ASSOCIATES (vol. 10, no. 2, November 2003) -

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


Michael Wood
Library technician program student
Highline Community College
Des Moines, Washington

"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. (1)

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 look at how library staff grapples with this situation in Seattle, and contrast unattended child guidelines in this city with how official policies vary nationally. This being done, and despite offering no realistic 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 recently 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. 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 the problem as it is handled in a small sample of library systems across the country, showed some common trends in policy, but did not discover 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:

After evaluating the situation, Library staff members will attempt to contact the parent or guardian of an unattended child… (2)

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 wild, loose in the stacks. However, a four year old quietly pawing through back issues of "Babybug" might be left alone all day since this would not technically violate policy. Such an approach would be of little help to an associate and librarian still waiting in the lobby long after closing with a sobbing 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 these kids, temporarily dumped in an open, public building. This aspect of the situation is arguably the most troubling. Even so, some have admitted to the bitter resentment I had expected to find, as is made clear in this 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"…

As beloved public institutions, can our nation’s libraries turn to the benign custodianship of national government for help with this growing crisis of childcare?

For an answer, consider the hegemony of corporate dictatorship in Washington DC. Our republic has been overtaken by a cabal with sociopathic indifference to suffering and unfathomable greed, which has no intention of allowing the money it takes from taxpayers to adequately fund a truly democratic institution not exclusively serving the rapacious commercial interests of the ruling elite. (This year’s federal support for libraries was around $200 million, about the cost of six more F-18 fighter jets.)(3)

Consider, that despite wandering stunned in the smoking ruin of a so recently robust economy, 70% of citizens polled by CNN in early September 2003 still supported the policies of the second Bush administration. Barring a popular uprising leading to massive reforms, set to the tune of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic", the bitter truth may be that an end to the unfortunate condition of the children sitting alone in our libraries lies only in some mad realm of fantasy, where humane provision is made for hard working parents to meet the basic needs of their families, or (perhaps just a little less absurd) where tax subsidized daycare is available to all who need it, as a general social function of government. But why stop there? Consider if you will a strange dream world in which libraries and daycare centers morph into one well funded entity, with certified child care associates as specialized additional 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 benefaction of a compassionate government. I suppose that at this point they would have to serve lunches.

  1. Seattle Times, Librarians Become Reluctant Babysitters: August 29, 2001

  2. Seattle Public Library:

  3. Super Hornet vs. Tomcat:

About Us | Subscribe/Unsubscribe | Editors | Submit | Current Issue | Archives | Home