ERIC Identifier: ED331512
Publication Date: 1990-12-00
Author: Feldman, Sari
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Information Resources Syracuse
The Library and the Latchkey. ERIC Digest.
The public library has played a historic role in serving the nation's
youth. In the early 1900s, Ann Carol Moore began developing children's
services at New York Public Library based on her observation of the needs
of young people in New York City. Children's and young adults' services
at NYPL and other urban centers grew from the simple provision of library
materials and bibliographic instruction to the provision of recreational
programming, clubs, browsing rooms and lounges (Braverman, 1979).
Current trends are again influencing youth services in libraries. Economic
and social conditions have increased the need for child care services and
created the phenomenon of the so-called "latchkey child"--the school-aged
child who has no parent or guardian at home after school hours and has
no alternative care arrangement (Services to Children Committee, 1988).
It is not surprising that great numbers of children are in the public library
unattended after school, on school holidays, and during emergency closing
days such as snow days. What role do public libraries have to play in providing
safe shelter for the nation's children? Where does the library's responsibility
to community needs end? Who will provide the after-school services to children
if the public library closes its doors?
Some libraries see the increasing number of children as an opportunity
to improve youth services. Film showings, book discussion groups, and homework
assistance programs are some of the creative solutions being implemented
by public libraries around the country (Dowd, March-April 1989). Greenville
(SC) County Library elicited the cooperation of many social service agencies
to develop a program teaching self-sufficiency skills to latchkey children.
After one year of LSCA (Library Services and Construction Act) funding,
the program is now fully funded by the library itself (Chepesiuk, 1987).
Vivian Wynn, branch manager of the Mayfield (OH) Regional Public Library
sees the after-school group as enabling public library staff to maintain
contact with youth and to present this captive audience with attractive
materials and programs (Rome, 1990).
Other libraries are facing philosophical, economic, and legal dilemmas
associated with children's use of the library (Dowd, July 1989; Mueller,
1987). A 1988 survey of 91 libraries showed that "while librarians perceived
that unattended children provide libraries with an opportunity to develop
new methods of effectively serving children, the majority also reported
adverse situations, such as inappropriate behaviors, patron complaints,
delays in closing the library due to unattended children, and lack of seating"
(Dowd, March-April 1989, p. 102). Some libraries cope by providing security
guards or childcare services (Dowd, March-April 1989). At the Geauga West
Library (Chesterland, OH), money from vending machines used by children
after school pays for a substitute teacher to act as a monitor (Rome, 1990).
Police officers drop in unannounced at the Middlefield (OH) Public Library
(Rome, 1990), and prohibiting unattended children is a solution employed
in places such as Flagstaff, Arizona and Iowa City, Iowa (DeCandido, 1988;
EXAMINING THE PROBLEM OF LATCHKEYS IN LIBRARIES
In 1988, the Services to Children Committee of the Public Library Association
(PLA) published "'Latchkey Children' in the Public Library: A Position
Paper." This paper was an attempt to gather information about latchkey
children in libraries and to make recommendations for public library policy.
However, addressing the needs of this special population is complicated
by the difficulty in classifying young library users. As the report notes,
there are many reasons children go to the library (Services to Children
* because they like libraries and library materials, and libraries can
meet some of their homework or recreational needs;
* because they live near a library and go there rather than be alone
* because they have been told to use the library as a safe place when
a parent or guardian is not available.
It is virtually impossible to distinguish the true latchkey child from
any other youthful library user, and the laws of confidentiality and privacy
prohibit intrusive behavior by staff (Rome, 1990). In addition to the so-
called "latchkey children," there are children who are brought to the library
by a parent or guardian and then are left while the parent or guardian
uses another part of the library or leaves to go elsewhere.
Some librarians believe that labeling children is unimportant and that
all children should have equal access to service regardless of their status.
Furthermore, some believe that serving unattended children is advantageous
because there are no parental restrictions on materials or information
(Dowd, March-April 1989). While protecting these rights, however, the security
and safety of children are often at risk. The public library is not the
safe haven envisioned by many parents, and staff should not act "in loco
parentis." "'People think of the library as a safe place,'" says Mona Stevenson,
Assistant Director of the Warren-Trumbull County Public Library (Warren,
OH), "'but we've had incidents ranging from flashing to purse snatching.
