The Children We Serve - Page 2
Five notions of childhood suggest ways to think about the services we provide
Posted Wed, 09/23/2009 - 18:18
However, access is only part of the problem. The other two issues that we need to think hard about are content and education for information literacy. And if we are going to fully realize the potential of this marvelous device that computer scientist Seymour Papert called “the children’s machine,” we also need to consider how we are going to integrate computers and digital resources into our services and collections.
The Child in the Community
Although the founders of library service to children designed their services to promote books and reading, they still understood the importance of their young patrons’ environment. Librarians working in rural areas pondered schemes to bring books to children in remote farmhouses far from the nearest library. Urban librarians were concerned about crowded tenements and unsafe sweatshops where children labored for pennies. In a speech to ALA in 1905, Frances Jenkins Olcott, then head of the children’s department of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, talked about the demographics of her city, where more than two-thirds of the total population of 321,616 were “either foreign born, or children of foreign born parents, and persons of negro descent.” Olcott was knowledgeable about the employment opportunities, the housing conditions, and the curriculum of the public schools. She knew the city inside and out, and she understood what living there was like for children.
Olcott knew that the Carnegie Library was reaching thousands of children through its branches and through the city schools. She worried about the large numbers of children who didn’t come into the library and were not enrolled in school. She did not abandon these at-risk children. She organized an initiative that cooperated with “institutions for social betterment,” such as social settlements, the juvenile court, and the Newsboys’ Home. Library staff established home libraries—small cases of books—in working-class homes. During home visits, librarians would gather a group of children from the neighborhood and talk about the books, read aloud, tell stories, and organize crafts such as sewing or basketry.
Outreach or social work? Librarians sometimes embrace the first activity and shun the second. Yet when they truly begin to plan and implement programs that take into account the communities in which children live, the lines tend to blur. Traditional library missions may expand when we go beyond superficial marketing studies or environmental scans and really dig for insights into our communities.
We will rarely find those useful insights if we stay sequestered behind the walls of our library buildings. I understand the competing demands of reference desk schedules, storytimes, and staff meetings. In spite of those very real constraints, time must be found for walking in the footsteps of the children and families whom we serve.
The Global Child
The world feels more interconnected all the time. The increasing urgency of global warming has alerted us to both the fragility and the importance of those connections.
Our economic system is now international as well. Banks fail in New York, and stock markets in Japan, Hong Kong, and Europe shudder along with our own. And sadly, war continues to remind us that we are all citizens of one world. In addition, the United States continues to attract immigrants from all over the world.
It is no longer unusual to find large urban school districts in cities that serve as ports of entry for new immigrants where the number of languages spoken in the homes of the students exceeds 50. In my own city of Los Angeles, these languages include the mostly oral dialects spoken by indigenous people from Central America as well as the more familiar Spanish, Korean, Mandarin, Thai, Filipino, and Armenian. For the children of these newcomer families, the country of origin remains an important influence. It is easy to see that the children whose families maintain their international connections are living in a global village. I suggest that other children, like my grandchildren who are now fourth-generation Americans, are also residents in one global village. The ecological and economic and geopolitical realities of the 21st century place them there. The library can help prepare them to be more competent and compassionate global citizens.
Our materials collections serve us well as a resource in this endeavor. I still have the copy of Paul Hazard’s 1944 book Books, Children, and Men that I bought when I was in library school. I was taken with his notion of the world republic of childhood. This French scholar wrote eloquently about the capacity of books to connect children to one another across national borders.
Books in languages other than English are most likely to be found in children’s collections serving large immigrant populations. They are well used by children who haven’t learned English yet and by families who hope to keep the mother tongue alive even as the children become fluent in English. I have found, however, that even monolingual American children are intrigued with books in other languages. They are especially fascinated by different alphabets. I’m not sure what an American child learns about Japan when she leafs through a Japanese picture book, but it can’t hurt to be exposed to the notion that not everybody reads from left to right in the Roman alphabet.
If we begin to think of the American children we serve as citizens in the world republic of childhood who will grow up to be decision makers in an increasingly interconnected global village, we also add another critical dimension to our understanding of contemporary childhood.