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Children in the Library

Children in the Library Transcript

It’s difficult today to imagine a public library without a lively section specifically for children, but in the 1880’s, libraries were only for adult or young adult readers, and in general, no one younger than 12 or 14 was granted the privilege of using the collection. There weren’t many, if any books in public libraries for younger children anyway. Many librarians compiled lists of books which would be appropriate for older children, or made annotations on the catalog cards to that effect, but the first children’s room in a public library wasn’t established until 1890, when the Brookline Massachusetts Public Library set aside an unused room in the basement for a children’s reading room. Other cities followed suit, and in 1896 the Pratt Institute of Brooklyn became the first library in the country to actually build a special children’s room.1

During the 1890’s the library world discussed various questions and issues related to the opening up of public libraries to young children. One discussion centered around the question of whether encouraging children’s independent reading, that is, reading outside of the classroom, would promote unhealthy lifestyles. Educators and librarians worried that children would end up indoors “stuffing themselves with type” instead of being outside enjoying the “shining of the sun, the briskness of the air, and the greenness of the turf.” “The child who reads all day indoors when he ought to be out in the fresh air among his kind,” one librarian warned, “should have our especial watching.”2

Other questions were: Should there be games, writing clubs, speakers and other amusements provided for children in the evenings in the library, or should the focus be only on books and reading? Who should manage the children’s section and what kind of training should that person have? Should the librarian have any responsibilities with children outside the library, such as home visits? What kind of atmosphere is most appropriate for a children’s section? How much control should there be over what the children read?

The librarians did not have the privilege of extended discussion leading to optimal decisions. These were not theoretical questions with theoretical answers, because once the doors of the public libraries opened to young children, they streamed in, and the answers evolved through both experience and necessity.


1 Plummer, p. 2.
2 Ibid. p. 5


Plummer, Mary Wright. “The Work for Children in Free Libraries,” originally published in Library Journal, 1897; reprinted in Library Work with Children: Reprints of Papers and Addresses, selected by Alice I. Hazeltine.

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