Monday, November 25, 2013

Reflections on Library Service to Babies

Most children’s librarians know that the first five years of life is a critical window for developing early literacy skills. We encourage parents to read with their babies. We offer lap times for babies and we continually seek out those wonderful board books and fingerplays that parents will take home and share again and again. We deliver early literacy messages at story time that define early literacy skills for caregivers and provide practical applications for them. Still, even with all the theory and background information in place, some of us can become intimidated by the thought of approaching an actual baby, or group of babies, especially if we are not parents ourselves.

I remember very well the sense of panic I felt the first time I was asked to do a baby story time. What would the parents think of me? How could I possibly perform story time for children who did not yet speak, some of whom could not even sit up on their own? For me, who had never really interacted with babies at all, the learning curve was very steep and the level of anxiety very high. Now, looking back over nearly three years of baby story times and interactions with the parents and nannies of little babies, I can recognize little hints and tidbits of advice that would have been very helpful back when I was a new librarian. I want to share a few of those today.
  • Learn each baby’s name.
    The quickest ice breaker when meeting a parent and baby for the first time, is to learn their names. Most parents like to talk about their kids, at least a little bit, and asking what the little one’s name is and how old he is shows your interest in the child. It also provides a welcoming atmosphere for a new mom or dad when you offer a smile and initiate introductions. If at all possible, it’s great to retain the baby’s name in your memory so you can greet the child by name the next time he comes to the library. This leads directly into my next point, which is...
  • Address babies as well as their grown-ups.
    Babies who ride in strollers or carriers all day can sometimes be easy to ignore, as though they are accessories or articles of clothing rather than people. Parents often even don’t realize that the librarian is there to serve the child as much as the mom or dad. But my quest is to make the library a welcoming place for even the youngest patrons, so I make sure to always speak to both the parent and the child. If I’ve met the child before and remember her name, I might say, “Oh, good morning, Susie! I notice you’re wearing your lion shirt. It’s so nice to see you at the library.” Then I’ll turn to Mom and greet her as well. When parents ask for books for their babies, I also try to include the baby in the discusson. “Oh, look at this book. You might like this one. Let’s see what Dad thinks of it.” I don’t have any expectation that a baby is going to participate in a conversation about books, but I do make sure the baby is included and has the chance to interact with me along with his parent.
  • Have a separate story time for babies.
    When I first started, the babies and toddlers at my library attended story time in one giant group. This seemed to be what the nannies preferred, and I wasn’t sure they would be thrilled with any changes. I quickly learned, though, that whatever the nannies liked, the babies sure didn’t like being jostled, bumped, drowned out, poked, and otherwise annoyed by their busy toddler friends. The really little ones also didn’t like being in a hot, crowded room where they couldn’t see, hear, or understand what was happening around them. Thus, I created a baby story time, and I was adamant about limiting attendance only to babies who did not yet walk. Parents felt more comfortable bringing their tiny ones to a more controlled story time, and I was able to focus my materials on the developmental needs of this age group. Babies sometimes still showed up to story times that were for older children, but the option for a story time of their own was always available. The quality of my baby story times improved greatly, and the story time became one of the most popular at my branch.
  • Have a baby-friendly space in your library.
    I had no idea how many parents would want a place for their babies to be able to crawl around in the library until they started asking me where they could find such an area. It turns out that many parents realize that the library is a baby-friendly place and they want to be able to hang out there outside of organized library activities. What I ended up doing at my branch was moving some of the picture book bins and replacing them with a square carpeted area for sitting and crawling. I also allowed people to use the carpeted story time room when story time was not in session, so their babies could have a safe child-proofed area to explore. Some might argue that the library is not really intended to be a baby meeting place, and that parents who expect a place for their babies to play in a public building are asking too much. I don’t think that is true. If we want to serve all children, from birth to adolescence, then we should be thoughtful enough to provide developmentally appropriate spaces for each age group.

I might have been afraid of babies when I became a children’s librarian, but over time, they became one of my favorite groups to work with. As a result of my early efforts, I was able to see several babies grow up into toddlers, and then into preschoolers, all while using the library and attending story time. By smiling, welcoming each child by name, and providing the spaces and services that best suit babies’ needs, any children’s librarian can help her library become the perfect hotspot for babies and their caregivers.
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