Saturday, July 25, 2009

Writing and thinking about family-friendly libraries

This weekend I am working on a report for the California State Library about Family Place libraries. The State Library plans to award grants to libraries around the state to implement this service initiative. I have been asked to look at the existing Family Place libraries in the Los Angeles County Public Library system to anticipate implementation issues and to develop some evaluation strategies. This comes after another recent report on the Early Learning with Literacy initiative, another State Library project that focused on helping public libraries become family-friendly destination places, where parents and caregivers and children would come and spend quality time together in a safe and welcoming public space.

It has been a revelation to see how some public libraries have been able to generate a real change in their service culture when these family-friendly policies have been embraced by the entire library staff, from directors to security officers and custodians. It has also been a revelation to see how the good intentions of librarians in some locations are undermined by lack of administrative support and/or by policies that actually run counter to their efforts on the ground.

One librarian talks about how the library in which she works, an otherwise beautiful new facility, is an acoustic nightmare, with ordinary conversations between children and their parents echoing loudly in the adult area. "Couldn't they have designed something more friendly to children?" she asks. "Did they even think about this?" Another branch manager said that she asks her children's librarian to tell the parents attending a morning story hour when the library is about to open so they will know to keep their toddlers quiet.

Food is an issue when a library starts inviting parents to bring their toddlers to the library and stay awhile. The librarians at one location in Roseville say, "Raisins and Cheerios come with the territory." They encourage mothers to clean up after their kids but don't get uptight about it. The same branch manager who is concerned about the noise level in her library when it opens to the public makes it clear that food is absolutely not allowed.

And here is a horror story. A mother of two little boys, ages three and one years, was in the habit of taking them to the public library where a friend of hers works. I know these little boys, and they are actually unusually quiet and self-possessed children. However, the branch manager ordered the children's librarian to tell this mother that her baby, the one-year-old, was banished from the library because of his loud and boisterous behavior! I can't imagine what this child did -- or how I would feel in the mother's place. Outraged? Defensive? Unwanted? The mother won't complain because she doesn't want to get her friend, the children's librarian, in trouble. She now takes her boys to a different library where the environment is more welcoming.

It is true that very small children and adults use libraries very differently. Their needs may conflict. However, I have observed adults working on computers with total concentration while toddlers dragged stuffed animals around the children's area just a few feet away. I have seen senior citizens smile indulgently at the babies pawing through a basket of board books. I have also heard librarians telling less indulgent and child-tolerant adults that they would find the library to be less noisy if they came at a different time of the day.

I have often talked and written about the important role that libraries can play in the creation of a web of support for families, who need all of the support they can get in these tough times. Libraries also play an important role in defining communities and in creating communities where many generations can come together to experience the benefits of literacy and information. This only works, however, when ALL of the library staff understand and support that mission.


Cyn said...


Eva M said...

You encourage me to keep fighting the good fight (against daunting but not impossible odds)...

Theresa said...

Thanks for the light and the love, Ginny. Eva is right; the odds may be daunting, but not impossible, surely, with heads and hearts like yours (and hers!) leading the way.