February 2006

James Stegall


Investing in the Children's Section

As a single parent on a budget, the local library has become my biggest friend. In the past, I had spent probably a thousand dollars on books, videos and music for my toddler, if not easily more. Due to a recent career change, my salary has been cut in half, and I am finding myself turning to resources in the community for kid-friendly entertainment a lot more, and the library has yet to let me down.

But after spending time in a couple different community's libraries, I have started noticing a few factors that make some better than others.

I shouldn't need to belabor the value of a children's section in a library. I know they're expensive and resource intensive. Children's books can be some of the most costly in the library, and they take the most abuse. But these are also investments in the future, and vital if we want libraries of the future to be anything more than Internet cafes.

Because it's such a money issue for so many libraries, I would rather talk about the things I love about mine, and you can compare your local library accordingly. We're a little spoiled in Eugene, Oregon, because the city just built a new library, several stories tall, and most of the first floor is devoted to its children's section. The space is the first thing you notice as you enter the section -- one wall of the entryway is periodicals, the other all videos and DVDs, and then the room opens into stacks that are just kid height.

On top of most of the bookshelves are books stood on display, which is awesome for a parent like me who can't watch an overactive toddler and browse the stacks at the same time. I've got time to chase my son and scan titles. Unless I'm looking for certain subject areas that he's currently into -- a rotation of trains, airplanes and dinosaurs -- I usually grab books as I go past.

Inevitably, the first place my son runs to is the play area in the back of the library. As I've sat watching him play with other kids, I find myself thinking what a great idea the play area is. It's nothing fancy: a large wooden activity table with beads on wires and some puzzles, with stuffed animals scattered around. There is a table where parents can sit, that is also scattered with books to look at while the kids play. The play area allows me to venture out a little bit and look at some books for him while he's engaged, and it keeps my son from removing all the books from the shelves, as he likes to do at Barnes and Noble.

Behind the play area is a set of glass doors overlooking a small courtyard of river stones ringed by metal benches. Inset among the stones are pottery mosaics of various designs -- it's truly a magical spot, and I can't wait to take my son out there when our Oregon rain lets up a little. Until then, he's been fascinated by a shelf devoted only to puppets and other reading aids that can be checked out. Every time we visit, he attaches himself to another puppet and we read together at one of the many couches scattered throughout the section.

Every time we visit the library, I find new area someone has devoted time and effort into making fun and comfortable for kids. Local artists have donated a number of papier-mâché dragons to our library, which my son loves to stare at for a while. The walls have a number of permanent art pieces, and temporary collections by local school kids. There are many comfortable places to sit and read.

One of my favorite parts of the section are the discovery boxes, which are large plastic tubs parents can check out containing books, videos, puppets, maps, and etc, on a certain subject. My son isn't quite old enough to appreciate one yet, but when he is I'll be all over it.

One reason I appreciate the brand new library so much is that I just spent three years in a town with a drastically under-funded library. Its one little room devoted to kids had two walls of books, a wall of videos that were mostly donated and religious in nature (this was a Department of Defense library), some worn cushions for kids to sit on, and a mural that badly needed repainting. It was obvious the librarians did their best to make it nice, but there just wasn't much to work with. The main area where lack of funding showed was in the books -- there were very few new books. The rest of the books were dog-eared and had been abused by many children.

My son is only three and a half -- but since both his mom and dad are people who love books, he has been raised with a respect for printed matter. He has never been allowed to write in or tear up books. Now that most of what we read is from the library, this is doubly true. I couldn't believe what had been done to some of the books in that small library -- and it made me a little sad when they were titles my son wanted to read. Caring for library books is a parent's responsibility and a direct reflection of the community using the library.

But the small library also did many of the same things the bigger, richer one does: reading and craft hours run by volunteers, art by local kids on the walls. These activities are something money can't buy, and which make a children's section an amazing resource to parents (especially low-income parents).

What can make a great children's section in your library aside from a big budget? I would say simply someone who cares. It's easy for me to complain about the poor state of the wall mural in my old library but I could easily have volunteered to repaint it. Libraries are constantly in need of volunteers, and it's at the smallest and poorest that an individual can have the most impact. Small libraries could also use all the beautiful children's books your kids are tired of now, as well as the DVDs, CDs and CD-ROMs. A well-made children's book and digital media can be enjoyed by many more than just one child. I am always amazed by the awesome displays a dedicated librarian can make from just a few items.

A great children's section at the library is a respite for children and parents, a place where kids can feel safe and surrounded by knowledge and wonder. It is also a place where parents who normally might not interact get a chance to know each other and share stories -- and a single dad who normally wouldn't ask advice can ask a grandmother for her opinion. And they're just relaxing and bright places to spend a couple hours on a rainy day.