“Read for kids!” Interview with Goda Baranauskaitė-Dangovienė, head of the Children’s and Youth Literature Department of the National Library of Lithuania

This material first appeared on the Library Portal on January 16, 2023, in Latvian. I interviewed Goda Baranauskaitė-Dangovienė as an editor of the media, which is run by the Library Development Centre at the National Library of Latvia. For the material to be available in English as well, I’m re-posting it on the Sea Library’s website.

On December 7 and 8, 2022, the International Early Reading Forum was held at the Martynas Mažvydas National Library of Lithuania in Vilnius (parallel to the sessions of the seminar dedicated to young people’s reading habits “Breaking boundaries – searching for identities” right here in Latvia). Researchers and specialists in children’s reading habits and children’s literature from Lithuania and other countries participated. Presentations, discussions, and educational activities aimed to bring together not only professionals but also the community of existing and future parents and share best practices, advice, and international research findings. Guests from the Office of the President, the Ministries of Culture and Education, Science and Sports and UNESCO also spoke about the importance of early reading.

Reading is important at all ages. At the Early Reading Forum, lecturers mentioned that reading books helps to understand the world, the reader learns new things, questions arise and a dialogue develops. In addition, reading is different at each age stage – it develops along with the reader, and it has different forms and manifestations. At the forum, it was mentioned that children are also reading information on the popular site TikTok. The TikTok platform was also mentioned several times in the seminar “Breaking boundaries – searching for identity” organized by the Library Development Center of the National Library of Latvia, which shows that young people are reading (it doesn’t matter that they may not prefer to read as many books as librarians, parents or teachers would like). Reading is a wonderful journey that begins in the family and must be present throughout the entire life.

The Early Reading Forum is an annual event organized by the Martynas Mažvydas National Library of Lithuania that seeks to assemble a community of Lithuanian and international researchers, educators, and other experts able to professionally promote a credible message on the benefits of early reading. The event is meant for parents, future parents, and experts working with the reading education of toddlers – librarians, and experts in formal and non-formal education.

“We have started talking about early reading very recently,” says Goda Baranauskaitė-Dangovienė, head of the Children’s and Youth Literature Department of Martynas Mažvydas National Library of Lithuania, in an interview with the Latvian Libraries portal. However, she chooses to see reading habits among local children, teens, and also their parents as a cup half-full instead of a half-empty. She highlights successes, and noteworthy projects (including the “Book Start” initiative, which you will learn more about in the conversation), and sees great potential for the future.

Right now, Goda Baranauskaitė-Dangovienė is initiating a study of demands by Lithuanian librarians and educators regarding children’s and youth literature and the preparation of methodological aids. The study’s purpose is to investigate what information related to children’s and youth literature Lithuanian professionals involved in the reading habits of children and young people are lacking as well as to prepare the required methodological aids which would help solve this problem. The demand arose after it was observed that specialists, especially educators at preschool establishments, are not consistently provided information on these issues. 

Goda Baranauskaite-Dangoviene’s professional interests include not only early reading habits but also modern teenage literature, to which she once devoted her bachelor’s and master’s theses – while studying philology, as well as anthropology and culture at Vilnius University. In the interview, however, she admits that “it is not easy to solve this riddle of understanding what is interesting for adolescents”.

The editorial board of the Library Portal is grateful to Goda Baranauskaitė-Dangovienė for her willingness to dedicate her time and introduce the audience of Latvian librarians to the reading habits of children and young people in our neighboring country, Lithuania.

Goda Baranauskaitė-Dangovienė. Photo from her personal archive

Tell our readers more about yourself: what made you choose this career path?

I grew up with books, so it‘s no wonder I chose to study literature. And as for children‘s literature, I became interested in it as a subject at the very beginning of my studies. I was fascinated by the lectures of Kęstutis Urba, the foremost researcher of children’s literature in Lithuania. His lectures inspired me to pursue a career in this field. In my bachelor’s and master’s thesis, I researched adolescent literature. When I started working at the National Library, I dove into the topic of reading as well, studying issues that occur from birth to the teen years. Even though I have not had as much experience, I believe it was my curiosity, passion, and wonderful colleagues that brought me to this point.

One of your theses was about literature for urban teens. What did you find out?

You‘re probably asking about the subject of my master’s thesis – I researched Lithuanian adolescent literature books where the city played an important role. I concluded that there is a city discourse in Lithuanian adolescent literature and that it is centered on our capital city, Vilnius. The city here is not an accidental background or object, but rather a character itself and it has an influence on a teenager’s life, and vice versa.

What world examples of how libraries work with the young generation inspire you?

