Thursday, January 12, 2012

New children's librarian resorts to sneaky tactics

Photo by Rindi White
Katie Schweisthal is the new children's librarian at Palmer Public Library.

Encouraging reading and library patronage among all ages takes wearing a lot of different hats, from story reader and crafter to party organizer and good listener.

Katie Schweisthal, the new children’s librarian at Palmer Public Library, wears those hats and more in her new role. The most important one, she said, is literacy booster.

“Literacy has always been near to my heart,” she said, adding that her goal is to make reading silly and fun.

Fun, yes, but silly?

That’s the ace up her sleeve, Schweisthal said. Take the concept of rhyming. What could be more boring than doing rhyming drills with a premade list of words? But sitting in a circle with a group of kids and having each come up with a word that rhymes with the one the last person said – in no time the whole circle has dissolved into laughter.

“They kind of forget they’re learning. It may be a kind of sneaky approach to teaching some things,” Schweisthal said.

But if it works and the children are left with positive memories of their time at the library, so much the better.

Schweisthal hails from Minnesota originally and said she’s a “hardcore library kid” who spent a lot of time at her local library. She has a degree in international studies and a second in German studies. The move to Alaska was prompted by a natural restlessness driven in part by her background in international studies. Her boyfriend (now husband) is a teacher and was being courted by the Anchorage School District, she said.

“Neither of us had been here to visit but we wanted an adventure. We took a leap of faith and moved. It turned out to be a great adventure,” she said.

That was six years ago. They originally moved to Anchorage, where Schweisthal worked in the training department of Hope Community Resources, Inc. The couple recently moved out to the Valley and Schweisthal did some substitute teaching around the Valley. She said she was able to sub in some library positions, which helped her get back into the library mode.

When longtime Palmer children’s librarian Candy Kopperud retired in August, Schweisthal stepped into the position.

Following in the footsteps of a well-loved librarian could have been daunting but Schweisthal said Kopperud helped her adjust and encouraged her to make the position her own. She said she’s felt welcomed and supported by library staff and others as she’s taken the reins in the new job.

Schweisthal helped pilot a program for teens over Christmas break that aimed to make the library more fun. Basically, the idea is just providing a teen lounge where they can play games, do homework and just hang out with their friends. It was prompted by the teens themselves, she said.

“They wanted a place where they can be with their friends and not be shushed, not have librarians be on their cases,” she said.

So from 2-4 p.m. in the afternoons, the library meeting room turns into a teen lounge, equipped with a flat-screen television, a Nintendo Wii and some PG-rated games, board games and other items. Laptops can be checked out for group homework – something prohibited in the confines of the regular library, where the rule is one person per laptop.

Schweisthal also coordinates other programs, from the baby lap-sit program for tots under two years old, to the two-year-old and the three-to-five year old reading and crafts groups. She arranges the Foreign Film Society, where foreign films are shown on Fridays at 7 p.m. (this week’s film is “The Protektor”, which Schweisthal said is great) and supervises the lights-out program for middle-schoolers. There, pre-teens pick a book to read, then come to the library one evening a month. The windows are blacked out, the lights are out and the kids read by flashlight, then have a break for discussion, games and food, and then more reading.

In February, she said the library will be kicking off a high-school book club. Schweisthal said she envisions it being more like a typical book club, where the book is read outside the library and then discussed. But ultimately, how the group is structured will be up to the teens that take part, she said.

“I’m really excited to see what they do with it,” she said.

The reading programs are free and open to anyone in the appropriate age group. For more information, check out the “Library events/programs” page at

Schweisthal said her goal is to get kids to feel good about reading and comfortable at the library. 

“I want it to feel like it’s a fun place to come,” she said. “It can just be a place for them to come and be kids and do what they want to do.”

-- Rindi White

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