Tuesday, October 07, 2003

Libraries and Children- Lore or Fact?

I was once a child in a library. I was actually a child in several different libraries: school libraries, public libraries, and my parents’ home library. Other than a passion for The Hungry Caterpillar, some art lessons, and my frequent pawing of a picture-book about a cat that made a home in the control panel for an industrial propane cylinder, I can’t say why I was there. Perhaps now that I have some perspective I can address the issue of the child’s need for the library.

Children have needs that are very different than adults. My wife—a child psychologist—tells me that the “job” of children is to figure out the world. Figuring out the world is a pretty big task and children have some particular handicaps such as limited linguistic abilities (McKechnie, 2000) that involve specific constraints for service provision (see Chu, 1999 for discussion on linguistic minorities). In addition, older children may have specific needs like vocational or educational guidance (Julien, 1999).

I suspect, however, that there is a different reason why I hung out in libraries as a child. I wasn’t looking for career guidance or any sort of specific information. Rather, I was engaged in a process of “Assimilation” and “Accommodation” (see Appleby, 1978 for discussion of Piaget); I was attempting to learn the behavior of the world around me and incorporate it into my world view. I read aloud to reinforce “narrative control,” gained mastery of my fears by reading some scary stuff, and grappled with my own personal interpretations of stories.

And I never touched a computer.

It’s obvious that libraries played a fairly important role in my processes of “Assimilation” and “Accommodation.” I have to wonder, however, how a computer would have changed my experience. Experts have indicated that exposure to electronic media is crucial for children overcoming socioeconomic barriers (Martinez, 1994) and that computers can play an important role for disabled youth (Robinson & Dowd, 1997). Detailed studies have even been conducted that elaborate how children respond to electronic portals (Large, Beheshti, & Rahman, 2002). I can’t help but feel that something is missing from these accounts: where are the stories? Where’s storytime?

As Bruno Bettleheim famously indicated, stories play a crucial role for children and provide a world where children a free from social pressures:

"Children preserve their stories in lands far away and times long ago before they finally surrender to the scepticism of their peers." (Appleby, 1978 pg. 52)

Will our current preoccupation with computers and electronic media in the library limit the role of story? Would I have wanted to go to the library for computers instead of stories? Probably… but I’m kind of a geek. What about “normal’ kids?

In addressing stories and computers I feel compelled to quote one of the great story tellers of our day. He wasn’t necessarily writing about children and libraries but I feel that his words are appropriate:

“The popularity and wide dissemination of the personal computer would, I imagine, induce a deep melancholia in Walter Benjamin, even if he were happy with his own PC. He, after all, held the view that information was the enemy of story. We now live in a world in which the sum total of accumulated human knowledge--plus any of its parts--can be accessible within a few minutes, or even a few seconds... Everywhere that's on-line, which is almost every-where, lore is being replaced by fact.” (McMurtry, 1999 pg. 106)

What should libraries give to our children: lore or fact? What do the children need?


Appleby, A. (1978). The child's concept of story: ages two to seventeen. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Chu, C. M. (1999). Literacy practices of linguistic minorities: Sociolinguistic issues and implications for literacy services. Library Quarterly, 69(3), 339-359.
Julien, H. E. (1999). Barriers to adolescents' information seeking for career decision making. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 50(1), 38-48.
Large, A., Beheshti, J., & Rahman, T. (2002). Design criteria for children's Web portals: the users speak out. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 53(2), 79-94.
Martinez, M. E. (1994). Access to information technologies among school-age children: implications for a democratic society. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 45(6), 395-400.
McKechnie, L. (2000). Ethnographic observation of preschool children. Library & Information Science Research, 22(1), 61-76.
McMurtry, L. (1999). Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Robinson, C. A., & Dowd, F. S. (1997). Public Library Services to Disabled Children: A National Survey of Large Systems. Journal of Youth Services in Libraries, 10(3), 283-290.


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