” There was some culture shock when she moved from a college with about 2,300 students to graduate school at a university serving more than 50,000. “When I went to my first UT football game, it was unbelievable,” she says, laughing. “At St. Olaf, nobody got in on football scholarships, and the football field was also the (running) track.”

While the quality of “Minnesota nice” is famous, Caverly says, “Texans think they’re nice too.” It’s a difference in degree, she suggests: “Minnesotans don’t know how not to be nice to strangers, but it’s a cordial kind of niceness. Texans are more welcoming.”

As a member of the Texas Bluebonnet committee, Caverly also is helping young Texans learn more about the wider world. Last year, she was chosen for a three-year term to represent District 10 in the Texas Library Association’s prestigious children’s book awards program. Caverly reviews more than 250 books, “and they”re all on my living room floor,” she jokes. Books must be suitable for readers in grades 3 through 6, and authors must be American or living at least part-time in this country.

The committee’s choice of books is important — to readers as well as publishers — because Bluebonnet books are bought by most Texas libraries and used in many school reading programs. When buying copies of award books puts a strain on school-library budgets, Caverly says, “The public library can help out. For years, we’ve had a partnership between the city and (local) schools. They can still assign books from the Bluebonnet program, having students read them over the summer, so the school doesn’t have to buy all the titles on the list.”

Caverly advocates summer reading for children of all ages. Before she became a branch manager, Caverly was Children’s Unit manager at the SAPL’s Central Library, where she was previously a children’s librarian and member of the system’s Summer Reading Program Committee. “It’s so important that students keep reading over the summer,” she says.

To spark a child’s interest in reading, Caverly recommends that parents stay flexible. “Reading needs to be enjoyable,” she says. “Don’t force a young child to sit in your lap with a big picture book. Their ears are still open even if they’re walking around. You’re still filling their heads with vocabulary.” While experts recommend reading aloud 20 minutes a day, she says, “It’s OK to break that up into 10 minutes twice a day, maybe in the afternoon and before bed. You want to associate reading with a pleasurable experience.”

Similarly, while parents might prefer to see their children reading revered classics and challenging contemporary books, any reading is better than none at all. “I believe the best books for children are the ones they read,” she says. Though adults may grit their teeth at the silly naughtiness of Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants series or the umpteenth volume of the fictionalized adventures of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olson, there may be a period where these books are the ones their children want. Even reading favorite books over and over is OK: “If they’re reading Harry Potter for the 16th time, they’re still reading,” says Caverly.

Some reluctant readers — usually boys — may need to be steered to much lesserknown books. For a lot of children, nonfiction may be the way to go, based on interests. She elaborates, “When a parent tells me, “I can’t get my son to read,’ I’ll ask them, “What does he like?’ Not long ago, we had a boy who liked BMX bikes. I sent him home with some books about them, and he read every one.”

As the San Pedro branch moves forward to becoming a Children’s Resource Center, Caverly is more than comfortable with the transition. “I adore working with kids,” she says enthusiastically. “They’re so nonjudgmental, so thankful for everything you do for them. And where else can you work with crayons, glitter and glue and get paid to do it?”

Children’s services are not only a rewarding side of library work, but may be less stressful, “No kid has ever said to me, “My tax dollars pay your salary,'” Caverly says wryly. Inevitably, branch managers are the recipients of complaints — such as those from patrons who object to the parking meters in the San Pedro lot. When she’s not available to field complaints herself, Caverly says, “I remind our staff, “Something may already have given that patron a bad day. Don’t take it home with you.'”

Besides getting rid of those pesky parking meters — and, yes, she has talked to city officials about the issue — Caverly has a wish list. From children’s book authors, she’d like to see more bilingual, Spanish/English books and “a great book set in San Antonio during Fiesta.” She’d also like to see the Children’s Resource Center become “a showcase, with other (cities’) libraries coming to us and using it as a model.” And as a member of a new generation of librarians, she hopes more people her age and younger will come into the field. “There is a lot of potential for us in this profession,” she says.

In her personal life, she’d like to marry and rear young readers of her own. Remembering an encounter in the Atlanta airport, where she explained why she was reading a lapful of picture books, she says, “I think some men may be intimidated by my intelligence.” Though she doesn’t require an advanced degree, she says, “I like intellectual men. I don’t like intellectual snobs.”

Despite her own professional success and constant-reader status, Caverly practices what she preaches. She belongs to an all-women’s book club, where the talk recently turned to which fictional characters the members would like to be. While others chose such sterling role models as Elizabeth Bennett in Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice, Caverly picked Stephanie Plum, the Jersey-girl bounty hunter in Janet Evanovich’s comedy mystery series. “She has a lot of fun and two gorgeous guys (in love with her),” Caverly says, shrugging. “What’s not to like?”

Author: Paula Allen

Photographer: Janet Rogers

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