Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Children's Library Bill of Rights - an idea whose time has come

This past Saturday, I attended the 50th Anniversary of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies (that's "Library School" to those of you outside the field). Being a proud member of the class of '89, I was neither the oldest nor the youngest person there.
We ate on a lovely patio at the Fowler Museum, where an unseasonably fierce sun broiled all those unable to fit under the table umbrellas. Lunch was refreshing (though the chocolate cake did melt rather), the speeches weren't too long, and we all enjoyed catching up with colleagues and ex-classmates.
The bonus portion of the day came after lunch, when we all waddled from the Fowler to Royce Hall to attend one of four panels on various library-related topics. I chose "A Children's Library Bill of Rights," moderated by Dr. Virginia Walter with panelists Joanna Fabicon of Los Angeles Public Library (not pictured - sorry Joanna, I though I got you in the frame!), Shana Johnson of Santa Monica Public Library, Roger Kelly of Pasadena Public Library, and Katherine Adams of the Los Angeles County Public Library.
We all know about the ALA Library Bill of Rights, but a Library Bill of Rights for kids is a whole new idea. There is of course that beautiful statement #5, which reads "A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views," which affirms that kids should have the same rights to library service as adults.
However, Dr. Walter and her panelists felt that there is room to improve and expand upon a child's rights to great library service. What does it mean to have rights? How are rights different from needs? The panel came up with two main questions that deserve to be mulled over:
1. How can librarians be advocates for children and their rights?
2. How can librarians create a culture of respect for children in the library and the community?
These questions lead naturally to two ideas for empowering children:
1. Children's advisory boards.
2. A Library Patron's Bill of Rights for each branch/community, which would include one for kids.
We children's librarians often feel that we know what is best for our young patrons. We know the best and/or most popular books and other materials, we present the best programs, and so on. We provide comfortable and attractive children's areas. Many library systems charge smaller fines for children's materials. We respect our patrons and model that behavior for parents and staff members. These are all important ways we advocate for children in the library.
The best and most committed among us listen to our patrons and even occasionally solicit their opinions. However, it is rare that we ask children to actively participate in any decision-making process regarding collection development, program planning, the appearance or contents of the children's area, and so on. Not only would this demonstrate active respect for our young patrons, but it would garner librarians some darn good advice.
We already have teen councils at many libraries. Why not children's councils? Yes, it might sometimes be as difficult as herding cats, but with some planning and flexibility and a big bowl of chips, this could be a great way to create an on-going dialogue between librarians and kids about how the library can best serve the children in its community. Sure, there are challenges - How many kids? Which kids? How to keep kids coming back regularly? What format to keep kids interested? But kids have valuable opinions - it's time we asked for them.
The children's council could also be a forum for creating a Children's Library Bill of Rights for the branch. A look at ALA's Bill of Rights would be instructive, as would a discussion on what exactly rights are. Every Human Has Rights: A Photographic Declaration for Kids might be a good springboard for that topic. And then kids could figure out, over the course of several meetings, what their rights are regarding their own particular library. This will surely engender much debate! If kids decide that they have a right to pay no fines, some kid or adult is sure to ask what would prevent kids from simply keeping library books.
Once a document has been drawn up, it could be presented (by the kids, of course) to library staff and patrons. Kids and the librarians could even go out into the community to present it at local schools, city council meetings, neighborhood council meetings, and so on. This would be truly advocating for kids, inside and outside the library.
Naturally, other groups could draw up their own Bills of Rights. What about a Parents' Library Bill of Rights? Or a Wireless Users' Library Bill of Rights? And if some of these Rights rub up against each other uncomfortably, that would be something important for kids to realize.
But really, it's the Children's Library Bill of Rights that interests me most. It gives a voice to a group that is rarely heard from directly, and it demonstrates to everyone that kids are a priority for the library.
And let's not forget that in these days of austerity, creating a children's council and drawing up a Bill of Rights would be meaningful activities that would cost the library not one thin dime!

1 comment:

  1. This seems like a great way to get kids to invest in the library. They always want validation that their perspective matters, and this seems like a perfect venue.