The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Children's Libraries

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The Encyclopedia Americana
Children's Libraries
Edition of 1920. See also Library on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

CHILDREN'S LIBRARIES. In a concrete sense, special collections of books intended for juvenile readers and usually kept in separate rooms of general public libraries. From a broader point of view, however, children's libraries may be defined as an educational agency seeking to acquaint the young with the world's best literature and to cultivate an abiding love for good reading. Their work, therefore, supplements and transcends that of the public schools which exercise but a limited influence on the child's outside reading.

History and Development. — Active library work with children is a comparatively recent development — not more than 35 years old, at the utmost. Owing, however, to the laxity with which the term children's library has been used, there is considerable uncertainty as to iust where and when the institution originated. Sporadic and usually abortive efforts in this direction appear to have been made as early as 1885, when a children's library was opened in New York by a public school principal (Emily S. Hanaway). A more successful experiment was made, also in New York, the following year, when a separate library for children was opened as a branch of the Aguilar Free Library. But these forerunners of the children's library movement do not appear to have been generally imitated before 1890, when a children's reading room was opened at the Brookline (Mass.) Public Library. Soon thereafter special provisions for children in public libraries were made at Buffalo, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York, Lowell, Medford, Brooklyn, Pawtucket, New Haven and elsewhere. By 1896 Milwaukee, Denver, Detroit Omaha, Seattle and San Francisco — the movement spreading more rapidly in the West — all had their children's departments. To the Minneapolis Public Library, however, seems to belong the honor of first recognizing the full importance of the children's library movement by making adequate provisions for library work with children in 1893. By 1897 the movement had assumed such proportions that the American Library Association made the subject of children's libraries a special topic for discussion at its annual conference at Philadelphia that year. This gave so much additional impetus to the movement that children's departments or children's rooms soon became a component part of every progressive public library in the United States. The best of these carry on systematic work with children and have all the delightful adjuncts of children's rooms. In some instances even — in such cities as Brooklyn (N. Y.), Cleveland and Griffin (Ga.) — children's libraries are housed in entirely separate buildings, which naturally afford many exceptional opportunities. This indicates how juvenile readers have come to their own in our public libraries since the day of “children's corners,” designed quite as much to keep children out of the way of adult readers as for their own good. In most of the larger cities of the United States children's libraries are now completely organized and fully supervised. In such cities the central library serves as a model for the various branches, all of which are administered and conducted in accordance with the general principles formulated by the supervisor.

Some idea of the general growth and popularity of children's libraries may be had by a glance at a few actual figures. In 1914 there were over 1,500,000 volumes intended specially for juvenile readers in but 51 of the larger libraries in the country, which shelved some 300,000 new volumes in 1913 alone. By a very conservative estimate half a million children held library cards the same year, drawing more than eleven million books for home use in the few libraries above mentioned. Of course such large library centres as those of Pittsburgh (Pa.) and New York, where children's libraries constitute an entirely separate system, present figures even more impressive. In 1915 the various children's library branches of Pittsburgh had 119,678 volumes and a circulation of 702,139. During the same year the combined circulation of all the children's branches of Greater New York exceeded seven and a-half million volumes (7,649,462, to be exact), while the number of children using the 44 branches of three of its boroughs (the boroughs of Manhattan, the Bronx and Richmond) was 1,608,753. The great popularity of children's story hours, an important and seemingly indispensable phase of library work with children, may be judged from the fact that 119,678 children attended them in 1915 in Pittsburgh alone. In New York, exclusive of the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, 2,489 story-hour groups gathered during the same period in the various branch libraries and the Central Children's Room. At the latter, on one special occasion, the number of auditors was 270.

The children's library movement abroad has not, on the whole, kept pace with its rapid development in the United States. Not even England and Germany have caught the full educational signficance of this movement. In England the limited funds available under the Public Library Acts has greatly hindered progress in this direction. In Germany, likewise, the juvenile library movement has lagged behind considerably, despite a very extensive and well organized library system. Both joined the movement very recently. Germany, for instance, opened her first children's library only in 1909 and even five years later had children's rooms in but 30 cities — a showing easily surpassed by Denmark, where by 1916 more than 400 children's libraries had been opened, 62 in Copenhagen alone. Russia, on the other hand, has more separate libraries for children than many a more progressive country. In 1915 there were at least 10 such libraries in Moscow alone. But the American example is gradually making itself felt to the ends of the civilized world — in Sweden, New Zealand, Japan, etc. — and there is probably no large book-reading community anywhere that has not some kind of children's library or reading room.

Aims and Means. — Besides the chief aim of children's libraries — the general aim already mentioned, which may be called inspirational — there is another and perhaps a secondaiy aim, which may be called informational. This consists in teaching library children, directly or indirectly, the intelligent use of libraries and their accessories, including such indispensable library tools as books of reference and card-indexes. Speaking relatively, the second aim is really a means to the more general end for which libraries are maintained; for, obviously, the better children learn how to use the resources of their own libraries the more they necessarily contribute to the efficient use of the adult department.

The attainment of these general aims involves various more or less distinct lines of work with children, which naturally varies both in kind and degree with local conditions. In general, according to an eminent librarian (Arthur E. Bostwick), “a typical children's department of an American public library carries on some or all of the following kinds of work: (1) Controlled and guided circulation of books for home use; (2) use of books and periodicals as in an ordinary reading room; (3) reference use of books, largely in connection with school work; (4) work with very young children, chiefly by means of picture books; (5) exhibitions, the display of illustrated bulletins, etc., always in connection with courses of reading; (6) story-telling to selected groups.” The three great factors in carrying on these manifold activities are, of course, the children, the books and the librarians; and although the success of any particular library centre depends upon all three, only the second and third elements can properly be considered in this article.

The selection of books for a children's library is at once the most difficult and most important task of the children's librarian. Great diversity of opinion prevails on this subject among librarians themselves, and while the problem of children's reading is a new and very serious one (see Children's Literature), the conscientious librarians are trying hard to solve it. Since the establishment of children's libraries, policies as to the choice of books have varied all the way from puritanical exclusion of everything not positively didactic to latitudinarian inclusion of everything the child will read. Such extreme views of the function of children's libraries have naturally put their supervisors on their guard, with the result that, although the golden mean has not yet been generally attained, far higher standards of book selection prevail in children's rooms than in the average adult department. The best children's libraries follow neither moral nor literary criteria to the utter disregard of children's tastes, but provide enough books in sufficient variety to supply the normal needs of boys and girls of all tastes and of all ages. Special attention, too, is given in children's rooms to the mechanical features of the books selected — such as editions, type, binding, and illustration — since it is realized that attractiveness in children's volumes has more than the obvious æsthetic end to recommend it. Indeed, the ideal children's book shelf, already the most attractive in the whole public library, is gradually being made a thing of beauty as well as a joy forever.

Next in importance to the quality and quantity of the books in a children's library are the personality and qualifications of the children's librarian, upon whom the success of the children's room largely depends. Consequently, the most experienced assistants — experienced in dealing with children as well as in library routine — are coming to be employed in the best children's rooms. Such librarians should know intimately the entire range of juvenile literature and be in thorough sympathy with the rising generation of book readers' whose reading they must guide and direct, if they would make the most of their vocation. Besides expert knowledge of children's books and special library experience, aptitude for work with children is an indispensable requisite in the children's librarian. Indeed, so important and responsible is her position that special preparatory courses are now given for such work in nearly all library training schools, at least one of which (The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh) devotes itself exclusively to the professional training of children's librarians — a training that may well be made as broad and as cultural as is required for the profession of teaching.

David A. Modell.