The Children We Serve
Five notions of childhood suggest ways to think about the services we provide
Posted Wed, 09/23/2009 - 18:18
In Children and Libraries: Getting It Right (ALA Editions, 2001), I proposed three alternative visions for the children we would be serving as we moved into the 21st century: the original notion of the child reader, an idea that inspired and guided the founders of library service to children; the child of the information age; and the child in the community. It’s now time to revisit those three concepts and look at two additional notions of childhood that might usefully inform our thinking today. These new ideas are “the global child” and “the empowered child.”
Each of these five concepts of the child leads to a different approach to library service. All are plausible, all are hopeful, and all are obtainable. They may not be mutually exclusive, but each is based on a different understanding of the child who will shape and claim the future of the 21st century.
The Child as Reader
The library for the child reader is the vision that offers the most continuity with the past. It builds on the core values and visions of the librarians who founded library services for children in this country. It is consistent with the niche that these services have traditionally occupied. It is therefore a conservative vision, in the sense that it conserves a cherished and valued tradition.
As we think about the future of library service to children, however, we must look at even our most cherished and valued traditions to see how they hold up against today’s realities. Can we be sure that books and reading will continue to be valued by our society? Will parents, educators, and policymakers continue to believe that books and reading are essential to the healthy development of children? Will voters agree that providing books and promoting reading for children are appropriate and necessary functions for tax-supported public libraries? I am writing these words during the worst economic recession our country has known for decades, when even the most basic government services are threatened. Will we librarians be able to make a case for the importance of books and reading in the lives of children? It has been interesting to observe the profession’s effort to build a rational foundation for our reading mission. I have previously written about our faith in a deeply held but unproven belief in the power of reading “good” books as a means of improving human nature and presumably human behavior.
However, the world we operate in now seems to require something more, and children’s librarians have dutifully looked for research findings that bolster their claims of doing good work and providing meaningful service.
One of the more significant initiatives has been “Every Child Ready to Read” (ECRR), a joint initiative by two American Library Association divisions, the Association for Library Service to Children and the Public Library Association, to educate parents and caregivers in techniques they can use to transfer critical emergent literacy skills to their preschool children. The association leaders responsible for the original program drew on research findings from the National Reading Panel and even hired academics with impeccable credentials to design the workshop curricula. Not satisfied with that, they commissioned a research study to determine whether the researchbased curriculum achieved its desired learning and behavior outcomes. The study showed that parents of every age, educational background, income level, and ethnicity who attended the ECRR workshops significantly increased those behaviors that research has shown stimulate reading readiness in young children. So we’re feeling like we’re on pretty solid ground here, at least in our efforts to improve literacy in young children. The big lesson we learned is that we can’t do this job alone; we need to enlist caregivers and especially parents as the child’s first and best teachers.
The Child of the Information Age
Computers, with their access to myriad digital resources, have already changed the way we deliver many of our services to children. Children of the information age-boys in particular-have breached the walls and claimed their right to computers and the internet. Never mind that they do not have all the rights that adult library patrons do; many, perhaps most, libraries use filtering software to screen content on computers in the children’s room. Most young patrons probably don’t care as much as we intellectual freedom advocates do; they are not there to access forbidden websites. They may not even want to access information sites at all. Mostly, librarians tell me and my own observations confirm, they want to play games.
We children’s librarians tend to be a little dismissive of those computer and video games, unlike our colleagues in young adult services. Sometimes it seems that the best rationale we can offer for this activity is that we encourage reading for pleasure. Why not computing for pleasure? We should probably pay more attention to voices like that of Steven Johnson, who claimed in his book Everything Bad Is Good for You (Riverhead, 2005) that computer games place heavy cognitive demands on their players. In fact, much of these games’ captivation is due to the challenges they place on individuals to persist in their efforts to solve complex challenges. In Got Game: How the Gamer Generation Is Reshaping Business Forever (Harvard Business School Press, 2004), John C. Beck and Mitchell Wade go even further. They insist that the hours spent playing video games have given young people now entering the workforce some unique and badly needed skills: an ability to multitask and a willingness to take risks. Those 10-year-old boys clustered around a computer in your children’s room arguing about the best strategy for knocking out an opponent’s avatar may be engaged in the same kind of reasoning 20 years from now in some corporate boardroom.