Released: May 1, 2013

Parents, Children, Libraries, and Reading

Part 7: Librarians’ thoughts

By , , and

Using both focus groups and a non-scientific sample of people who volunteered to participate in Pew Internet surveys, we asked library staff members from around the country about their thoughts on many of the library services discussed in this report. This section includes some of their comments on library services for parents and children, including early childhood literacy programs and other events for children, coordination with schools, and the difficulties of utilizing space in the library in a way that serves the needs of patrons of all ages.

Early childhood literacy and programs for children

Many library staff members considered early childhood literacy programs and story times among their most important services:

“I feel that with the early literacy elements and story times and crafts, we are building a foundation for our young children to become lifelong learners. Story time not only provides a educational component, it also provides socialization for the children and the parents, building a close knit community.”

“Storytimes to preschoolers has been an important part of library service to children for over fifty years. It is more important today than ever before to teach parents how to read aloud to their children.”

Many also said activities for children had a more long-term impact by making the library a destination for parents:

“A library is a central gathering space in our community. Parents can bring their young children for storytimes, to have the opportunity to network with other parents and to give their children that important start to become literate.”

“In our offering of early literacy, we have seen an increase in patron use of the library. The children’s parents and care-givers gain exposure to our collection and generally come to realize that the library offers crucial services to the community.”

Some respondents felt libraries should do more to reach children in their communities. One library staff member said while the library has an early childhood literacy program, “our staff needs training so they can feel qualified to talk to parents about taking literacy seriously with their children.” Others wanted to expand current offerings:

“Libraries should reach out into the community not to simply draw people past the door counters but to deliver services where needed. For example, we take story time and books to home daycares — especially focusing on those that don’t have the transportation to bring the children to us.”

Many library staff members wrote that they wanted to help patrons learn to successfully navigate all types of media—and continue to do so as patrons age:

“I believe libraries should take a more active role in teaching patrons—both children and adults—how to interact with digital materials, whether that is computers, digitized materials, e-books, automatic book checkouts, or other devices. The world is becoming increasingly digitized, and many people are falling behind because they are not part of the school system or because the system has failed them. Libraries should step up to the plate and assume responsibility for the digital education of the community.”

“I really want to implement a program teaching digital literacy to young children. I would love to have iPads available for children to come in and use to learn how to properly navigate and consume digital media.”

“Often, public libraries make early-literacy and children’s service a priority but fail to continue to develop services appropriate patrons as they age. It should be a priority of public libraries to encourage life-long patronage not simply focus on early interests and development.”

Coordinating with schools

Many librarian respondents emphasized the importance of working with area schools. “[Public libraries should] create a communication web that connects parents, schools and libraries. Libraries can only continue to exist with the support of the community.”

Some library staff members reported strong partnerships with area schools:

“I am the Head of Children’s Services, and so I enjoy working with the schools. This year I am working with reading specialists to make sure parents can move seamlessly from the schools to the public library with lists of leveled books. This partnership has been exciting for the staff and the public.”

“In regards to the coordination with the public school system, the most obvious result is in our summer reading programs. This year, [the programs] were introduced to the schoolchildren by their teachers and school librarians, and there were additional incentives from the school system to participate in or complete the summer reading program. Parents and children alike were enthusiastic about this cooperation, and we are excited to see it grow into other areas.”

“We coordinate closely with the schools and have great success. We just trained over 400 middle grade students to use downloadable books and the kid, teachers, and parents were thrilled. We incorporate early literacy skills into our story times for ages 1-3 and are just now making a push to make parents aware of each skill the children are learning. We are also promoting our library services to officials in this manner, showing them that story hour isn’t ‘just fun’ but an integral part of getting our students prepared for Kindergarten.”

“Our Children’s Staff visit the elementary schools to demonstrate library databases . . . that can be downloaded from the library’s website and promote the summer reading club. The programming assistant visits the local pre-schools to tell stories and deliver books. The local school has a delivery service where teachers can order room collections by subject and the delivery service will take them to the teacher’s classroom. . . . The YA Librarian coordinates teen volunteers for the National Honor Society membership, confirmation and for adding to college applications.”

Many respondents said that area schools had little (or no) library support, leaving students to rely on local libraries:

“Our local school does not have a librarian, so we feel even more responsible to the students and their parents when it comes to literacy and academic support.”

