November 19, 2017

Jeanne Cannella Schmitzer | Movers & Shakers 2002

Taking on Teens

“She created some readers where we wouldn’t have readers otherwise”

In the 1980s, Jeanne Cannella Schmitzer spent six years as a firefighter and paramedic in Orlando, FL (“Tell ’em I’m thinking about going back to the fire station for a decent paycheck and retirement,” jokes this advocate of higher wages for librarians). Now, she reaches out to troubled teens, teachers, and low-income families.

Twice a month, girls ranging in age from 14 to 17 from Chance Residential, a minimum-security facility, make the eight-mile drive to Putnam County Library in Cookeville, TN, to see Ms. Jeanne, as they call her. Some of the girs are mothers, some are foster children. “Up until she started working, it was just going to the library to get books,” says Rhonda Choate Rich, the teacher who accompanies the girls. “Most of the time the girls would get books to look at pictures.”

But when Schmitzer noticed the girls, she called Rich and offered to do a book talk next time they were in the library. Schmitzer didn’t just dip in a toe. She plunged in with Jean Ferris’s Bad, a book about a 16-year-old girl in a detention facility, and Michael Cadnum’s Rundown, a psychological thriller about a lonely teen girl.

“I was sweating,” she remembers. “I was afraid they would think it was boring, or that it looked too planned, or that they didn’t care. I was afraid they wouldn’t like me because I was an adult.” Instead, some of the girls asked for the books afterward.

Vitals


Current position: Assistant Director, Putnam County Library, Cookeville, TN

Degree: MA, history, University of Central Florida, 1996; MS, Information Science, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, 1998

Since then, Schmitzer, a 43-year-old with a soft Southern accent, prepares book displays for visiting days. She reads short stories to the girls and leads discussions that don’t shy away from topics like pregnancy, suicide, and homosexuality, although her town of some 30,000 is, she says, “Smack dab in the middle of the Bible Belt.” She provides a journal for each girl and time to write. She has arranged for the Chance girls to serve as advisors to the publishers of young adult books, through the American Library Association’s Young Adult Library Services Association.

Her success with teen boys from a local halfway house has been more roundabout. For some of the boys, mostly inner-city black kids from Nashville, book talks just cut into Internet time. Says Schmitzer, “I had to learn a lot about rap music and gangs, just to know what was going on.”

Results are mixed. One boy asked for help finding information about Pamela Anderson. “We found it,” says Schmitzer, who discovered online that Anderson’s claim to fame is modeling nude. “And here she comes!”

But several of the young men had children of their own. They talked about them and showed off pictures. Schmitzer helped the dads find books for their kids. “Some will be library users because of their children,” she says.

Schmitzer has doubled circulation of young adult books in the library, according to Regional Library Director Betty Jo Jarvis. Part of the credit goes to her boss, Diane Duncan, who convinced the local Legge Insurance Company to donate money for new books for teens, says Schmitzer. The library counts on such generosity. It’s important to mention, says Schmitzer, that Tennessee consistently ranks at or near the bottom in public library operating expenditures per capita.

Recently, Schmitzer, who also has a degree in history, teamed up with author Kathi Appelt to write a nonfiction children’s book about librarians who carried books by pack horse to the isolated Appalachians during the 1930s and 1940s. Last year, HarperCollins published Down Cut Shin Creek: The Pack Horse Librarians of Kentucky.

One of the missions faced by modern libraries is reaching teens like the Chance girls. Schmitzer doesn’t wait for them to find their way to her. Instead, she reaches out to them all.

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