Kids Loose in the Stacks: Some Notes on Unattended Children in the Library

by Michael Wood, MLIS Day

"Sometimes they get bored…They run out of stuff to do. They get antsy. They're here six hours with nothing to eat." Sarah Web, Librarian at the Seattle Public Library Columbia branch, quoted in an article from the Seattle Times.

Why would a presumably loving parent leave their child all day in a public building? What could be at the root of this seeming neglect? If you want an opinion on something, just ask the nearest library staff person. Every one of them that I consulted in my hometown of Seattle, Washington had an opinion on this vexing issue, and thoughtfully answered this thorny question: Is it acceptable for younger children to be left alone in a public library, unattended by their parents? Naturally the answer isn’t difficult to guess; so while we are at it, let’s take a fast, shallow look at how library staff grapples with this situation in Seattle, and contrast unattended child guidelines in this city with how some official policies vary nationally. This being done, and despite offering no realistic or useful suggestions whatever, I am unable or unwilling to resist the chance to acidly fix blame from my perch on a creaking, teetering soapbox, frothing like John Brown in that famous painting by Curry of the revolt at Harper’s Ferry.

A librarian at one Seattle Public Library branch told me:

"When we do our closing announcement, we ask if you are a child waiting for a ride and if your ride is not here yet, please come to the desk. We try to do that at thirty minutes before we close, and then try to contact people (parents) ….we call our security folks right away if we are waiting with kids…we do stay then and wait with them, at least two staff members stay and wait. "

I asked her if that was paid time. She indicated that it wasn’t. Would Child Protective Services be called? She had been told by CPS that because of budget cuts and staffing problems it would take them a long time to find someone willing to volunteer to take charge of a child left at the library, and that they could not come right away; it could take several hours at least for a caseworker to come by. Incidents such as the one described occurred at this branch at least once or twice a month. Was the problem linked to the economy and employment issues?

"I think that a lot of the time it’s cultural, that there is not a clear understanding that this isn’t a place where people can leave their children, that they will be safe here while they are at work or wherever…I would say that it is a cultural thing and yeah, probably an economic thing as well."

I learned that at another branch, children as young as five were on their own at the library all day. "That is a significant problem" the librarian there said. How did they handle unattended children at this library?

"I worked with different agencies within the community, but we didn’t get to see the parents very often; I found out that this is because they were working so hard, they had about...two or three jobs, so it was a big issue because it was hard to get them to see that it was a problem; but we did work with different agencies that actually did talk to the parents, so things actually did get better for a little bit…but it was never something that was ever really completely under control…"

Was it a burden for the staff to feel responsible for the kid’s safety? "I would say significantly, yes. In order to work there successfully, you really had to shift your thinking…you weren’t so much being a librarian as you were a monitor. It did feel like you were on playground duty, which when you work with the kids, they are amazing, but that really wasn’t your purpose in going to library school…"

Before actually interviewing the staff at several branches, I expected only anger and disgust directed at the parents because libraries were being used as a free daycare with the staff as reluctant childcare workers. This was not the case. Here may be a clue as to why I was wrong: A job I saw advertised for a reference position in Oregon called for an MLS and two years experience, and paid $2,100 a month. A single parent librarian paying half of that salary to a daycare center would have a very hard time trying to live on the remainder. This may explain the natural empathy with which many library employees view the parent’s situation.

Millions of children live in single parent homes. Many of these parents work low wage jobs; they absolutely cannot afford daycare, which can easily top $1000 a month. If lacking the support of an extended family, they turn to the public library as a safe haven for their kids during the day or after school, while they toil at or near the federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour.

My quick look at the problem as handled in a small sample of library systems across the country, showed some common trends in policy, but did not discover any general agreement on an appropriate response to the mess. The two poles of thought can be summarized however. At the far end of the spectrum of library policies surveyed via library homepage websites, Manitowoc Wisconsin’s policy, seems to be one of the most restrictive:

Conduct Policies:

  • …Patrons are expected to be quiet and respectful of others at all times. Loud or abusive language will not be tolerated… Other rules include, but are not limited to:
  • No eating or drinking in the Library
  • No smoking or chewing tobacco in the Library
  • No skating or skateboarding on the Library grounds, in the parking lot or in the building
  • Shoes and shirts are required in the Library
  • Personal electronic equipment should not disturb other patrons
  • No defacing of Library property or materials
  • Children under the age of 11 must be accompanied by an adult throughout the building. (Emphasis mine.)