“Although we should definitely work more closely with our public schools, it’s virtually impossible as their jammed schedules leave almost no time for outside agencies to work in the schools. I think our niche is the early literacy market from birth to Kindergarten—whether it’s working with individual families, daycares, or preschools.”

“We should definitely work more closely with schools because many schools in our area have recently lost their librarians. As a children’s librarian, I try to work with schools, providing library programming to the children through outreach or visits. Some schools are very receptive and others are not. The reason for their decline of library programming is usually that everything in their curriculum must be related to standardized tests. It’s unfortunate. In our city, the schools are very autonomous. It would be ideal if there was a city-wide push for the schools to work together with public libraries.”

“I see a real need for public libraries to become much more of a resource for schools as school libraries are almost completely unfunded and are most often staffed by untrained personnel. Thus, students are falling behind in information and digital literacy skills, which are crucial both for work life and to personal life. Libraries are already very involved in providing early literacy skills for toddlers and preschoolers by offering storytimes, baby lapsits, playdates, and often parent workshops, and must continue to provide and perhaps expand this, but I really see the need to turn our eyes more toward to helping school age children, teachers and parents in new ways beyond reference and readers advisory.”

Others described how their libraries were an important resource for parents who home-school their children:

“Libraries should offer more support for school age children, whether they are in the school system or are home schooled. Patrons ask all the time where they can find curriculum to help their home-schooled children attain the same curriculum as those in public school, and that information simply doesn’t exist. The school library media center at a public school is ONLY available to the student during school hours and (if they’re lucky) have a library class that meets one day a week. Public libraries should do more to support school libraries.”

“As a children’s librarian I am perhaps biased, but I think children’s and youth programming and spaces are very important. We have a relatively large number of home-school families as well, and I really hope to make our library a part of their education and a center for the community’s children.”

However, others were more cautious about how library resources should be used:

“Yes we should coordinate with local schools more—but how and for what purpose? We have four large high schools in our service area, with many middle and elementary schools that feed into them. Traditionally, the public library supports the curriculum at all levels of K-12 with books or research databases and I do not think that should change. Should we serve as a free literacy agency for young children? As a formal location where children are dropped off and picked up at 2:30pm? NO. This is not the role of the public library. As an opportunity for parents and children to participate in early learning events through storytime activities and spending time with other parents? YES.”

Other library staff members, though, felt that a little extra noise was acceptable:

“Libraries and schools working hand in hand for the children, including teens, would allow librarians to help the students by knowing what books need to be on their shelves. If librarians make the students feel welcome and lets them know that they are willing to help will encourage them to come in after school. Parents sometimes are at a loss on how to help their children ‘surf’ the web for information so if the staff are willing to help more parents will bring the children in to study and the parents may learn in the process. Some are afraid that the library will become a babysitting service; if rules are in place as to the age of an unattended child or the length of a child’s stay and if these are carried out then I do not think this will become a problem. What better place for students to feel safe in as the public library.”

In addition, some respondents focused on the very basic practical assistance libraries can provide in helping children read. “If you’re trying to raise a reader, you need your library,” one librarian wrote. “It’s too expensive and somewhat wasteful to buy the hundreds of books a young reader goes through in those first years of learning to read.” Others singled out the unique place libraries can have in children’s lives as a place for children to discover and pursue their own interests. One wrote that a major strength of public libraries is “serving children in that they are really the only public place in any community where a child’s wants and desires are treated as respectfully as an adults.”

Tutoring and help with schoolwork

In focus groups, many parents had mentioned how they would appreciate tutoring services and homework help for their children at the library, especially if such services could be offered in coordination with the local schools. Several library staff members in our online panel wrote about this topic as well:

“The children in our community use the library often for assignments. The librarians should visit and coordinate more with the school district about the assignments. I mean both the adult and children’s departments. We often first find out about an assignment when the children start asking for the materials. It would be helpful if the district would encourage the teachers to consider (and find out about!) the resources available at our library when assigning homework and projects.”

“My most active patron is the child between the ages of 8-14 year old who has an assignment that is beyond their ability to complete without grown up assistance, who has no grown up in their lives that is able to help them. The kid will come in on their own, but just as often the parent will bring the child in, because the parent recognizes that they are not equipped to provide the help the children needs.”

