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First lady vows to continue promoting literacy

After leaving the White House, the nation's "reader in chief," Laura Bush, plans to continue promoting literacy through the United Nations and the George W. Bush presidential library in Dallas.
/ Source: The Associated Press

After leaving the White House, the nation's "reader in chief," Laura Bush, plans to continue promoting literacy through the United Nations and the George W. Bush presidential library in Dallas.

The first lady, who will host the National Book Festival on Saturday, also said in an interview that she hopes her signature Washington event becomes a lasting tradition — and she'll whisper something about that to the next first lady. This is the eighth year for the book festival.

“I love the whole idea of the National Mall being turned over to literature for a Saturday a year,” she said. “It still has that feeling of a lot of book lovers together, people who love to read and who love books and who are very happy” even in a standing room-only crowd to hear their favorite author.

Some of her own favorite writers will be at this year's festival, including children's author R.L. Stine, who wrote the “Goosebumps” series; Philippa Gregory, author of “The Other Boleyn Girl;” and Alexander McCall Smith, author of the best-selling series “No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.”

Bush and her daughter, Jenna Bush, will present the classroom adventure book they co-authored, “Read All About It!” along with more than 70 other authors and illustrators at the festival.

Laura Bush, a former teacher and school librarian, brought the book festival idea with her from Texas, where she started the state book festival that's now in its 14th year.

The first national festival in 2001 came just three days before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Since then, the first lady has promoted books as a source of solace, inspiration and a way to bring people together.

The festival has grown from about 30,000 attendees in 2001 to more than 120,000 last year.

After she leaves Washington, Bush will continue to serve through 2012 as the honorary ambassador of the U.N. Literacy Decade, an effort to boost literacy rates by at least 50 percent around the world.

She hosted a literacy conference Monday in New York for spouses of heads of state. She told the group that more than 770 million adults around the world can't read and announced a new fund to advance literacy, along with the first contribution of $2 million from the United States.

“Helping each one of these men and women learn to read is our moral obligation,” Bush said at the conference.

Librarian of Congress James Billington said he's always been impressed with how much Bush reads and dubbed her the "reader in chief." She and her fellow librarians across the country set a good example, he said.

Bush said the festival also helps promote library science as a career choice. She said library use goes up when the economy hits a downturn because people have less money to buy books.

“Librarians are dedicated to intellectual freedom,” she said. “That's the one place where you can go check out for free ... any thoughts that you want to study or look for.”

The Library of Congress organizes the festival, raising $1.75 million to stage the event this year. Billington said the library hopes to continue the festival after Bush is gone.

The library will showcase its efforts to digitize rare documents and books, including a draft Declaration of Independence with handwritten edits by the founding fathers.

Visitors to the festival also will get a peek at the World Digital Library set to debut in 2009, which will allow people to access the collections of major national libraries including Brazil, Russia and Egypt. The online library will be available in seven major languages.

Looking five or ten years into the future, Bush said electronic reading devices may play a larger role in the book festival.

“My mother-in-law, for instance, is now reading from a little hand-held screen that she can download books on,” Bush said of former first lady Barbara Bush. “But I also think that there will always be a place for the book and that people love to collect books.”