The Seattle Public Library is quite different:

The Seattle Public Library welcomes library use by children. Staff members are available to assist children with library materials or services. The Library desires to provide a safe and appropriate environment for visitors of all ages. The Library, however, is a public building with staff trained to provide public library services. The Library is not equipped—and it is not the Library's role—to provide long- or short-term child care. For the safety and comfort of children, a responsible adult or caregiver should accompany children while they are using the Library. While in the Library, parents and caregivers are responsible for monitoring and regulating the behavior of their children.

Library staff members will be guided by this policy in situations, such as:

  • An unattended child is found frightened or crying in the Library
  • An unattended child is perceived to be endangering him or herself, or that another person in the library poses a perceived threat to the unattended child
  • An unattended child exhibits specific inappropriate behavior
  • An unattended child has not been met by a responsible caregiver at closing time

After evaluating the situation, Library staff members will attempt to contact the parent or guardian of an unattended child.

This fair-minded document is notably liberal, as no minimum age for an unescorted child is specified. Clearly, if all parents deferred dutifully to its urging, no child would run loose in the stacks. However, a six year old quietly pawing through back issues of "Babybug" serials might still be alone all day since this would not technically violate the letter of policy. Without legal enforcement, policy is little help to an anxious librarian still waiting behind the doors long after closing with a tearful little boy.

The library staff people I spoke with in Seattle aren’t simply troubled by the extra work of child care, or the time that it takes away from official duties. They seem most concerned for the safety of kids dumped in an open, public building. This aspect of the situation is the most troubling. Even so, some have admitted, if anonymously, to the bitter resentment I had first expected to find, as is made clear in this vitriolic post on the Listnews library listserv:

…"Yes, it is difficult enough performing your professional duties (and not being paid very much for them), on top of having to deal with myriad problems you are neither trained for nor funded to deal with. These include: parents who treat the library staff as free babysitters and are nasty if you try to point out that you cannot watch their children and that public libraries are no safer that any other public building; being expected, after a full and busy day at work, to then sit around and wait for said parents to arrive and pick up their minor children once the building is closed and the scary people are sleeping around closed library building"… etc.

What to do? As treasured national institutions, can our libraries look to the federal government to act, taking steps to alleviate this crisis of kids in the stacks?

Well, consider the hegemony of the current corporate dictatorship in Washington DC. Consider the fate of community life in a republic overtaken by a cabal with socio-pathic indifference to suffering and unfathomable greed, with no intention of allowing the money it takes from the little people who pay taxes to adequately fund a democratic institution not exclusively serving the rapacious commercial interests of the elite. An entire year’s total federal support for libraries is typically around $200 million, about the cost of six older model F-18 fighter jets, or a single day of the Iraq War.

Barring some sort of political revolt leading to sweeping and substantial reforms, the bitter truth may be that an end to the unfortunate condition of the young children waiting alone in our libraries lies only in some mad realm of fantasy, where hard working parents toiling in humble jobs can meet the basic needs of their families, or (perhaps only a little less absurd) where subsidized daycare assistance is available to all who truly need it, a small part of the general social function of government.

But why stop there?

Consider if you will a truly bizarre, outlandish fantasy: A strange dream world in which some neighborhood libraries and certified childcare centers morph into one. A well funded hybrid entity with preschool teachers as full time support staff; perhaps even with clear, soundproof, Plexiglas walls separating the warmly furnished children’s area from studious adult patrons, and all those within secure in the benign benefaction of a compassionate government. (Rather like the West End Community Centre/Public Library that I visited in Vancouver B.C. recently.)

I suppose that at this point they would have to serve lunches.


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Page last updated: February 1, 2006