My library is located in close proximity to several schools. Some of the kids get picked up by their parents and some go to the park district’s after school program, but a large number of them come to the library every day. I’ve heard several people describe it as a “swarm” after seeing the number of kids entering the library at once. In the past few years, several people have also said to me, “It’s a shame their parents use this as a babysitting service.” I’ve always felt affronted by that sentiment, just as much as when I hear, “It must be nice to be a librarian because you get to read all day.” In the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about exactly why the babysitting comment bothers me and how best to respond to it, as well as general frustration with our “after-school problem.”
First, I think the babysitting comment indicates a need to change our perspective about how we define the community we serve. To bring up babysitting only focuses on the parents responsibility (which I certainly don’t want to minimize). Young people in the library aren’t just children of members of the community; they are the community. They aren’t just important because someday they will vote and have careers and families; they are just important. I may be preaching to the choir, as this is something that awesome librarians have known for many years.
Second, I’ve noticed that a lot of complaints center on how these middle schoolers are using the library after school. Some are browsing for books and doing homework, but many are also eating snacks, chatting with friends, playing board games, and playing Minecraft or other computer games. This does not mean they are using the library as a recreation center; it just means that they have a broad definition of what the library is used for. Many adults remember the library of their childhood as a quiet place for reading and studying, and to this day reminisce fondly about the card catalog and learning the Dewey Decimal system. The many young people who come to the library today will not have those same experiences, but I assure you they are creating memories of their own. When they are adults, they may look back at the hundreds of hours they spent at the library and recall the programs they attended, the librarians who greeted them by name everyday, or how they played games with their friends. Let’s not impose our memories of how we used the library when we were young on how the library should be used today; these kids are members of the community, and this is their library.
Librarians tend to be detail-oriented, and some of us may be so wrapped up in the details of doing our jobs that we forget to take a step back and ask why we do our jobs. Every once in a while, ask yourself, “What does the library mean to this community?” and “Who is our community?” The fact that sometimes up to a hundred kids come into the library has been framed as our “after-school problem,” but I prefer to think of it as an opportunity to for these kids to be engaged in their community. I’m going to reframe my own thinking on another issue as well: rather than thinking about the problem of those who complain to me about the library being a babysitting center, I’m going to see it as an opportunity to advocate for these young people and the role of the library in the community.