Are public libraries glorified babysitting services
"My town officials think all we're running here is a babysitting service" a librarian recently shared in a moment of frustration. She went on to mention studies about the proven impact on cognitive abilities when toddlers are actively engaged in library programs like Lapsit versus passively engaged with toys & videos.
This was news to me; my how the educational product companies and toy manufacturers had shaped my understanding! I also hadn't thought of toddler programs as educational initiatives. When I've seen adults and toddlers together at the library, I've usually thought "oh, aren't those kids adorable" and "I'm glad people are getting together to have fun". Though it now seems obvious, the educational and literacy component of Lapsit was lost on me.
This last point was intriguing, so I did some quick research. I googled "Lapsit" and got plenty of results from library websites around the country. I clicked through to the top 20 (all different libraries, by chance) and searched for the terms literacy and education in the page content, in images or as part of the navigation.
- 80% made no mention of literacy or education in conjunction with Lapsit
- 20% contained the term literacy
- 10% contained the terms literacy and education
Clearly these stats don't tell the whole story, but they tell a good one about the help libraries need presenting information to the public.
The science behind the importance of learning in children ages birth to three is overwhelming. Public libraries have proven they can implement excellent programs to serve this age group. The public education community is struggling to implement four year old kindergarten much less provide programs for this age group. There is a tremendous opportunity for public libraries to take ownership of learning in the most important years of a child’s life.
Why are public library administrators not recognizing and seizing on this opportunity. Why can’t we come up with major national and state funding programs to help public libraries take a major leadership role in this area?
This info ties into recent thoughts I've shared about running libraries like a business and getting behind an organization like a National Public Library Corporation.
Businesses know they need to be the top provider in at least one thing and runner up in one or two others to remain viable. Arguably, the same is true for libraries now that people have so many information and entertainment options. Early childhood education seems to be one area where libraries can emerge as an acknowledged leader. They'll need help though — and focused efforts could go a long way in a more effectively structured system. For example, a comprehensive program kit on Lapsit could be used by thousands of libraries throughout the country. And if data systems were more uniform and better connected, electronic communication of program and training materials, administration and other functions would be unbelievably extensible. Just a click away, in fact.
The need to resource our public libraries more effectively is right in front us — as are good organizational, funding and technological models. The potential impact of doing so, through programs in early childhood learning (as just one example), is enormous.
Larry Nix is right about the value of a national and state funding program, however its impact would be mitigated if the funds were dispersed within our existing library structures. Injecting funds for these types of programs into the system would only perpetuate its deficiencies based on what we've seen with a $350,000 library grant on digital privacy and a new $750,000 literacy grant. We need a new organization to solicit and wisely use funding for broad library initiatives and information infrastructure.
I've proposed an addition to the library ecosystem in the form of a National Public Library Corporation, similar to NPR or PBS. The National Public Library Corporation would be an additional resource to provide top-notch data systems, content, training and fund-raising support. Libraries would remain independent and locally governed and their association with the NPL would be voluntary. This idea would provide shared resources where it makes sense and preserve autonomy to nurture the authenticity and personalization community libraries currently provide. Because it's an additive approach, there's nothing to lose here that won't be lost anyway if we leave things as they are. And there's worlds to gain.
Jean Costello is a technical project manager for a prominent STM publisher. She is a passionate supporter of public libraries and blogs regularly as The Radical Patron.