Chestnut Hill College professor's mission: Get books on school library shelves

For four years, Jessica Kahn of Chestnut Hill College has rallied help collecting, shelving books.
For four years, Jessica Kahn of Chestnut Hill College has rallied help collecting, shelving books. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff)
Posted: December 11, 2012

Jessica Kahn remembers how she felt when she learned Emlen Elementary in East Mount Airy had no library.

"It broke my heart," said Kahn, 66, a reading specialist and professor of education at Chestnut Hill College, who loves to read.

Kahn collected 7,000 books and, with the help of her students, cataloged them, attached pockets and cards, and affixed little white squares with call numbers. The college donated book shelves. And Emlen had a library.

Over the last four years, Kahn - now known as "the book lady" - has made it her mission to help other Philadelphia public schools create libraries.

Because of efforts spearheaded by Kahn, Fitler Academics Plus in Germantown and John S. Jenks in Chestnut Hill - both in the school district - and charter school Eugenio Maria de Hostos in Hunting Park, Franklin Towne in Bridesburg, and Antonia Pantoja in North Philadelphia have received thousands of books.

The staff and students at Antonia Pantoja, a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school, honored Kahn on Tuesday at the official opening of its library, the school's hub.

"This would not have been possible without her," said Elizabeth Tarde, librarian at Antonia Pantoja, whose 720 students are primarily Latino. "Books started pouring in from organizations I never met, because of her efforts."

Antiquated or absent libraries have been a long-standing problem in the city's public schools as financial resources dry up. Individual school budgets have been cut $264 million over the last two years. Local groups have emerged to restock some libraries, but many schools are going without.

"The work that Ms. Kahn is doing is a tremendous help to us," district spokesman Fernando Gallard said. "And the principals are trying to do their best to build on that."

For Kahn, getting the books was not difficult.

"There is an endless supply of children's books that children have outgrown," she said, "still in perfectly good condition."

She sends e-mail blasts and puts posters up on campus, which has a drop-off point. The price of admission to the student honor society's annual event is two children's books.

She has also had lots of outside help.

Each time the Upper Moreland Public Library culls its collection, children's books are sent her way.

Friends Central, a private school in Wynnewood, donated books from its drive at the behest of one of its teachers, a former student of Kahn's.

Maple Avenue Elementary in Goffstown, N.H., contributes each year. Staffers heard about her program through a nonprofit organization after a radio story about Kahn aired in 2010. Kahn rents a huge van and drives to New England to retrieve 1,500 to 2,000 books. The last haul went to Eugenio Hostos.

"We're fortunate that we have a great school library, and I think our children appreciate that," said Athena Chisholm, a reading specialist at Maple Avenue, a middle-class suburban school. "If they can help children in other places who don't have that, that's their motivation."

Kahn's first large set for Emlen came from a Horsham book swap - the owner was an adjunct professor at Chestnut Hill and read her e-mail blast.

Perhaps her greatest contributor is her great-niece, Lauren Silverstein, an eighth grader at Richboro Middle School in the Council Rock District.

Silverstein, 13, who shares her great-aunt's love of books, was stunned to learn some schools lacked a library. Her school has a "pretty big, very nice, cozy" library, which she uses regularly.

"I just can't imagine life without books," said Silverstein, daughter of Dan and Lori Silverstein.

As a service project for her bat mitzvah, she decided to collect books. Her goal was 1,000. She has gathered more than 5,000, which have gone to Jenks and Pantoja. The family garage was turned into a staging/sorting area.

The event at Pantoja emphasized for her the importance of the work.

"The kids were so appreciative," she said. "One sixth grader told me I inspired her to collect books."

Kahn became connected to Franklin Towne Charter because the great-niece of Chestnut Hill College's late librarian, Sister Regina Maria Brimmer, works there. Brimmer, 94, died last summer - while still on the job. The books are being donated in Brimmer's memory.

A native Philadelphian, Kahn attended Gompers Elementary, where she worked over lunch as a student library aide. A graduate of Cheltenham High and Barnard College, she taught in Philadelphia, focusing on young, slow readers.

Then she took a break to raise her own children, Michael, a director of medical communications for a pharmaceutical firm, and Alex, a Google software engineer, both avid readers.

She then earned a master's degree and a doctorate and has been at Chestnut Hill since 1992, where she teaches and chairs the undergraduate education program. She and her husband, David, a printing executive, live in Abington.

Her relationship with Emlen started in 2005 when Kahn began taking her students to read to the children. Emlen's library opened in September 2010, but closed earlier this year because no staff member was available to monitor it. Principal Nancy Wilson said that teachers took students to use the library and that Kahn would teach parents to catalog books and maintain it.

"At least we can get books circulating in schools," she said, "and children talking about books and thinking about reading and enjoying reading."

Kahn said she will keep collecting - there is an urgent need for books in Spanish.

"I will get them into children's hands," she said, "until I fall over exhausted."


To Donate

Want to donate to Jessica Kahn's book collection for local elementary schools? E-mail her at jkahn@chc.edu.

Kahn's great-niece also continues to accept books. She can be reached at Laurensmitzvahproject@yahoo.com.


Contact Susan Snyder

at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com,

or follow on Twitter @ssnyderinq.

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