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Huffington Library staff finds innovative ways to inspire students to read

Tom Coyne
Instructor Becky Padgett's Spanish class recites a poem in Spanish for Huffington Library Director Becky Strati and librarian Judy Moore.

April 28, 2023

Ever have a blind date with a book? Ever get a book recommendation from The Toilet Paper? Did you know Edgar Allan Poe almost wrote “The Raven” about a parrot?

If you answered yes to any of those questions, you probably are a patron of the Huffington Library at Culver Academies. Because the librarians there are constantly coming up with ideas to encourage students to read, whether it is sending notes to students through Schoology, changing displays at the library or challenging students in myriad ways.

Their efforts are working. As of late April, a total of 2,075 books had been checked out of the library since July 1. The library had set a goal of checking out 2,000 books this school year, after checking out a record 2,086 books last year. So, Becky Strati, the library director, raised the goal for the year to 2.500 books.

“It’s where we want to head. We’ll see where we top out,” she said. “I don’t know that there is a limit. We are creating a culture of reading, where it’s what we do. When you have an information need, you go grab something. It doesn’t have to be a book. We want to challenge and encourage students to read.”

The library staff, made up of Strati, Judy Moore, Anna Marie Ware, and Grace McKay, also is constantly displaying books about places and things in the news or books about people in the news, or people who have died. When Kenzaburo Oe, a Nobel laureate, died on March 3, the library put up a display of his books. Before that, his books had never been checked out.

“When I put up the display, every one of his books in the display got checked out,” Strati said.

She compares it to the displays by the checkout lines at a store.

“I didn’t know I wanted the mints until I’m walking by,” she said. “If you put things out, people are interested.”

After the Count Basie Orchestra played at Eppley Auditorium around the time of the Grammys, they highlighted some book covers that resembled some outfits that celebrities wore to the Grammys.

When Culver had a Day of Spirit recently, the librarians displayed books about religion and spiritualty for those who wanted to learn more.


The Huffington Library frequently highlights books related to events happening in the news. 


Deacon Mike Madison, the campus Catholic minister at Culver, has been impressed by all the different ways the library tries to entice readers.

“They're making the library relevant by being very current,” he said. “They’re promoting books about things happening in the news or somebody’s death or a speaker on campus. So students can get immersed beyond just a news article or a 45-minute presentation by a speaker. They can dig deeper.”

An example of one way to encourage reading: The library started a Reading Hall of Fame. Students can qualify by meeting 15 of 25 challenges. A few of the challenges are: Read a book that is set in a country you’ve never been to. Read a book by someone who has spoken at Culver. Read a book about leadership or a strong leader. Read a book because you like the cover.

“We celebrate our athletes on walls. We recognize all sorts of accomplishments. I thought, ‘Why not celebrate people reading and expanding their horizons in lots of ways?’ ” Strati said.

She said the goal of the Hall of Fame is to get people out of their comfort zones and to read something they might not have considered.

Readers who meet 20 of the challenges qualify as Hall of Fame gold members and those who meet all 25 challenges qualify as platinum members.

“It gives people good things to talk about,” Strati said.

The library also started a book club this fall. Aakrit Mehrotra ’24 worked with Strati to start the club, which meets on Tuesday evenings. Mehrotra said he’s always been an avid reader and he was interested in reading some classics.

“The goal of the book club was to focus on literature that might not be assigned in class; a book that you might expect someone from a private school to have read,” he said.

Among the books the club has read are “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” by Oscar Wilde, “Animal Farm,” by George Orwell, “Anna Karenina,” by Leo Tolstoy, and “The Age of Innocence,” by Edith Wharton. Next up are some poems by Edgar Allen Poe.

Last year the library challenged students to come up to the front desk and recite an eight-line poem. It offered a reward of having Culver Academies Head of Schools Doug Bird, Ed.D., recite a poem during an all school meeting. This year’s goal is 100 students and the students reciting the poem get to vote on who will have to recite the poem.

Another example of trying to pique interest are “Threads of Curiosity” displays that can lead to different books. A recent display featured “The Personal Librarian,” a book about Bella da Costa Green, a Black woman who passed as white and worked for 20th century financier J.P. Morgan. The display used threads that attached to a cubicle with books about J.P. Morgan, then another thread to a cubicle with books about banking and finance, then another with books about Black people passing as white.  


The Huffington Library prompts students to answer thought-provoking questions..


The library recently started a whiteboard prompt, asking students to write answers to questions on a whiteboard in the hall. The prompts, put up on Thursday, include: “What words do you use when you want to feel/sound smart?” Or: “What’s a place you want to go to learn more about the world?”

“We’re trying to give them things to challenge their thinking,” Strati said.

Strati also created something called “The Toilet Paper,” which is put up in restroom stalls in the library and Eppley Hall of Humanities. It changes every week. The newsletter sometimes includes a quote with some book recommendations to go with it. Sometimes it features upcoming speakers. This week’s newsletter highlights some books that have won lesser-known awards.

“We always try to get them to do something,” Strati said.


The Toilet Paper, put up in stalls in restrooms, gives people ideas about books to read.


The library also enhanced the way patrons can look for books. If there is a book a reader particularly enjoyed, they can use the library website to get recommendations of other books or authors they might like.

“When a student comes in and they say they're not a reader, I ask them to tell me a movie they liked or tell me one book that you have read that you liked. We can use that as a jumping off point to find them something,” Strati said. “It empowers and enables them to see themselves as readers who can pick things that they're going to like.”

She said she tells students they should take two books. That way if they start reading and they don’t like the first book, they can start reading the other.

“If it’s not for you, let’s find one that is,” she said. “I want them to have that positive experience so they get hooked.”

Strati said when students let the librarians know there’s a book or something else they need, “we treat those information needs as if they're emergencies. We’ll purchase things. We’ll get them through interlibrary loans. We’ll do whatever we need to do.”

She said they take the same approach for pleasure reading.

“If there’s a book you want, we’ll find a way to get it for you,” she said. “Our job is to say ‘yes’ to people who have information needs. Sometimes the yes isn’t to the question they ask, but to what they actually needed.”

The library staff also works with humanities instructors and other teachers throughout Culver Academies to try to encourage students to read. Several freshmen humanities teachers require students to read one or two books on their own.

The library also subscribes to the LibGuides content management and curation platform that helped the librarians to organize databases. Before there was a list on a webpages that users would have to scroll through. LibGuides gives users “best bets” for finding the information they are looking.

There’s also a list of speakers who have given talks at Culver Academies and links to articles written in The Cannon news blog about the event.

The library also has access to Swank Streaming, a repository of 37,000 films and TV that offers access available for use in classrooms. Swank allows teachers to start showing a film in class and assign the rest as homework. It also allows students who missed class to view the film.

Huffington Library also has a collection of rare books, such as a first edition of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” with his notes. There are pages from a math book from the 1500s and an old codex, or ancient manuscript, in a wooden box.

“It’s a little treasure trove up there. There are so many cool things,” she said. “Hopefully it will ignite  kids and make them excited about what we have here.”

Strati said she’s constantly looking for ways to get students interested.

"My staff and I love seeing what will grab people's attention so we change our displays often. This helps keep things fresh and interesting. Our webpage promises 'warm greetings and scintillating conversation at our Welcome Desk'. I think we deliver."


Huffington Library is a great resource for Culver Academies.

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