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A 'Picture Worth a Thousand Books'

Baldwin High School Literary Guild students clean, then stock, the shelves of the Pittsburgh Carmalt library.

This article was originally published on Nov. 17, 2012.

Sheila May-Stein just keeps finding books.

And now, the Baldwin High School Literary Guild has found her.

In an age when many question the positives of social media and children's Internet use, it's librarian May-Stein's Internet meme that has brought positive change to an elementary school in Pittsburgh's Overbrook neighborhood—with a little help on Friday from the high-school students of Baldwin-Whitehall.

"The smartest and most sarcastic kids in the building," as Baldwin High English teacher and Literary Guild sponsor Keith Harrison lovingly calls them, were at Pittsburgh Carmalt Academy of Science and Technology that day to help May-Stein to stock Carmalt's skinny library shelves.

The Baldwin students were responding to a call to action from May-Stein, who is a Pittsburgh Public Schools rotating librarian and the creator of a cellphone photograph that has since been titled "If a picture is worth a thousand words, let's make this picture worth a thousand books."

The picture, which appeared on University of Pittsburgh professor Jessie Ramey's popular Yinzercation blog earlier this year—think "Yinzer Nation + Education"—features a wobbly and practically empty bookshelf at Pittsburgh Manchester School on Pittsburgh's North Side. The inspiring words were added later by another woman—Kathy Newman.

May-Stein's picture spread like wildfire thanks to social websites like Facebook and Twitter, and after hundreds of people donated thousands of books to fill the shelves at Manchester, May-Stein has moved onto Carmalt, where she met an enthusiastic group of Baldwin students who helped her to haul books, clean shelves and catalog titles—all in the name of sharing in a love of reading, which is precisely what the Literary Guild is for.

The guild is described on the Baldwin High website as part-book club and part-writing workshop. It consists of students in ninth through 12th grades, and its members meet often to share stories and poems and to debate over and discuss novels.

For members of the club, many of whom donated their own used books to the sparsely filled Carmalt library, it seems natural to want to help others to find more reading options and to discover a love for words.

"(It's) very nostalgic to look through all of the old books that we've all read, too," said Baldwin senior Daniel McTiernan, a co-president of the Literary Guild, as he thumbed through books geared toward some of Carmalt's youngest students. "It'll be exciting to see the transformation of the library, and I think we'll feel proud of ourselves and just happy that we've done something.

"I think it's great that we've been invited to 'pass the torch.' I think it's special that we're able to give a gift to the next generation."

Harrison, as the club's sponsor, brought May-Stein's meme to the attention of his students and suggested Carmalt—not too far from the Baldwin-Whitehall School District—as a place where they could join the effort to fill some of the city schools' more-barren libraries.

"One of my Facebook friends saw it (May-Stein's picture)," Harrison said, "and, as it was going viral, posted it.

"We have a Facebook page for the high school Literary Guild, and I thought, 'This looks great,' so I posted it there. And a couple of kids immediately said, 'Ooo, yeah, that's us. Good.'

"And it also had a link to the initial post about it, so these kids all read that. And at our next meeting, we said, 'It's a perfect fit.'

"These are the kids who love reading. They love libraries. Books have been a huge part of their success in school. And they saw that picture, and I think it just hit home: There are kids in this city who have empty bookshelves."

Well, not at Carmalt anymore. The Baldwin students as well as Harrison and May-Stein brought full box after full box into the Overbrook school on Friday from a B-W School District bus and from May-Stein's personal vehicle and got to work wiping down shelves and categorizing material.

For May-Stein, who said that her Manchester project is finished, refurbishing the Carmalt library to make it more welcoming for potential young readers is her next goal.

And watching Baldwin's students help makes it all the more enjoyable.

"Here's the cool part," she said as she turned to look at the teenagers laughing and smiling while sorting through some of their very own old books. "Pittsburgh responds. Pittsburgh made that miracle happen at Manchester and look, now, what's happening at Carmalt.

"It's not acceptable to people. I'm not alone in thinking that this (empty libraries at city schools) is wrong. These kids are giving up their day to scrub dirty crap and do manual labor."

Tough economic times and budget cuts have had their obvious effects on Pittsburgh Public Schools' libraries, so to Carmalt Principal Dr. Sandra Och, May-Stein has been "a gift."

"Her sole purpose," Och said, "was to come into this school, look at what we have, what we need, what we need to get rid of. That was her mission—to come in and to make it a working library for all children, so she is the one that approached me."

And for Baldwin senior Callie Corcoran, like so many others, she was approached by May-Stein through the Literary Guild's use of social media.

"I think it's good that social media isn't just being used for 'silly things,'" Corcoran said. "I think it's really good that social media's being used to actually help someone, and I think the fact that a lot of older people are using social media positively, maybe it will influence us now that we see that we can impact people in a positive way."

Impact made.

The Carmalt library has an Amazon.com Wish List. Click here to see which books that the library still has a need for and to possibly buy one or more of them for the school's students.

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