We get the same kind of people you would get at a mall--and most people
wouldn't leave their children unattended in that environment'" (Rome, 1990,
Concerns about liability and child safety have led many libraries to
develop policies (Mueller, 1987). However, less than one-third of 91 libraries
surveyed had a written policy specifying procedures for dealing with unattended
children or defining acceptable behavior (Dowd, July 1989). Furthermore,
it was found that libraries tended to write policies only after experiencing
some problem, rather than proactively (Dowd, March-April 1989). In the
case of injury to a child while on library property, the lack of written
policy jeopardizes staff, children, and the library's administration. Inadequate
staffing and building design often make it difficult to monitor children,
exacerbating the safety problem (Dowd, July 1989). Policy can promote consistency
in the way staff handle problems which may, in turn, reduce the disruptive
or problem behavior.
The PLA report also stresses the need for policy, but it cautions that
policies should not be written to "absolve the library of any responsibility
for children on their own" (Services to Children Committee, 1988). It calls
for a policy that gives clear procedures to staff but insists that these
policies and procedures must be part of the library's overall effort to
work within its community and that staff training be a major component.
Dowd (July 1989) also recommends a combination of written policy, staff
training, and community involvement to reach a workable solution to the
Herbert White (1990) believes that the latchkey problem should not be
assumed by libraries. He cites the PLA work as evidence that librarians
tend to trivialize themselves by failing to define a role:
Is the library's role the provision of shelter? It is if we simply assume
that we do for anyone what they came to have us do, that any professional
decision-making by librarians is really incidental to a changing set of
circumstances we do not control. (p. 105)
CONCLUSION: THE LIBRARY ROLE
As each public library comes to understand its role in its unique community,
there will be a clear focus on where it stands relevant to social dilemmas.
By developing a mission statement and defining a role, a library chooses
its direction and can develop programs and policies accordingly. Library
professionals must be part of a network of policymakers investigating solutions
to problems such as latchkey children.
The library has an important role to play in providing information about
the latchkey problem, in bringing forth literature on community solutions
throughout the United States, and in continuing a strong tradition in children's
services including after-school programs. Cross-over to latchkey projects
may occur when a large library provides space for an outside agency to
run an after-school program or for a day care center to schedule regular
visits to the library. The public library will also need policies to deal
with disruptive and unattended children. However, whether the library should
provide services to latchkeys beyond standard user services--free access
to information, dissemination of varied materials, and public programs
that are rooted in library resources--will continue to be debated.
Braverman, Miriam. (1979). Youth, Society, and the Public Library. Chicago:
American Library Association.
Chepesiuk, Ron. (1987, March). Reaching out: The Greenville County Library
latchkey kids program. Library Journal, 112(4), 46-48.
DeCandido, Graceanne A. (1988, March). Latchkey children in the library:
Problem, liability, or opportunity? Library Journal, 113(5), 12.
Dowd, Frances Smardo. (1989, July). The public library and the latchkey
problem: A survey. School Library Journal, 35(11), 19-24. EJ 398 077.
Dowd, Frances Smardo. (1989, March-April). Serving latchkey children:
Recommendations from librarians. Public Libraries, 28(2), 101-106. EJ 395
Mueller, William. (1987, March). Kid stuff: A policy that works for
two cities. Library Journal, 112(4), 48-51.
Rome, Linda. (1990, April). Service to latchkey kids and the public
library: Dealing with the real issues. Wilson LIbrary Bulletin, 64(8),
34-37. EJ 407 330.
Services to Children Committee, Public Library Association. (1988, May).
"Latchkey Children" in the Public Library: A Position Paper. Chicago: American
White, Herbert S. (1990, February). Pseudo-libraries and Semi-teachers.
American Libaries, 21 (2), 103-106.
Dorman, Gayle. (1985). 3 to 6 PM: Planning Programs for Young Adolescents.
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina.
Long, Lynette, & Long, Thomas. (1983). Handbook for Latchkey Children
and Their Parents: A Complete Guide for Latchkey Kids and Their Working
Parents. NY: Arbor House.
McClure, Charles R.; Owen, Amy; Zweizig, Douglas L.; Lynch, Mary Jo;
& Van House, Nancy A. (1987). Planning and Role Setting for Public
Libraries: A Manual of Options and Procedures. Chicago: American Library
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