“There is a wonderful program here at the library that’s available to children. Our Teacher In The Library program is a wonderful way for students to receive the assistance that’s needed after school with homework, study preparation and fun educational learning activities. The Teacher [a volunteer] is located at a table in the children’s area daily which is very convenient for the children and their parents. This is a very successful program because the children who are seeking help receive one on one interaction and they usually complete their homework with confidence of knowing that they can now complete their assignment and continue to perform academically the following school day with a vivid understanding. This is possible because of the wonderful program that has been set in the public library for the children.”

E-books & tablets

Many library staff members said they were also seeking to complement schools’ efforts in bringing newer technologies into the classroom:

“Schools are just getting into using e-books and are asking for multiple copies of children’s titles. We have some books for youth and YA, but not in the quantities or in some cases the genres that schools will be wanting. More and more schools will be coming to us for this, so we’d better be ready!”

“We have tried keeping up on the technology if possible. We purchased an iPad because the schools have implemented them in the classroom and if they have questions we wanted to be familiar with this technology.”

More broadly, many librarians said that they wished to implement or expand e-book and tablet offerings for children at their branches:

“We have had some success with online ebooks for younger children (TumbleBooks) and are currently running a trial of nonfiction ebooks. I would like to see more affordable ebook options.”

“I would be very interested in having e-readers for children loaded with [State] Student Book Award nominees to let circulate during the year. Money would be needed to cover the expense.”

“I very much want to integrate iPads into children’s services at my library. I think that tablet technology, as it becomes ever more prevalent, is increasingly a vital part of establishing a foundation for literacy in youth. I want to be able to incorporate iPads into my story time and school-age programming, and I want to be able to include ‘appvisory’ services for caregivers so that they can utilize technology with their children in informed, intentional ways. The largest obstacle to this sort of innovation in my library is a general reluctance to take the first step forward—the administration is overly hesitant to make any changes to services, even small ones, for fear of what repercussions could be for other branches in the library district and for other programs. I do not see these repercussions as risks, however, but as positive movings forward.”

Interactive experiences

We also asked our online panel of library staff members about their thoughts on interactive exhibits and other hands-on experiences at public libraries. Many of the library staff members who responded were enthusiastic about the idea:

“Libraries should offer more interactive experiences and displays, especially to younger children, to pique their interest and offer more hands-on learning. Children respond more to something they can feel and touch than simply looking at pictures/words in a book.”

“[I would like our library to have] more interactive and hands on learning experiences, especially for children and teens. If we are going to promote lifelong learning, we have to acknowledge diverse learning styles and provide resources for people whose primary learning style is not based on the printed word.”

“Information seeking is no longer the only function of the library, especially when youth are concerned. Libraries need to have open, interactive spaces that are conducive to learning and discovery as well as reading and research. Libraries also need to offer a diverse array of programming for customers of all ages—from early literacy programs starting for babies, to STEM programs for school-age children, to teen tech and social programs, to cultural and intellectual events for adults. These programs need to be free, interactive, and relatively frequent.”

“I think the most controversial [innovation at our library] has been the interactive materials (read: toys) in the children’s area. Youth Services librarians know that this increases literacy in the very young, but some parents and some staff are not sure they should be ‘playing with toys,’ ‘making too much noise having fun with toys,’ and otherwise impinging on another family’s visit who just want to quietly look at books. In my mind, this is an overall noise management issue, not something we shouldn’t be doing in the library. I think it’s bringing more families to the library and making the library more of a destination. But there needs to be a balance, especially in a smaller library or in a library with open spaces that can’t separate activities.”

Others felt that museums were better suited to providing these types of experiences:

“As we were planning the remodeling of our children’s space, we envisioned installing interactive programs, but we were disappointed to find that 1.) museums develop their programs in-house; 2.) they are prohibitively expensive; 3.) they do not market their proprietary interactive programs; 4.) they are often out-of-order, and 5.) by the time they remove them, they are broken or obsolete.”

“We have a Talking Telescope and some other equipment for children that provides such experiences. These are very appropriate for a library. Larger, more permanent, exhibits/experiences are expensive and can get out-of-date very quickly. We don’t want to run the risk of having our mission confused/overlapping with local museums, which are much better at providing such experiences.”

