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Telling tales just part of librarian's talents

December 07, 1997

Telling tales just part of librarian's talents

By GUY FLETCHER

Staff Writer

The kids just call him "Mr. Jeff," and that's just fine for Jeff Ridgeway.

As one of two children's librarians at Washington County Free Library, he has certainly built a following among children who gather around and listen to him tell tales from classic children's books.

Often they sit quietly and listen, but they are just as likely to be seen taking part in the stories. Instead of just hearing about "Jack and the Beanstalk," children will play parts in the story, including the beanstalk itself.

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"You get them on your side and you can get them doing things while you are talking," Ridgeway said.

Sometimes for older kids he'll read a book right up until a climactic point and then stop, telling them if they want to know how the story turns out they can read a copy themselves.

"I figure if it gets them to read a book, fine," he said.

But being a children's librarian is about much more just than storytelling. There are also the administrative responsibilities in maintaining a vast collection of children's books, magazines, encyclopedias and other materials.

On a recent day, Ridgeway was working on raising private donations for a homework center for middle school students at the South Potomac Street library.

The center, which is planned to open next year, is to be filled with computers, books and other resources for children to use to complete their homework. It has a dual purpose of getting more middle-school-age children interested in the library, Ridgeway said.

"I hope it is something that will pull kids back into the library," he said.

Ultimately, he would like to see a computer link between the schools and library, so that the librarians can prepare the materials students need for particular assignments.

"It helps us to know what the schools are assigning and what's going on in the schools, so we can better serve the children when they come here," Ridgeway said.

The center will cost about $10,000, and much of the computer equipment and office furniture has already been donated, but Ridgeway is hoping others will step forward and help with the project.

Ridgeway, who lives in the West Virginia community of the same name with his wife and two young daughters, graduated from Shepherd College in 1976 with the goal of becoming a teacher. But he soon became disinterested in the career and moved on to other endeavors.

He had already been working as a part-time ranger at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and ended up staying there until 1989. During those years he honed his storytelling skills, giving tours and explaining Civil War history.

"It was great. People would come up to me and ask, 'Where'd you get your Ph.D. in history?'" he said.

It was good training for the library, where he began working in 1984.

Spending so much of his time with children isn't making the 42-year-old Ridgeway any younger, but he concedes it gives him a more youthful outlook on life. He certainly knows the latest fads and fashions before other adults catch on.

"If you are a person who does this on a regular basis, you have to enjoy the interaction with the children," he said.

You also have to enjoy the books, he said. That's why Ridgeway can often be found spending his time away from the library flipping through stacks at used bookstores, hoping to build his own children's books collection.

"I order to be able to properly advise a child or a parent, you have to know your collection," he said.

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