First of all, I am inspired by people who believe in what they do and by institutions or countries that trust these people and give them the tools to continue their work. Everywhere I have been, it is not a particular project or activity that comes first, but rather the memory of whoever is behind them – the person who believes in the importance of reading and the reader’s education. However, of course, concrete examples are very important, because we learn through them, and they are the reason why we try to establish international relations.

How would you describe the situation of children reading habits in Lithuania?

In Lithuania, in regard to reading, the mood is much more pessimistic, especially when talking about teenagers, but I choose to see the cup as half-full instead of half-empty. The reading situation of schoolchildren is not that bad, mainly when talking about primary school children, although, as a study conducted by our department has shown recently, 8th and 9th graders experience serious reading issues. However, the studies also show that the most significant influence on children’s reading habits is the child’s home environment. This is why I think we can be much happier after our latest early reading survey, which shows that the early reading situation in Lithuania has improved when compared to 2015. At the time, more than 70 percent of parents claimed they did not read to their children at all, but last year’s results showed that more than half of all parents read to their children every day. I believe we will see a generation of kids that will read even more, and I am very happy that we, the librarians, had some influence over it.

Why is it important for kids to regularly read books from an early age?

The first few years of a child’s life are crucial; the more meticulous and diligent we, the adults, are in helping children acquire the necessary skills, the higher their achievements will be in the future. In this timeframe, the child’s linguistic environment is extremely important. Reading and books are a great way to ensure that this environment is rich and diverse, which helps develop their brains. An enormous amount of research shows that children who were read to from birth are much more successful in every way when they are older. In addition, reading from the very beginning facilitates a special bond between the parents and their children, and helps them feel safe and loved. Reading is likely to be an important and interesting activity for these children as they grow older; after all, they have been doing it since birth. So don’t we want our children to be happy and successful? Read for kids!

How involved are Lithuanian families in early reading?

The early reading project “Book Start” initiated by the National Library and financed by the Ministry of Culture has been going for a year now and is operational in all of Lithuania. Every family with a newborn receives a bag with his or her first book, tips on reading for parents, and his or her first library card. Therefore, every family in Lithuania at least has the opportunity to acquaint themselves with the benefits of early reading and its best practices. I also mentioned that we see a lot of progress in this field – parents are actually beginning to understand why early reading is as important as it is. I am glad that parents who read for their children do it for 20 minutes on average; that is a pretty good result. Although there are still some critical issues: many parents do not begin reading to their children until they are at least one year old, and fathers do not devote enough time to it.

We are very happy with how engaged parents are in social media – “Book Start” has an Instagram account, where we seek to attract even more parents. We get a lot of interest in competitions and various live talks; the project is tagged often.

How do family and environment impact the reading habits of kids and teens?

As I mentioned, the home environment is the most important factor when talking about children’s reading habits. Children whose parents read themselves, who keep books at home (books that they find interesting as well), are more likely to be interested in books too. It’s very important that parents show interest in the books that their children read; that they talk about them, ask what they liked and didn’t like about them, what was most interesting about them, and so on. And would never criticize their point of view for any reason. The child then slowly gains self-confidence as a reader, and reading is therefore associated with positive experiences. Of course, other environments exhibit influences as well – school, friends, and such. It can both strengthen and weaken interest in books, but either way, if a strong foundation is laid at home, we can expect that the child will grow up to be a reader.

How involved are Lithuanian libraries in enhancing early reading?

Recently, we conducted a survey of Lithuanian libraries where we tried to find out the libraries’ views on and expectations towards early reading promotion. We were very happy that libraries defined themselves as institutions responsible for dealing with early reading issues – they are actively involved in early reading promotion. Of course, some of them have also expressed that they lack the appropriate means and information to do so, which is why the National Library’s goal is to do as much as we can to close this gap.

Are there special library events for families? How often do you see dads as visitors and participants in these events?

In the aforementioned survey, we also wanted to find out how often the libraries themselves organize activities for families with small children. We visited our colleagues more frequently before the pandemic and saw what each library did more clearly, but this background knowledge has been significantly reduced for several years now. After the survey, we realized that there was no shortage of activities meant for the youngest children in Lithuanian libraries (clubs, educational activities, family gatherings, etc.), and most of them were inspired by “Book Start” – we are very happy about it. So we do have a good supply of activities for families with babies in Lithuanian libraries, and we hope they will only grow in number – it is one of our goals.

We can claim that a father’s role in a child’s education in Lithuania, as well as in the whole world, has certainly increased. And in comparison to previous years, it is now much more likely to see a father with a child at an event or any other kind of activity. However, it is still a relatively uncommon sight, which is why we must continue to emphasize the importance of involving fathers in their children’s upbringing. 

What local early reading success stories or projects would you love to highlight?

