We take the children's areas of our public libraries for granted. Of course we have children's books and areas - kids are a library's most important kind of patron! How easy it is to forget that 100 years ago, most libraries didn't even let kids in. Libraries were for grown-ups, and if kids wanted to read library books, they had to hope that their school was borrowing books from the library for classroom use. Librarians set up children's libraries in settlement houses, private homes, and in the basements of "real" libraries whenever possible.
Some libraries did create spaces just for kids, the Los Angeles Public Library among them. For the first time, children were not just allowed but actually invited to come on in and stay awhile - furniture was scaled down to fit smaller bodies and the shelving was low so that kids could reach all the books. Still, the effect was rather somber and dignified. Furniture was dark and heavy and the atmosphere was hushed. Check out this photo of the children's room at the Los Angeles Public Library (Homer Laughlin building) between 1906 and 1908. (credit: Los Angeles Public Library)
As the Los Angeles Public Library began to expand rapidly in the 1920s and 30s, its new buildings (often designed by well-known architects of the day) featured lovely children's areas, often equipped with fireplaces for that warm and fuzzy feeling. Here is the Children's Room of the Hollywood Branch circa 1923. It's rather spartan, but no one could deny the grandeur and allure. (credit: Los Angeles Public Library)Luckily, a bit of child appeal began to creep into children's spaces. Colorful rugs, more and better books for children, and a bit of wall art brightened things up considerably in many children's rooms. Children's Librarians began to receive special training to respond to the unique reading and reference needs of children in the library.
Here is the children's room in the San Pedro Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library - 1949. Note the kid-friendly art, low shelving, and child-sized furniture. Fairy tales get their own section, as do "Fourth Grade" books (we all know that fourth-graders are a breed unto themselves).
Credit: Los Angeles Public Library
When I started working at the Los Angeles Public Library in 1987, children's rooms hadn't changed much in the past few decades. There were low shelves of books, small wooden tables and chairs, a wooden book trough or two to display books, and some bulletin boards to put up posters, displays, or children's artwork. There was usually a papeback rack. Perhaps there were some stuffed animals decorating the tops of shelves. And that was about it!
During the last few decades, another round of building projects has resulted in the replacement of our many old and outdated branch buildings with beautiful new buildings. The childen's areas are bright and comfortable, with durable and comfortable seating, gorgeous art, and sometimes even special architectural features like round picture book rooms, carpeted risers, and more. Teens aren't always so lucky - their spaces often amount to just a wall of books and a couple chairs - although they occasionally luck out, as in the Teenscape of LAPL's Central Library. Why read at a stiff and uncomfortable table when you can sprawl on a giant cushion?
Some branches are now receiving funds, particularly the ELF (Early Learning with Families) LSTA grant administered by the California State Library, to enhance their children's rooms even further, making them attractive and welcoming not only to school-aged kids but to very tiny children and their families. Here are before and after shots of the Wilmington Branch Library - which would you rather spend some time in with a baby or toddler? Comfortable places for very young kids and parents to sit and read, plenty of toys and books, plenty of opportunities to play and learn - this is the new face of the children's area.
And here is more before and after magic, this time at the Watts Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. Watts' round picture book room looked fine before, but see what just a few cushions, sofas, a rug, and some educational toys can achieve?