— Emilie Buchwald
I have just returned from presenting three storytelling workshops to Early Childhood Professionals in Melbourne, and am compelled to speak about the important work being undertaken by Children’s Librarians in public libraries throughout Australia. Not because they have suddenly exploded onto the scene, but because they have been quietly and consistently providing families with quality literacy and oracy experiences for decades. The unsung heroes, or more generally sheroes, as the majority are women, deliver weekly (and in some places twice a week) storytimes to families, in the majority of communities throughout Australia.
Their expertise is called upon to not only be educational entertainers and children’s literature consultants, but also to advise on the social, psychological and physical aspects of an individual child’s development, their readiness for school and even the most suitable school for them.
Maternal and Child Health nurses are experts in children’s development, however, cuts to their services have meant that other more available Early Childhood Professionals are also consulted. Preschool teachers and Childcare workers have always been sought out by parents to discuss developmental issues, however, the knowledge of some childcare workers in children’s development has been called into question, as some private childcare centres employ undertrained staff as part of their profit model. Hence, the children’s librarian is now being consulted about these issues, particularly in view of the inception of storytimes for babies.
In the last five years many public libraries now offer baby storytimes in addition to their storytimes for 2-5 year olds. The accessibility of the children’s librarian is also a factor in the extension of her role. Appointments are not needed. Just come along to storytime sessions and speak to her afterwards. Customer service is paramount in libraries so regardless of what she is doing, she will attend to your questions.
When I was a mother of small children, attending a library storytime could oscillate between an intimate experience for a small group of parents with their children, to a larger gathering with 20 children and their respective parents and carers. Now, many of the storytimes are an event with upwards of 200 children and adults. The librarian has a microphone, with an inadequate PA system, and is expected to do a storytime akin to a Wiggles concert … for free!
So why aren’t the numbers of storytimes kept at a size that ensures a quality experience for all participants? Quite simply because councils want large numbers to justify expenditure. A qualitative experience is not as important as the number of people who come to it. Even though libraries in most shires are the most used council facility, this does not merit the provision of a structure that allows for the delivery of more storytimes with smaller numbers of participants.
There are two other issues here that require consideration. In undertaking a degree in Librarianship there is no training for being a storytime presenter. All their training is done on the job. The children’s librarian, as identified by the public, as the storytime presenter, is often not. Sometimes her professional qualification is as a library technician, sometimes as a library officer and increasingly a customer service officer. This is not to say that these people do not have other qualifications in Early Childhood, but not all do.The irony here is that while public libraries are responding to a greater demand for more services to families and young children, they are employing fewer qualified children’s librarians.
Children are our most important natural resource and deserve the highest quality learning and recreational experiences. Public libraries offer this, and they offer it for free. They are the last, if not the only free service available to anyone and everyone. It is not surprising that people drawn to work in public libraries are committed to their ethos of inclusion, accessibility and the facilitation of community information and resources.
However, there seems to be a prevailing attitude among the management bodies of libraries that their value lies soley in their capital equipment. Even the collection itself is expendable. But public libraries are also, more importantly, about people. Statistics do not reflect the contentment of shared reading experiences, the satisfaction of successful social interactions, the excitement of appropriate group responses, the wonder of discovery, the joy of connected learning. These are what public library storytimes provide through the work of the children’s librarian.
I do wonder what would happen if library workers refused to present storytimes unless certain, very reasonable conditions were met, to ensure more qualitative experiences for participants. Would there be outrage in the community? Would management respond quickly by programming more storytimes with number restrictions? Or would those library workers that refused simply be sacked? I don’t foresee this happening because librarian’s/library workers although technically in the profession of ‘information providers’, because they work with children and families also fall into the category of the ‘caring’ and ‘education’ stream. This means that they are reluctant to withdraw any services because of the impact on a vulnerable group in society.
It is up to others to impress upon library management and councils the importance of recognising the work and knowledge of Children’s Librarian’s, and to follow their lead in the effective provision of quality services. With 2012 being the National Year of Reading I hope that they receive the kudos they so rightly deserve.