Magazine article American Libraries

Diversity Takes Children to a Friendly Family Place

Magazine article American Libraries

Diversity Takes Children to a Friendly Family Place

Article excerpt

Not since the launch of Sputnik in the late 1950s has there been so much anxiety about improving education. From President Clinton's "America Reads Challenge" aimed at all children reading independently by third grade to magazine cover stories about emergent literacy and brain development, there is a growing drumbeat to prepare our children for competition in the global information economy of the 21st century.

In the search for community assets to meet this need, however, public libraries are frequently overlooked. Limited by old stereotypes characterizing them as quiet reading archives and middle-class institutions, libraries are often left out of the community initiatives to serve diverse families with young children.

"We've been hampered by the idea that `education' is something that happens between the ages of 6 and 18 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.," says Diantha Schull, executive director of Libraries for the Future, a national library advocacy organization (AL, May 1997, p. 57-58). "Libraries have historically embodied the notion of multidisciplinary lifelong learning that is well suited to the educational challenges our society faces." But in order for them to satisfy the needs of today's families, they need to rethink and redesign their services. This rethinking provides an extraordinary opportunity for libraries.

A pioneer mentality is a must

With an existing infrastructure of buildings and staff in 16,000 American communities, public libraries are uniquely positioned to take a leadership position in community efforts to improve educational achievement. By building coalitions, reaching out to new and nontraditional audiences, and redesigning services for young children, libraries can participate effectively in society's efforts to produce a literate citizenry and productive workforce.

In 1996 LFF joined forces with the Middle Country Public Library (MCPL) in Centereach, New York, a pathfinder and recognized leader in children's and family services, and the Hasbro Children's Foundation to create and replicate a model for meeting this need. The "Family Place" project takes a holistic and developmentally informed approach to the promotion of emergent literacy and healthy child development by addressing the needs of children at the earliest ages, and supporting the role of parent as a child's first and most important teacher.

The Family Place is also being implemented in five other communities -- Baltimore, Maryland; Hartford, Connecticut; Lyndon-ville, Vermont; Providence, Rhode Island; and White Plains, New York -- and is spreading across the country to sites in Michigan, Ohio, Colorado, and California.

What it looks like

First of all, a Family Place library conveys a welcoming feeling to young children and the adults who care for them. There's a space to park strollers, a children's room with parenting information, and a rug and comfortable chairs for parents and children to curl up together to read a story. Collections for the youngest children abound-including board books and developmentally appropriate toys -- as do those for parents, including information written at low literacy levels or in languages other than English, if those are the needs of the community.

They don't have to be expensive, just smart. For example, at the public library in Cobleigh, a small, rural library in northern Vermont, a single bookcase houses several shelves of parenting books above several others displaying board books.

Family Place libraries conduct programs for children and parents or caregivers together, as well as programs for parents alone, conducted at times that are convenient for families, including evenings and weekends. The core program of the Family Place, known as the "Parent-Child Workshop," is a five-week series that looks like a toddler playgroup and functions simultaneously as a library orientation, parent education class, early intervention screening, parent support group, and cooperative community program. …

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