By JOHN Y. COLE
The Muppets, led by Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy, have teamed up to build a tower of books and a better-read nation in the colorful "Building a Nation of Readers" poster recently produced by the Center for the Book and the American Library Association in cooperation with The Jim Henson Co.
The campaign extends through the year 2000 to coincide with the Library's bicentennial commemoration. "Building a Nation of Readers" is a call to action that emphasizes the importance of reading to American democracy and the key role that libraries play in the process. The goal is to stimulate reading promotion projects that benefit all age groups, and the Center for the Book invites participation from individuals; families; schools; libraries; educational, civic and government organizations; corporations; professional associations; labor unions; and others.
Like all of the center's campaigns since "The Year of the Reader" in 1987, this campaign relies on organizational and corporate partners to carry the message across the country. In addition to the American Library Association and the Jim Henson Co., support for "Building a Nation of Readers" comes from Pizza Hut through its BOOK-IT! program and from the H.W. Wilson Foundation.
In establishing the Center for the Book in 1977, then Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin emphasized the importance, in a technological age, of actively promoting books and reading:
As the national library of a great free republic, the Library of Congress has a special duty and a special interest to see that books do not go unread, that they are read by all ages and conditions, that books are not buried in their own excess, under their own dross, not lost from neglect nor obscured from us by specious alternatives and synthetic substitutes. As the national library of the most technologically advanced nation on earth, we have a special duty, too, to see that the book is the useful, illuminating servant of all other technologies, and that all other technologies become the effective, illuminating acolytes of the book.
This spring at the Library, the Center for the Book is hosting meetings with its national reading promotion partners, a group of more than 50 national civic and educational organizations, and with its 34 state centers for the book to exchange ideas about promoting "Building a Nation of Readers" and related projects. Items on the agenda for discussion include: book fairs, author awards, radio and television programming, traveling exhibitions, community heritage projects, the "Favorite Poem" project and national projects with the American Institute for Graphic Arts and the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America.
Current Center for the Book projects that are part of the "Building a Nation of Readers" campaign include "Letters About Literature," a national student essay contest cosponsored with the Weekly Reader Corp.; the "Great American Portraits" project; the "River of Words" national student art and poetry contest; and "Literary Heritage USA," a joint project with Friends of Libraries USA.
The Center for the Book's program of national reading promotion campaigns began in 1987, when, at the request of Dr. Boorstin, both Congress and President Reagan officially designated 1987 as the Year of the Reader. The congressional resolution and the presidential proclamation encouraged activities "aimed at restoring the act of reading to a place of preeminence in our personal lives and in the life of the nation." Governors of 10 states issued similar resolutions. President Reagan also issued a proclamation on behalf of the center's "Year of the Young Reader" campaign in 1989.
Barbara Bush, who had been involved in Center for the Book activities for several years before she became first lady, was the honorary chairperson for the Year of the Young Reader and for the next two Center for the Book campaigns: "The Year of the Lifetime Reader" (1991) and "Explore New Worlds -- READ!" (1992). Subsequent campaigns have been multiyear: "Books Change Lives" (1993-94); "Shape Your Future -- READ!" (1995-96); and now "Building a Nation of Readers" (1997-2000). Each campaign has had a different emphasis and therefore attempted to reach new audiences and involve new organizational and corporate partners.
Prior to the creation of the Center for the Book, the Library of Congress's interest in book and reading promotion had been moved forward primarily by Librarians of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford (1864-97) and Archibald MacLeish (1939-44). In A Book for All Readers (1900), a compilation of his beliefs about books, reading and libraries, Spofford included major chapters on "How to Read" (answer: systematically and with a purpose) and "What to Read" (answer: the "best" books). He also stated that "there are pleasures that perish in the using, but the pleasure which the art of reading carries with it is perennial." Writer and poet Archibald MacLeish, Librarian of Congress from 1939 to 1944, spoke about the importance of books in a different age and from a different point of view. As a wartime librarian, he told Americans that books were "the strongest and most enduring weapons in our fight to make the world a world in which the free can live in freedom."
The Center for the Book's national reading promotion campaigns, from "The Year of the Reader" to "Building a Nation of Readers," have addressed -- as Dr. Boorstin urged -- the Library of Congress's "special duty" and "special interest" as a national advocate for books and reading.
Mr. Cole has been director of the Center for the Book since it was established in 1977.