November 17, 2017

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‘Open-Access’ Approach Creates a Parent-Friendly Library | First Steps

firststeps_diversityinparenting_webThe last year or so has seen a wide-ranging conversation around diversity in children’s books, which is a great one to have. But what about diversity in parenting? What about diversity in parenting while dealing with your screaming toddler at the public library? Parenting is hard. Parenting in public? That’s much harder.

What is a children’s librarian to do? Especially one who isn’t a parent, and so may feel unqualified to offer advice when asked? Parenting is a highly subjective endeavor, and everyone has an opinion. But what do you do if your job requires you to talk to parents during library programs or readers’ advisory? Are we supposed to just listen? Offer an opinion? Coo at the baby in the stroller who is in obvious need of a diaper change, when the mom or dad doesn’t seem to notice?

Library school does not prepare us for a lot of the tasks that are part of a 21st-century children’s librarian’s work day. We order books, and we might even still catalog them. But we also teach early learning skills in our programs, either formally or informally, depending on our comfort level. We interact with parents, again in line with our comfort level. But sometimes, even just a warm smile at the reference desk will unleash questions.

Sticky situations

“My baby won’t sleep through the night. Do you have a book for that?” That seems an innocuous enough request. But some cultures routinely co-sleep with their children, while others frown upon the practice. Some advocate “attachment parenting,” while others believe in letting the baby “cry it out.” Do you offer one book with a clear opinion, or several with a variety of theories? What does this reference interview with a parent sound like?

“Where is the section of baby DVDs?” That question may trigger a conversation regarding media consumption at young ages, and how it affects early learning. Some librarians say this isn’t part of their job. But in 2016, are we keepers of the books only? Or do you consider yourself a media mentor?

Or, perhaps you overhear two parents talking, as their toddlers run around the picture book section, and one says, “I never sign up for library programs because he won’t sit still.”

Do you approach with a smile and a newsletter, letting them know that children’s librarians don’t expect toddlers to sit still, and that their programs are more activity-based than traditional storytimes? Or let the assumption that “babies and toddlers don’t belong in libraries” linger?

Watching for fit

When was the last time you weeded or even looked at the titles in your parenting collection with an eye toward the patrons who walk through the door? Do they mesh? Or are they all skewed to a certain demographic or culture?

2booksOne of my favorite parenting titles, and an all-around fascinating read besides, is Mei-Ling Hopgood’s How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm: And Other Adventures in Parenting. It describes a variety of positions on how to handle issues such as bedtime, feeding, toilet learning, and discipline. Another title worth considering—more scholarly, but interesting and useful for both librarians and parents—is David F. Lancy’s The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings (Rev. 2nd ed.).

Parenting practices differ widely throughout the world. Even within our local communities we can find cultural micro-communities. Our collections, and ideally our programming and staffing as well, need to reflect all of them. The public library might be the only open access, free resource available to everyone in your library’s neighborhood. Library staff with an open-access mind-set when it comes to parenting in public places make for a user-friendly environment. A simple display of culturally specific parenting books shows all your patrons that their library welcomes them and their children—even babies in stinky diapers.

This article was published in School Library Journal's November 2016 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Lisa G. Kropp About Lisa G. Kropp

Lisa G. Kropp is the assistant director of the Lindenhurst Memorial Library in Lindenhurst, NY, and a forever children’s librarian.

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