Others mentioned the importance of print books as a hands-on experience in their own right. “I believe that the technology is great,” one librarian wrote, “however having the books available for reference is important. Children experience the library and the books and the hands-on experience is not something that a computer can always provide.”

On reaching parents

“We partner with a local girl scout troop that meets bimonthly at our branch. The troop leaders distribute our library program and events calendar in the area public schools.”

“Parents are excited about the opportunities we offer their children — both school age and preschool. However, we would like to be able to reach a larger audience to advertise these children’s programs, particularly to the lower income families — we’ve had some success with this working through the schools, but need a better way.”

On using space in the library

“We’re definitely an important social place for many groups — children after school, the elderly and retired, job seekers, parents with children. I don’t think we can be just an online presence. Our physical space means a lot to people in our town.”

“The library should be a community center, safe and welcoming for all ages. There should be activities for young families, for young adults (e.g. actual adults, in their twenties), for teens and children who are not involved in a dozen different sports. As one patron said during our book sale/Girl Scout costume swap/high school bake sale/community farm sale—the library was “the place to be.””

“I’m more in favor of blended zones as opposed to separate spaces for different services. Having worked with very diverse clienteles, I found that everyone behaved better in a wider “village” concept. Preschool children aren’t any louder than the senior citizen book club who discuss their ailments and issues in very loud voices in the library. When I was a branch manager, the more furniture and shelving I took out of the branch, the happier the customers were — we only needed many more plug-ins for people to use.”

“We are investigating space planning which will include larger meeting and programming spaces, more computers, public meeting/training areas and expanded children’s area. Rural libraries must provide quality — not quantity. Collections must be radically weeded to make room for non-print areas.”

“I think it is important for libraries to respond to their community needs. Not every library needs to be ran the same way or offer the same services. It is also important for libraries to offer services and programs that match the demographics of their communities. Freeing up space for children doesn’t make sense when the majority of your users are 45+.”

“The thing we struggle with most right now is having both a friendly, welcoming place for children and providing a place for quiet research and online classes. Our space is very small and it is difficult to fill both of these roles effectively.”

“Having a separate children’s area or young adults area will cater solely to those groups and make them feel that the library is theirs. They do not have to deal with adults watching them or monitoring what book they pick or what they choose to do—it’s all about them and what they want with no judgment. Children and teens love having their own space so why not give them that at the library?”

“We have done some of the creating of separate spaces, however in some cases it has not worked out as anticipated. For example, we have an area with 6 PCs set up for young children, with children’s games and other toys and things to play with. This area is where we tell parents to sign on to the computers with their children. However, with only six stations available, it is often filled with children and the parents cannot sign on. Far too often, parents with young children have nowhere to go — there may be no computers available in children’s area, forcing adults who want to use computers to bring their small children (sometimes toddlers) into the section reserved for people 16 and over. It creates an issue when the little ones quickly grow bored and get restless and noisy, and want to play in the children section. They whine and try to beg their parents to take them to the playroom. Meanwhile, the adults in the room who may be doing research, writing papers for school, or conducting business on the public computers become frustrated with a parent who may be playing on Facebook while their children are distracting other patrons. I feel like we need a separate enclosed area for parents who want to be online while their children play nearby. Currently our children’s section is not really set up to provide that type of environment. Separate areas for different types of usage is a good idea, but it needs to be thought through carefully in order to be truly useful to the population segment you are trying to appeal to.”

“In the past year we developed a strong model for a walk-in pre-school area in each branch library with comfortable seating, large educational toys, and a consistent program of providing a never-ending array of staff-developed self-serve literacy activities. Our children’s areas have become very “sticky” and a popular destination for parents/caregivers to hang out and play— far more than in the past. An important part of the design has been to have numerous comfortable chairs for adults to sit near their children and either interact with them or do their own thing (i.e. role model reading and learning while the child plays). At first some of the staff were afraid it would create too many behavior problems. The areas are not tantrum/breakage free however they are not as bad as the worst fears of some of the staff.”

Libraries as a general information resource for parents

Many library staff members wrote about how libraries could respond to the broader needs of parents and children in the community:

“Many parents who are new to the community, or even to the USA, use the library as a gateway to learning about the area. They see us as an institution that has all the answers not just about books and movies, but about schools, daycare, local parks, other groups that cater to families, etc. It’s extremely valuable for many to have a free place to go that is not only fun to visit, but has benefits for all members of the family.”

