South Charlotte

Students’ love of libraries turns into a D.C. lobbying trip

Sen. Richard Burr, center, stands with the N.C. Library Ambassadors and library leaders from across the state and the N.C. Library Ambassadors including Katie Johnsen, front row, fourth from left, Felicite Hangyas, directly in front of Burr, his hands on her shoulders,)and Gillian Moore, to the right of Burr.
Sen. Richard Burr, center, stands with the N.C. Library Ambassadors and library leaders from across the state and the N.C. Library Ambassadors including Katie Johnsen, front row, fourth from left, Felicite Hangyas, directly in front of Burr, his hands on her shoulders,)and Gillian Moore, to the right of Burr. U.S. Senate Photographic Studio

Three students with an intense love of reading and libraries served as library lobbyists earlier this month, after entering a competition that culminated with an all-expenses-paid trip to meet with legislators in Washington, D.C.

Felicite Hangyas of Ballantyne Elementary, Katie Johnsen of Elon Park Elementary and Gillian Moore of Butler High School entered the N.C. Library Association competition this spring by submitting essays or videos demonstrating what libraries mean to them and to the future of North Carolina.

Forty-six students in kindergarten through 12th grade from across the state entered the competition, and nine were named official library ambassadors. They traveled to Washington, D.C., May 4-5, where they met with Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis and aides to the N.C. House of Representatives delegates. The House members were in their North Carolina districts that week.

This is the second year the N.C. Library Association has brought student ambassadorson its annual lobbying trip to Capitol Hill. Other library leaders included Charlotte-Mecklenburg library executive director Lee Keesler Jr.

“Youth are so genuine and so honest about things that are important to them. … We wanted to allow youth a voice to talk about what libraries mean to them,” said Anthony Chow, an assistant professor of library studies at UNC Greensboro who coordinated the program.

“We wanted it really unscripted, just to give (lawmakers) access to youth and allow (students) to tell them face to face the value of libraries.”

Funding for the state’s public libraries has been cut every year for the past 10 years, Chow said.

“The stereotype tends to be that reading is passe and it’s all about digital access,” Chow said. “But that’s not true among youth. Hard-copy books are still in favor.”

Chow said, his group also was trying to let legislators know that libraries are being used in many ways – offering Internet access, wide selections of books and other information services and programming for all ages.

Gillian, a freshman at Butler High School, said she was moved to enter the contest because of her passion for the role libraries play in communities, in addition to their role as a source of books and information.

Gillian said she got her first library card at age 3 and became a library volunteer at the Matthews Public Library as soon as she was old enough, helping run children’s programs, shelving books, and manning a booth for the library at the town of Matthews’ Earth Day festival.

“People don’t understand that the libraries are for more than books. They’re places for people to get involved in our community,” Gillian said.

Katie calls libraries magical, and said she carves out time in almost every school day to visit her school library.

She says she was excited to talk to lawmakers about why libraries are important and deserve more funding.

“It was really fun to share your own stories,” said Katie, a 10-year-old fourth-grader. “I talked about how my sisters are in kindergarten and second grade and how I’ve gotten to watch them experience learning to read for the first time. It was really cool.”

Felicite said she “really enjoyed learning how government works” while walking around the Capitol and meeting legislators and their staffs.

“I especially enjoyed meeting the senators. It was so cool to shake their hands and take pictures with them. And I enjoyed meeting the representatives’ aides,” she said. “We asked them to keep funding libraries.”

Felicite said she’s been crazy about reading ever since she learned to turn the pages of a book.

“When I was little, at night I used to ask my mom to turn on the light in the closet because I was scared of the dark,” she said. “But really I wanted to read all night.”

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