Sunday, January 18, 2009

Online book club turns teens on to reading

High schoolers can post reviews, chat and win prizes on B.C.'s own TeenSRC

Times Colonist: 2009 January 18
Richard Watts

When Grade 9 student Christy Moser wants something to read, she heads for the library. But before that, Moser goes online.

Moser, a 14-year-old student at Esquimalt High, uses a website pioneered in B.C. called TeenSRC, a virtual book club that offers discussions, chats, reading lists, reviews and a chance to win prizes.

For Moser, TeenSRC provides an opportunity to check out lists of teen-friendly books, compiled into handy categories: science-fiction and fantasy, which she likes, and romance, which she definitely does not. And they're all reviewed by other teens.

"I can just look something up and see what other people have said," she said. "Or if it's a romance, I can just avoid them completely."

TeenSRC, now entering its second year, grew out of a program that began in 2004 to encourage teenagers to continue reading through the summer.

SRC actually stands for Summer Reading Club, but organizers haven't been able to think of a new name that won't lose the club's name recognition.

It now has more than 3,200 members across Canada, and a few in the U.S., who post notes, write reviews and take part in online discussions and chats. Christy herself is a committed book reviewer who has already posted about 15.

SRC operates like an online book club for teenagers, but it's more. Discussion groups, for example, are often on topics in the news as well as books.

Some of the discussions are even moderated by teenagers, with some oversight from participating librarians.

Anonymity is protected at all times and adult librarians monitor the discussions to make sure they stay within reasonable boundaries. (Christy keeps her online identity secret, despite the use of her name in this story.)

According to some of the participating librarians, teenagers themselves are the most adept at spotting adults trying to worm their way into the discussions and kick them out.

TeenSRC operates with $35,000 a year from a variety of sources, including the B.C. Library Association, the B.C. Ministry of Education, and the Public Library Services Branch, local library branches, donations and volunteers.

Participating teens are eligible for prizes -- Christy won her IPod that way -- but they're limited to B.C. members, largely to protect teens' privacy. Prizes are mailed to a teenager's nearest public library for pickup, so no one has to reveal a home address. And so far, only B.C. libraries are widely participating.

Kirstin Andersen, teen services librarian with the Greater Victoria Public Library, said the website is all about outreach.

"It's delivering library service to where people are," said Andersen. "And where are all the teenagers these days? They are online."

Librarians are especially proud of some of the online discussion groups, which have included authors taking and answering questions.

Christy was disappointed to miss a discussion with Deborah Ellis, author of several books, including The Breadwinner. It's an account of an 11-year-old girl in wartorn Afghanistan who is forced to provide food for her family.

"I would like to have asked her if she had any personal experience of Afghanistan," said Christy.

Christy's parents, Colleen McKenna and Walter Moser, are both gratified to see their daughter using the web as a gateway to reading.

Moser believes too much online chatter has become inane because it's instantaneous. The discussions on TeenSRC, by contrast, have some permanence. A review is posted and remains up for others to see and comment on.

"It actually forces them to give [the reviews] some thought," said Moser. "Kids are reminded there is a community they are part of where there is slightly more thought at work."

McKenna appreciates the fact SRC grants Christy intellectual recognition.

"For her to be able to say, 'I like this book and here's why' -- that's a really neat thing," said McKenna. "It's like she can see, 'My opinion matters even though I'm a 14-year-old girl.'"

Go to to check out the website.