“I think libraries should offer services to the community that aren’t already being offered by other local organizations or partner with these organizations to combine resources and offer a higher level of service. For instance, we knew there were children in our county that were hungry during the summer when they didn’t have school lunches available to them. Our school system was trying to provide meals for these children, but they needed a little help. We partnered with the schools and applied for several grants that enabled us to offer summer literacy programs with free meals and free books for both children and their parents. We have hungry people in our county and no food bank, so we are partnering with a food bank in a large neighboring city. It costs $1000 each time we bring their mobile food pantry to our county. Our Outreach Specialist looks for organizations willing to fund one of the monthly food pantry visits. Our staff even donated the money to fund one of the monthly food banks.”

When asked about public library’s strengths, staff members wrote:

“Connecting with their users in a personal way—reader’s advice, assistance in researching at critical points in a person’s life—pregnancy, how to parent, diagnosis of a disease, caring for elderly parents, etc.”

“The public library’s sense of “place” in the community. It is a place to meet, other parents at storytimes, classmates and tutors to do schoolwork, for recreation, to read, to do crafts, to attend a program and use the computers, a place to do all these things with family and friends. We lead people to knowledge and therefore better living.”

“Libraries—especially public libraries—should be the great connector. Connecting people with information and the resources they need to make informed decisions about their lives. Connecting people with the resources they need for entertainment. Connecting children to books and the love of reading. Connecting people to their roots and their past.”

What libraries should change

We also asked open-ended questions about what libraries could potentially improve on in the future, and pulled some of the answers relating particularly to parents and children.

Some librarians wrote about how libraries can adapt to multiple learning styles and needs:

“I enjoy how libraries are becoming more hands on, especially in the children’s area. People are bringing in more exhibits, programs, and sensory items to make the library more interesting.”

Excited about “The children’s computers and book bags of learning materials. These are very helpful, especially for children who may not be able to do as well in a traditional educational system, children with dyslexia and ADD, for example. Hands on materials like flashcards and puzzles, etc. help children who have learning disabilities.”

“This library system is trying to start a Story Time for special needs children in the area. We want these families to know that they are welcome at the libraries and the programs. We want it to be a place where they do not need to feel as if they must apologize for the child’s behavior. Some money is set aside to purchase the resources for the program, but staff needs training in presenting a program to this audience. The library system needs to develop a partnership with a behavioral therapist and speech therapist. The cost of hiring these people to work with us would use all of the available funding and more. Staff also needs away from normal duties to plan the programs for the year.”

And rather than separating patrons by age, some librarians were intrigued by the possibility of multi-generational programming:

“We should consider mixed programming — not just for children or adults. We can learn from each other. It’s great to see the world through the eyes of a child. Elders have a lot to share with younger generations.”

“I’d like to offer more multi-generational programming so our retirement population had more access to the children and we could build a stronger sense of community.”

Others wanted libraries to go to patrons out in the community, or make it easier for busy patrons to come to the library:

“We just started a Daycare Delivery program that has really been embraced by the local daycares. Since transportation of young children is virtually impossible, we, along with the help of the local Literacy Committee, bring the library to them. They receive a bin of books to use for the month, then the bins are switched from daycare to daycare, bringing new titles each month. We still don’t have a book club for adults. Time, space for meetings, and expenses are all problems we are hoping to solve in the near future.”

“The extension of library hours until 7 p.m., affords working parents an opportunity to come to the library with their children and assist in research and completion of assignment. Homework help is a valuable program for students whose parents may not be able to provide that assistance to them. Our library utilizes Tumble Books for children which young mothers adore. Computer labs assist the public in applying for employment, benefits if they are unemployed, composing resumes, contacting relatives free of charge. Encouraging families to read and utilize the library programs to create lifelong learners and readers.”

“We would love to work on some Mommy and Me types of classes or early literacy classes because we feel that this is a need for our community, but it is difficult to get commitment from working parents who don’t want to give up their little bit of free time on Saturdays. During the week they are at work and children are in daycare. We did try having the city daycare bring some of their children over to the library one morning a week, but that was difficult when the weather became a problem.”