Even though I mentioned that we already have activities related to early reading, we have started talking about early reading only quite recently, so we can’t really highlight any major projects – the biggest one yet is “Book Start”. Maybe I could take the chance to highlight one aspect that I consider a success story within the project. When we were looking for the first book to add to the gift bag, we organized a competition and invited artists to send manuscripts of their own unpublished books. We received dozens; it was very difficult to choose. However, we are very happy that the other manuscripts were published by publishing houses, so we feel as though we had significant input in promoting these types of books within the market by Lithuanian authors – we had little of them before.

How close and successful is the collaboration with school libraries?

It‘s very sad, but I have to admit that school libraries in Lithuania are left out on the margins. Often, school libraries are simply the place where pupils come to take books they have to read according to the school’s literary program. Frequently, there are no librarians who can devote enough time to it – for example, books are often given by art teachers. Also, the school library collections are very poor, and they lack focused and sufficient funding. It’s a problem that must be solved.

What are the biggest gaps, what do librarians need the most to work with kids?

I am not a practitioner, which is why I probably could not answer this question as a librarian, but from my point of view, I can see that sharing knowledge and experience is most effective in filling gaps. That is why we want to bring back as much foreign experience as we can and share it with our colleagues. Experiences that inspire us to start new initiatives or see good older practices in a new light I would also like it if the image of the librarian as a specialist, someone who can consult both adults and kids on literary and literacy issues, became more prevalent in society. It would let the librarian feel more confident and motivated, which is very important when working with children – they can feel if the librarian is interested in what he is doing himself.

How much the digital technologies change the way kids and teens read?

Certainly, digital technologies change not only children’s but also adults’ reading habits as well; this is unavoidable. The most important thing, in my opinion, is not to turn technology into a boogieman that will inevitably destroy all of the world’s books, causing our children to never read again. This hostility toward it puts us, adults, against children in their eyes. Digital technology is here and it will remain a part of our lives; therefore, we must find ways for both things to exist. The other thing is reading from an early age.

Of course, it does not mean that digital technology has no negative influence on reading. We are well aware that children nowadays experience trouble concentrating and other issues, so the parents’ goal is to find a balance. Don’t we ourselves decide to browse social media in the evening instead of reading a book? Children are the greatest imitators – we have to keep that in mind.

In early December an annual Early Reading Forum was held in Vilnius, Lithuania. What main goals you have achieved?

I believe our first goal has been achieved. We began to concentrate our attention on various facets of early reading, and this forum is an expression of our efforts. It’s very important to see that we achieved not one, but many target audiences, who care or should care about the topic of reading – specialists, parents, and decision-makers. Every one of them had an opportunity to receive beneficial information during the forum. It was important for us to look at different sides of the issue, to raise debatable questions, and to hear about the issues they face and the questions that they have.

You can watch the whole first day of the conference online: The Early Reading Forum

What are the main research fields today concerning early reading? What new and exciting studies would you love to highlight?

Reading specialists know that many of the benefits associated with early reading can be explained by neuroscience; we can find countless studies explaining brain processes that are activated while reading. As part of the project, we have found that, even though we are aware of it, a very large part of the public receives a mild shock when they learn these facts – why did nobody tell us earlier? I remember, when I was just starting to look into early reading, reading the book “Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain” (2015) by Dana Suskind, MD, and asking everyone and myself the same question. Therefore, I think that we need to take care of the dissemination of the research that has been carried out, which is very, very important.

What are your future plans? What do you dream about in your work with kids and teens?

In the near future, we intend to continue promoting early reading, as this topic is still quite new in Lithuania and we see that we still have a lot of work to do in this area. We want to focus as much as possible on adolescents as well, and we intend to implement a number of projects such as literary debates. We want them to associate reading with interesting activities because research shows that the fun factor is crucial for them. I will not hide the fact that it is not easy to solve this riddle of understanding what is interesting for adolescents. Of course, it is very important for us to raise the competence of other professionals in this and other aspects of reading for children and adolescents, and we are trying to act as a methodological center, even though we are a small department. Professionals who meet other people who are growing up have to be prepared to do everything they can to help them become growing readers too, and we have to give them the tools to do this. It is difficult to list all of our plans and goals – we probably have enough for at least the next decade – but that is what drives us forward.

www.lnb.lt

The illustration above is done by Latvian artist Daina Jurķe. Find her work on Instagram @daina.jurke

Interviewed by:
Anna Iltnere
Editor of Library Portal
Library Development Centre
The National Library of Latvia
anna.iltnere@lnb.lv

Madara Freivalde
Specialist in working with children and young people
Library Development Centre
The National Library of Latvia
madara.freivalde@lnb.lv

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