Dynamic programs, popular books, the latest technology—your public library is now one of the coolest spots around. As summer frees up time for pleasure reading, the library’s print and electronic materials—all free!—help hedge against possible “learning loss” during long school breaks.
And recent transformations have enhanced kid appeal. “Today’s libraries look more like community centers,” says Katie Fitzgerald, children’s librarian at the Tenley-Friendship Library, one of 25 in the DC Public Library system.
Since Tenley-Friendship is my neighborhood library, I know exactly what she means. Bright with natural light and easy-to-clean plastic furniture, this Northwest Washington library projects a welcoming atmosphere. On the lower level, tots enjoy circle time and older youngsters sign up for summer programs and check out colorful books. Upstairs, teens read or work on computers in their own section.
Nationwide, new services and resources expand rather than change the central role of libraries, which remains “promot[ing] the joy of reading and learning in children,” says Rachel Harlan, a librarian for 21 years and now the Youth Services Supervisor at Central Library in Arlington, Va.
Librarians manage not just print items but many forms of informational content, including the library’s website. Libraries have increased the number of computers available to the public and added Internet access, free WiFi, e-books and databases—and classes for patrons to learn all this.
A highly visible change in the past decade has been the increase in the number and variety of programs. These bring in new families and help ensure patrons’ ongoing involvement. The three libraries featured in this article—Tenley-Friendship, Central and Takoma Park Maryland—are now busy with well-attended summer programs, which include games, parties and prizes for reading accomplished. All three are sensitive to the schedules of working parents with young children and have added evening and Saturday storytimes to weekday offerings.
Programing is often shaped by the demographics (and budget) of a given community. To provide a few examples: Takoma Park Maryland hosts weekly English, Spanish and French story circles to accommodate young multilingual patrons. Central has partnered with Arlington TV to provide bilingual storytimes to be watched at home. And Tenley-Friendship, located close to five schools, has pioneered a vibrant after-school program, with crafts, films, read-alouds and teen book groups.
Also situated next to five schools, Takoma Park has school groups coming in regularly for its programs. It hosts book groups—the award-winning Banned Books (for middle schoolers), Jr. Banned Books (grades 3 to 5) and Caldecott Club—and a Favorite Poem Night. A monthly comics book club, lead by library specialist Dave Burbank, has proven wildly popular, says Karen MacPherson, Children’s and Youth Services coordinator. It connects with young people’s burgeoning interest in graphic novels, as did an author program I attended, in which Mark Long spoke about his illustrated memoir of growing up in Texas during the Civil Rights era.
Central’s innovative programs include Kids Club, with regular presentations by local professionals (yoga teacher, baker, police official) about their work, and Paws to Read, which brings together at-risk readers with trained therapy dogs.
Tots to Teens
With recent research on the impact of the preliteracy environment on later learning, “librarians have become stronger advocates for early literacy,” says Tenley-Friendship’s Fitzgerald. “Many parents see us as their children’s first teachers.” This is evident in the abundance of board books and stimulating storytimes for little ones as well as specialized programs outside the library to reach immigrant or at-risk tots “where they are.”
Librarians try to “develop strong, ongoing relationships with [youngsters],” says Pat Loverich, Central’s Youth Services Technology librarian. Starting with the early years and moving through high school, a child can “grow” with the library.
Jenny Craig has seen this happen with her own three sons. “We go to Tenley-Friendship almost weekly,” says Craig. Oscar, 10, looks for his favorite Agatha Christie mysteries, Charles, 8, seeks out graphic novels and nonfiction about sports and animals, and Marcus, 6, browses for early readers and picture books. Craig and her husband often put holds on books through the library’s website, check out movies and download books on e-readers.
The other end of the youth spectrum has seen a dramatic rise in services for teens. Most libraries now house young-adult titles in a section apart from the children’s books, and often involve teens in programing for their peers. Takoma Park sponsors service projects and a College Bound series for high schoolers. Arlington County’s Teen Advisory Boards, including one at Central, review new teen titles, create lists of recommended books and help with a blog. Teens volunteer to teach basic technology or plan special events, including a recent Hunger Games party.
Digital Media, Computers and “Virtual Services”
Librarians now manage not just print items (books and magazines) but many forms of informational content, including the library’s website. Libraries have increased the number of computers available to the public and added Internet access, free WiFi, e-books and databases—and classes for patrons to learn all this. Staff, too, seems to be in a constant state of training as the technology evolves.
Loverich mentions Central’s connection with young patrons through its website, teen blog and social media (Facebook and Twitter), with a new position, “Virtual Library Services Manager,” created to oversee such efforts.
MacPherson sees the public’s rising demand for e-books as posing a challenge for libraries. “Major questions remain about how best to deliver those e-books, who owns the e-books, and whether publishers who now refuse to allow libraries access to their e-books will reverse their position,” she says.
Even as libraries expand into the virtual world, their physical structures must adapt to the change. Dedicated in 2011 and built on the site of the previous library building (circa 1960), Tenley-Friendship, with its open spaces and many computers, was designed to accommodate ongoing technical innovations. Staff at Central and Takoma Park Maryland libraries, dedicated in 1961 and 1955, respectively, work within the constraints of older buildings that are recognized as beloved fixtures in their communities.
A library is a special place, says Loverich, a “physical gathering place for families, children, teens ... who walk into our building, as well as a virtual gathering place for those who might leave a comment on the website, tweet us or “like” us on Facebook.”
Craig speaks to other benefits: “Libraries provide opportunities for us to discover books we never knew about previously and hence open up new worlds ... they also teach us about sharing responsibly.” Craig is such a strong champion of libraries that she is a member of Tenley-Friendship’s Friends of the Library, which helps with fundraising and program planning. (Most libraries benefit greatly from their volunteer Friends programs; websites provide information on getting involved.)
The esteemed novelist Ray Bradbury, recently deceased, famously noted that he received his college education at the public library. Libraries continue to be such bastions of knowledge, with librarians trained to help connect young people with just the right books and resources now and into the future.
By Mary Quattlebaum