imageIn 1966 Margaret McNamara, wife of the secretary of defense during the Vietnam War, volunteered as a reading tutor in Washington, D.C. She found the kids loved books as gifts. Figures. One of my biggest objections to DRM is that it interferes with true ownership, which increases people’s interest in books, be they paper or electronic.

Out of Mrs. McNamara’s informal efforts grew a program called Reading is Fundamental, now imperiled by the Bush administration even though Laura Bush once was on RIF’s advisory council and Barbara Bush even sat on the board of directors.

E as a way to make RIF even better

image“Since 1966, the program has distributed 325 million new books to more than 30 million mostly low-income children,” USA Today reported earlier this year. “Testimonials have come from entertainers and sports figures, such as Houston Rockets basketball star Juwan Howard, who was given books as a child. More than 140 publishers participate.”

Rather than cutting back RIF, the Bush administration should expand existing p-book efforts and cautiously experiment with an e-book component, aimed at reaching Net-era students who prefer to push buttons rather than flip pages.

I know. E-books sound barbaric to bibliophiles. But as told to me by a teacher who works with students from housing projects, many children actually pay more attention to E. Both approaches, please! Don’t cast off the existing literacy infrastructure. Build on it! E could help by increasing the variety of books which matched the kids’ interest. Why should E be different from P in that respect?

Just the right book for just the right kid

In fact, from the RIF site, here’s more on the history of the project, suggesting the value of just the right book for just the right child:

“The former teacher from California and wife of then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara concluded that the reading materials provided by their school were not appealing. She thought some of her son’s books might engage them more.

“So on a spring day in 1966, she filled a bag full of books and at the next tutoring session spread them on top of a desk. She told the children that they could each choose a book and take it home to keep. Their faces, full of excitement, made McNamara curious. She asked the boys if they had any books of their own. They said ‘no.’ These were, in fact, the first books the boys had ever owned.”

That rings oh so true to me. As a former poverty beat report, I can’t exactly recall having seen a surfeit of reading material in welfare mothers’ homes. Skeptics can say that’s because low-income people don’t like books, that there’s no cause-effect here. I’d disagree; just check out the evidence. Far from just doling out books, RIF works to see they’re actually read and can change lives.

Related: Items in Publishers Weekly and LISNews. I’m amazed by the number of anti-RIF posts that the LISNews item drew, especially those that glossed over the inequalities among local schools and libraries. Also see an excellent essay by Gigi Reynard of eBooks About—which helped fire me up to write the above. She suggests donating to RIF. What’s more, you can send off a note to protest the planned cutbacks.

Also of interest: Library books you can KEEP forever—and other ideas to help public libraries survive the digital era, as well as Next step for Big Read program? Why not get some modern classics online for free, TeleRead style?

And speaking of students:  A New York Times editorial mentioning digital textbooks as cost-reducers.

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  1. Hello David,

    Thank you for your 2008 article in support of RIF. I am making a short film biography about Margaret McNamara for the Tenth Mountain Hut Association. I have been trying to locate the original photo of Margaret McNamara with two children and a raccoon, which you included in your article. Do you know where I could find either the original photo, or a digital copy of the photo with a high resolution?

    Thank you for your assistance,

    Elizabeth Boyles

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